Nick Foles let his mind drift for a moment before the Texas Class 5A state championship game in 2006. He was 17 years old and Texas-bred, playing with his best friends in the Alamodome against the top-ranked team in the state.
"This is a dream come true," he remembered thinking before the game.
On Sunday, the storybook career continues about 280 miles up Interstate 35 when the Eagles play the Dallas Cowboys in a de facto NFC East championship game. It's Foles' biggest game since that day in San Antonio. The stage is bigger. The stakes are higher. And Foles has gone from a Texas schoolboy prospect to one of the most popular stories in the NFL.
"It's going to be a big game," Foles said. "I think the most important thing you do in weeks like this is you block everything out. You break it down to: It is a game. It's a big game of high magnitude with a lot on the line, but you can't worry about that. Because worrying about that is not going to help you get better. You've got to simplify the game. You make it easy."
Foles can say it, but he now must live it. His 118.8 quarterback rating is the best in the NFL. He has thrown 25 touchdown passes and two interceptions. He has won seven of nine starts this season. But quarterbacks are often judged by what they do in high-stakes games, and this is the first one Foles has played in his NFL career.
"It's very important," Foles said, "to be a good quarterback on a big stage."
It's about perception
Foles' favorite quarterback as a child was John Elway. His lasting memory of the Denver quarterback is his diving for a first down as two defenders crashed in on him in a Super Bowl XXXII victory.
Of course, Elway did not win the Super Bowl until he was 37 and had been stung by three previous Super Bowl losses. So Sunday will not cement Foles' reputation, but it will certainly establish it.
"I think it's just the precedent that's been set over the years," Eagles quarterback Michael Vick said. "It's the perception of the public, [which is] going to judge you. It's not unfair. It is what it is. Some are measured by how they respond in big moments, and it's just the fun part of the game."
Tony Romo would know. The Cowboys quarterback will miss Sunday's game after undergoing back surgery Friday. Eagles coach Chip Kelly said Romo's injuries make his game-winning drive last week against Washington even more impressive. But Romo's absence will not help him change a narrative of late-season struggles despite statistics that place him among the top quarterbacks of the last decade.
There's the memory of a losing record in December and a 1-3 playoff record, of losing win-and-in situations in the final week the last two years, of fumbling the hold on a field-goal attempt in his first playoff game. All are part of the Romo narrative. It's a small sample of an otherwise stellar career, but that's the reality of playing quarterback.
The opposite is true of Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco, an Audubon native. Stack up his season-by-season statistics against Romo, and Romo would appear the superior quarterback. But look at Flacco's 9-4 postseason record and his Super Bowl ring, and the perspective is entirely different.
"Memories last a long time, and people can only go off what they see," Vick said. "I think it's a great aspect of this game for a quarterback to be judged in that way."
Vick is 2-3 as a starter in the postseason, although he became the first opposing quarterback to win a playoff game at Lambeau Field when he led the Atlanta Falcons to a 27-7 victory over the Packers on Jan. 4, 2003. It remains his favorite football moment.
"In those games, I think I might have been more relaxed than any other game that I've ever been in," Vick said.
Vick and Foles discussed that approach this past week. Vick admitted "there's really nothing to say," because it's about how a player handles the moment. Vick emphasized the importance of confidence. Foles said that he deals with the pressure by reading Scripture, including a daily Bible study each morning.
Foles said his biggest game to date was the 2006 state title match. He admitted he was nervous before the game, which is common for a teenager on that stage. That's when he took the moment to realize where he was.
Foles' team, Austin Westlake, built an early lead before Southlake Carroll came from behind for a 43-29 win and its third consecutive state title. Foles finished 24 of 43 for 299 yards and one touchdown with an injured throwing shoulder that required surgery.
"We ended up losing, but we played them really, really well," Foles said. "That was tough. But all those games I've played in, I've taken a lot from them."
Some of his other big games include two bowls at Arizona, neither of which is a glowing moment on his resumé. The worst performance of Foles' college career came in inclement weather at the 2009 Holiday Bowl, when he finished 9 of 29 for 49 yards and an interception in a 33-0 loss to Nebraska.
In the 2010 Alamo Bowl - played at the same site of the high school state championship game - Foles went 32 of 50 for 280 yards, one touchdown, and three interceptions in a 36-10 loss to Oklahoma State.
Foles called the Holiday Bowl performance the worst of his career before this year's Oct. 20 loss to the Cowboys. Since then, Foles has lost only one game and has been among the finest quarterbacks in the NFL. That's why Kelly has confidence in his second-year quarterback on a big stage.
"I'm confident, but I'm also confident based upon being around him because we've really been in this situation for a long time. After being 3-5, we didn't have much wiggle room," Kelly said. "We've been kind of on the edge since we went 3-5. So I'm confident how Nick will perform, and I think the one thing you see in him is you just see improvement on a weekly basis."
Foles left that first Cowboys game with a concussion. Before the injury, he was 11 of 29 for 80 yards. Foles said this past week that it was simply a "bad day." The way he has played ever since proved it was aberration.
But on the morning after the game - or even one week later, when Foles recovered from the concussion - there was little reason to believe he would unleash what did in the next seven games.
"There are times when you do flash back," Foles said. "You can't help it. I just smile and thank the good Lord for the opportunity. Because it is crazy, after the Dallas game, and all the emotions you feel trying to get healthy, and just for our team to stay healthy the entire time."
Foles knows he had no guarantee he would ever become the starter after that October outing. It took another Vick injury and a string of outstanding performances, including the seven-touchdown game against Oakland on Nov. 3.
"We trusted Nick to be in there," Eagles offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur said. "And we knew as a team that we'd get better. I was telling somebody it's like my early schooling, where you could throw one test out. I wish we could have thrown [the Dallas game] out."
Foles is no longer judged by what he did in the first Dallas game. But he will be judged by how he plays in the second Dallas game. Sunday will offer the biggest stage in his career. If he plays it right, he will ascend an even bigger stage next week.
"This is why you play the game," Foles said. "You play the game for meaningful games at the end of the season."