STEPHENVILLE, Texas - At first glance, it might not look like the best place to prepare for handling the unique pressures of quarterbacking the Philadelphia Eagles, this town of 15,565 people in west-central Texas. It's a landscape dominated by rolling prairie and super-sized pickup trucks, where the most famous local pro athletes are bull riders.
But appearances can deceive.
For one thing, if you can hunt wild hogs with a couple of dogs and a 12-inch bowie knife, the way Kevin Kolb and his friends have, maybe getting booed or being lambasted on talk radio won't seem like such a big deal.
"It's not just [about] killing an animal," says Kolb (pronounced Cob), taking a lunch break last week after a workout at the University of Houston. He didn't want to come off like some bloodthirsty savage to the non-hog-hunting fans of his new team, the Eagles, who shocked everyone from Allentown to Atco by taking Kolb with their first selection in the 2007 NFL draft, 36th overall. "A lot of times you've got to work before you reap your reward."
The hogs average around 150 pounds, Kolb says. (Your typical talk-radio host might go a little heavier than that. But they tend not to have long, curving tusks, so maybe it evens out.) "Our dogs go and find 'em first, and then we stab the pigs. It's a little bit dangerous, but as long as you know what you're doing, you'll be all right," he says.
The dogs are lithe, powerful Black Mouth Curs, like Canton, Kevin's gentle, non-hunting companion, who lives in a pen behind the family home on U.S. Highway 67 in Stephenville, across the street from the Iglesia de Dios. Kevin is a big fan of the breed.
"In the book, Old Yeller was a Black Mouth Cur," Kolb says. "They made him a Yellow Lab in the movie because people wouldn't know what a Black Mouth Cur was." Old Yeller dies from rabies after fighting off a wolf, but the dogs don't usually fight their quarry, Kolb says. "Those dogs are made to find 'em. They're tough, they're agile, they have a pretty good nose . . .
"The dogs corral 'em pretty good. When you know it's your turn, when you get a slot, you go in and you grab [the hog] by the back legs first. Depending on how big it is, you flip it over, jump on it, and stab it in the heart," he says. "They have big tusks; they can hurt you, and the dogs are flyin' in there. It can get nasty. If it's too big of a pig, or something's going wrong, you might have to pull out a gun, but we try not to do that."
Kolb knows this sounds like the sort of thing the Eagles might want to prohibit in the contract they'll try to hammer out over the next few months. "I haven't [ever been cut]," he says. "I've been close a lot. You've got to be quick."
The outdoor life - hunting, fishing, camping - has played an important role in making Kolb who he is, family members and mentors agree. Asked why it means so much to him, the quarterback talks about growing up and self-reliance and persistence.
"I had a four-wheeler most of the time, we always lived on land; I think that's important, you know," he says. "When you're out in the woods and you get beat up, your mom's not there to pick you up. I'd flip my four-wheeler or something, want to lay down there and be hurt. There's nobody there to cry for you. You got to jump up and keep going."
Kolb takes pride in being able to dress and cook what he kills. This was one subject he enjoyed reading up on as a youngster who preferred being outdoors to looking at books or video screens.
"Now, from huntin' it and shootin' it, I can have it packaged and in my freezer within an hour," he says. "I try to convince my wife [Whitney] to eat it. The best is the ribs; you slow-cook the ribs, it just falls off the bone, it's really good."
Life in Stephenville is largely about the outdoors, Kolb says: fishing, hunting, and rodeo. And then there's the football field. The Stephenville High Yellow Jackets have a long, proud tradition. Art Briles, Kolb's head coach at Houston, won four state titles at Stephenville in the 1990s before leaving during Kevin's freshman year.
Philip Montgomery, now the quarterbacks coach at Houston, was Kolb's quarterbacks coach in Stephenville before moving up with his protege. Montgomery describes Stephenville, which bills itself "The Cowboy Capital of the World," as "just a small country town that kind of lives and breathes football," in Erath County, Texas' milk-producing hub.
"Kids come in there and they know what's expected; they see it from the time they enter school," Montgomery says. "They know what it takes to get to certain points they want to get to. They work hard and get after it. Kevin is just a prime example of that. He's made himself what he is. He works very hard, whether it's on the field or watching film or in the weight room, whatever he needs to do, the little extra things, he's going to do. That's kind of typical of that town. It's a work-hard, nose-to-the-grindstone type of place, just a great place to raise your family."
The Kolbs moved there the summer before Kevin's freshman year. Roy Kolb, Kevin's father, was a coach, mostly middle-school football and basketball. The family moved around Texas, from Victoria to Pleasanton to Corpus Christi to Decatur before getting to Stephenville, where Roy eventually retired from coaching to follow his only son's career. He started a fire restoration and carpet-cleaning business, making use of an outbuilding next to the family's neat, modest, ranch-style home, which Roy and Lanell Kolb have remodeled themselves. Lanell teaches sixth grade. Their other child, Kevin's 26-year-old sister Amy, is a teacher who coaches basketball and tennis in Alto, Texas.
Roy Kolb describes Stephenville as a "blue-collar town" - an obvious parallel with Philadelphia - and quickly hits upon another similarity. "Football is life around here," says Kolb, who feels his son knows a few things about scrutiny and demanding audiences. He always cast himself as Kevin's harshest critic, the one who would keep him grounded if the adulation got to flowing a little too freely.
"I was tough on him. If he made one little mistake, I was right there to correct it. I'm probably about like those Philadelphia fans," he says.
Kevin doesn't disagree. "He was real tough on me. He was tough on my sister and myself," he says. "It paid off. It was real hard at that time - we had a lot of bickering and stuff going on. It wasn't the true father-and-son relationship that you'd like, at that time. He saw that, and that's why he retired."
Kevin was his dad's quarterback in football and his point guard in basketball. Kevin sought that level of responsibility. He wanted the game in his hands, he says, but sometimes he didn't want the increased friction level with his father/coach.
"You have to set the example - that's what my dad always taught me, that all eyes are on you all the time, you better not make a mistake," Kevin says. "You can imagine, as a 13-year-old kid, you got tired of doing that."
Roy says he never wanted Kevin depending on a future as a pro athlete as he grew up.
"That's a dream. As a coach, I know that one out of every thousand kids plays in college, and one out of every 10,000 makes it to the pros. It was always just a dream, it was never looked at as reality. People here in Stephenville kept saying, 'This kid's going to make it.' I never looked at it that way. I just kept saying, 'You just keep working hard. Don't listen to all the people talk about how good you are, you just keep working.' That's the one thing that's probably pushed him to the level he's at - his work ethic. I've never seen a kid work the way he does. He works in the weight room like an offensive lineman. He'll surprise those guys up there with how strong he is."
Mike Copeland has lived in Stephenville 34 years and was head coach of the Yellow Jackets the final 3 years Kevin played for them.
"In the 3 years that Kevin played for us, I don't think he ever missed a day of offseason [conditioning]," Copeland says, sitting in the Kolbs' living room as a thunderstorm rumbles in from the direction of Abilene. "You talk about guys that play big on Friday nights, and Kevin always did that, but he was a workaholic . . . He's amazing to be around."
Copeland says he thought he had something special when his sophomore quarterback threw for more than 400 yards in his first start, in front of 20,000 people at the Alamodome in San Antonio, but he knew he had something special after the next game. The quarterback said something about not feeling right after taking an early hit, but he then completed several passes in a row before throwing an interception that bounced off his receiver's chest, right to a defender. Kolb chased down the player with the ball and made the tackle. When he came off the field, he immediately sought medical attention for the broken collarbone he'd suffered early in the series, on the hit.
Recalls Kolb, touching a spot between his shoulder and his neck: "You could kind of feel there was a gap in there. I just knew something wasn't right in my release. I didn't know what it was."
"I'll never forget that," Copeland says. "He'd had such a great opening week, I just knew he was going to be absolutely devastated, but the first words out of his mouth were, 'Coach, I'll be back.' I said, 'Well, if you'll be back, you'll be the starting quarterback.' "
Eight weeks later, Kolb started a playoff game for the Yellow Jackets. By his senior season, he was being recruited by all the Big 12 schools and committed to Oklahoma State before Briles went from Texas Tech assistant to Houston head coach and brought several other former Stephenville coaches with him to the big city down by the Gulf.
"When I came off my injury, I didn't really play well off the bat. There was a little bit of doubt [about becoming a big-time college QB]," Kolb says. "I just started grindin'. I started working hard, and whatever happened, happened. Things started to go my way, like they usually do when you work hard. People rallied behind us and we started to win ballgames. Then we had a great senior year, and great town support."
The decision to change his college choice was "one of the toughest of my life," Kolb says, but one he says he's never regretted, even though the biggest knock on him going into the draft seemed to be that he had played in Briles' unconventional offense all through high school and college.
If Kolb doubted himself after getting hurt, he never gave Copeland cause to do so.
"I never saw him get disgusted, or down," Copeland says. "He's one of those kids who makes everybody around him better, because he has such a positive attitude. But he has high expectations. He's not afraid to tell you if you're running a route wrong or if you're doing something wrong. When he came to the sideline, it was like having another coach on the field - he was able to tell you what the coverages were, what he was seeing, what he thought we could do . . . He's the dangedest quarterback I've ever been around.
"Playing quarterback here is tough. Since 1989, we've had nine Division I quarterbacks. He's the only one that's ever started 3 years, out of all those kids. The expectations are unbelievable . . . He understands that . . . I think the high-school preparation here is unlike any preparation you could get anywhere, because our fans are pretty sophisticated, pretty knowledgeable, and they will not tolerate mediocrity, particularly out of that position."
It could have been tough, entering a tradition-rich program such as Stephenville's as an outsider, new to town, but Kolb impressed his new teammates and coaches, on and off the field, Copeland said.
"I always let the players sit where they want to in the locker room. [Typically], all the skill people will gather off in one end. Kevin always sat with the linemen. Nobody ever told him, 'Kevin, you need to sit over there with the linemen.' That was just something, he knew that was where he needed to be, because they were going to take care of him . . . Little things you don't appreciate unless you're in a locker room and you kind of watch the dynamics of what's going on in there. He's kind of special at that.
"I never had to worry about what he was doing on Saturday nights. I knew he was going to be where he was supposed to be, running with the crowd he should be running with. That's not always true of 17- or 18-year-old boys, but I never worried about Kevin."
Kevin says he's known for being "the oldest 22-year-old there is, with my group," which might not always be a compliment in collegiate circles. That maturity was the main reason Lanell Kolb says she and Roy didn't worry when Kevin announced plans to marry his high-school sweetheart, Whitney, while Kevin was still in college. "He still is pretty grounded," she says. "It amazes me." Kevin and Whitney were wed in February; they live in Pearland, south of Houston, where she teaches phys ed in a K-through-4 school.
"I just like stability," Kolb says. "I'm not big on chasing after girls, going and partying all the time . . . I've always done things at a young age; my father was a coach, and I was pushed into older leagues at a young age. The same thing with this - once I knew that I was in love and had found the right girl, I went ahead and did it."
Kolb started at Houston as a true freshman, his initial game marking the first of 50 successive starts. After winning Conference USA freshman of the year honors, he says he started comparing himself to other quarterbacks and thinking he might someday play in the NFL. As a senior, Kolb completed 292 of 432 passes for 3,809 yards and 30 touchdowns, throwing just four interceptions for the 10-4 Cougars.
Montgomery, the QB coach, sees a player who "adapts and changes to whatever he needs to do." He says he has little doubt that Kolb will make good use of his time apprenticing Donovan McNabb and will be ready to perform when his turn comes.
Copeland puts it more emphatically. He's biased, of course, but like at least some people in the Eagles organization, Copeland rates Kolb higher than Notre Dame's Brady Quinn, who ended up getting drafted 22nd overall by Cleveland, calling Kolb the No. 2 quarterback in the draft after LSU's JaMarcus Russell, who went first overall to Oakland.