As the legend goes, there was a day back in 2010 when a group of University of Arizona football players including Nick Foles took the court in a pickup game against most of the Wildcats basketball team. They not only held their own, but won both games that were played.
The score of the first game was 9-2 before the hoops stars realized this wasn't a joke. The football players -- including Foles -- could really play. They needed to take it seriously. It didn’t help. They lost the next game, as well.
Former Arizona cornerback Trevin Wade tells the story. Foles had a similar version of what happened that day against the core (Brendon Lavender, Kyle Fogg, Jamelle Horne, Solomon Hill and Jesse Perry) of a college basketball team that finished the season ranked No. 18 in the country.
That group of football players had high-flying wide receiver Juron Criner dunking from all over the place. It had the sharp-shooting Wade swishing long-range jumpers. Inside, it had a bruising rebounder and low-post threat by the name of Rob Gronkowski, now the all-world tight end for the New England Patriots. It also had Foles, the seemingly unathletic quarterback who will start for the Philadelphia Eagles on Sunday in Super Bowl LII against Gronkowski and the Patriots.
To this day, there are regrets there's no video. The football players insist it happened. Foles was one of the top players that day on the Arizona campus. It’s hardly a surprise to those who have seen him dribble, pass and shoot. He's always one of the best, most skilled players when he takes the court.
By all accounts, Foles is a deadly shooter with a sticky handle and sneaky explosiveness. The 6-foot-6, 243-pounder has smooth moves and can throw it down with power and/or grace.
“I can do it all,” said a smiling Foles not-so-modestly of his hoops skills last week.
Watching Foles on the football field, it might be hard to envision this kind of basketball ability. He rarely tucks the ball and takes off. Foles has one yard rushing on 16 carries this season. He's not to be mistaken with Michael Vick.
“He definitely could move on the court. I don’t get it,” Wade told ESPN by telephone this week. “It’s like he’s a different person.”
Speak to just about anybody who has seen Foles on a basketball court and they are complimentary of his game. He was a three-year varsity starter at Westlake High School in Austin, Texas, and led the district in rebounding as a sophomore. Foles got looks from college basketball programs.
Foles said he received letters from Division I schools, including Georgetown and Arizona State. But he told them his intention was to concentrate on football, and they backed off.
It has paid off. He's in his sixth NFL season preparing for his first Super Bowl.
Wade said Foles “definitely” could have played Division I basketball. Foles would have been a prototypical small forward playing on the wing. Former Eagles teammate Connor Barwin even called Foles the most impressive football player who he has played basketball with, and he's played with plenty. Barwin was part of some barnstorming Eagles teams with Foles that played charity games at schools throughout the Delaware Valley.
“I remember playing basketball, and with a quarterback you never realize how explosive he is. And the Eagles had this summer basketball charity game. And me and a bunch of guys -- the first time, we were all blown away,” Barwin said. “He was just drop-step dunking on people. And I was like, ‘Where the hell did this come from?’ It’s not like he had a 40-inch vertical, but he could jump and he was just so long.”
Foles isn’t shy about discussing or showing people his basketball skills. Wade, who remains friendly with his former college teammate, said Foles’ patented move was early in pickup games to come barely across midcourt and pull up for a long jump shot. More often than not ... swish. It was a message to the opposing team.
But not all of Foles’ teammates are aware of his on-court ability. Wide receivers Alshon Jeffery and Torrey Smith had no idea the quarterback who took over for an injured Carson Wentz could play hoops.
When informed, Jeffery declared himself the best basketball player on the team and wanted a piece of Foles in the offseason. Still, Jeffery wasn’t all that surprised, given Foles' size and footwork.
“Nick looks like he can play in the post and make a couple moves,” Jeffery said.
Quarterbacks that can excel on the basketball court aren’t all that rare. It was a sentiment shared by Barwin, Jeffery and Smith. Jeffery even noted that he saw firsthand that New York Jets quarterback Josh McCown had serious game. Even Peyton and Eli Manning are supposed to be decent on the hardwood, even if it’s not quite at Foles’ level.
“[Foles] probably has a good jumper,” Smith said. “A lot of quarterbacks can shoot.”
Foles’ lack of blazing speed or running on the football field might be deceiving. The Eagles prefer more run-pass options (RPOs), in which the quarterback is tasked with deciding to hand the ball off or keep it to throw. It involves some nifty footwork that wouldn’t be possible for an unathletic quarterback.
Foles exhibits that same sneaky athleticism on the football field that makes him a good basketball player. It was evident late in the first half of the NFC Championship Game rout of the Minnesota Vikings. Foles was under pressure and shuffled left several times before firing a long touchdown pass to Jeffery before halftime. It was one of three touchdown passes he threw in the game of his life.
“Any time you’ve played different sports -- for me, it has always been basketball; that is an instinctual sport. You’re dribbling the ball, passing,” Foles said. “I’m sure that has helped me a lot along the line with helping with my football instincts.”