Back in February, former Austin Westlake High quarterback Nick Foles led the Philadelphia Eagles to a Super Bowl victory over the New England Patriots. It was a high point in what’s been a fairly bumpy pro career for Foles, and after the game in an interview with the NFL Network, he was asked how he kept his enthusiasm for football.
“I grew up in Texas. Played some Texas high school football. ‘Talk to ‘em baby.’ Hey – that stuff’s real! I touched a football the first day I was born,” Foles said.
Foles is part of a grand tradition of big-time Texas quarterbacks. But there was a time when QBs weren’t such an abundant Lone Star State export.
In the mid-1990s, Ronnie Gage coached his Lewisville High School football teams to be physical.
“You know I’ve always been one of those guys that, you know, if we can win the line of scrimmage you better bring a sack lunch because it’s going to be a long night. We’re going to pound it,” Gage says.
Full disclosure – I graduated from Lewisville High and by the time I got there, Gage was already a legend. He ran an offense called the wishbone, where the idea is to put a lot of bodies near the ball, hit the other guys hard, and run up the field. It’s a contact-heavy brand of football, and from the 60s through the 90s, a lot of Texas high schools and colleges played that way. But Gage’s teams did it better than anybody. The Lewisville Fighting Farmers won state championships in 1993 and 1996.
“We scored over 50 points, had over 500 yards of offense and never threw a pass, so…you know, this day and time, that would be unheard of.,” Gage says.
Unheard of, because just as Gage’s teams finished running to championships, Texas football started to change, thanks in large part to a self-proclaimed old, terrible quarterback turned coach, named Doug Stephens. One day, Stephens was looking through the sports section of the Dallas Morning News when he saw an article analyzing where NFL players went to high school.
“And you got to quarterback, we were second,” Stephens says. “We were second behind California. But you could double the number of quarterbacks from the state of Texas in high school and still not reach the number of quarterbacks that were playing in the league from California high schools.”
Stephens is now the head football coach at Rowlett High School, northeast of Dallas. But back in the late 90s, he had enough time on his hands to meet with some coaches from California, and figure out what they were doing to cultivate such a productive quarterback crop. The answer was a game – a kind of football called seven-on-seven.
“They were doing seven-on-seven back in the ‘70s. And so they were pitching and catching way before anybody else. And we were still three yards and a cloud of dust, so to speak,” Stephens says.
Seven-on-seven distills football down to a single element: the passing game. There’s no blocking, no tackling, no kicking, no running the ball. A center snaps the ball to the quarterback, who has four seconds to throw it. If a receiver who’s caught the ball gets tagged by a defender, he’s down. And the reason seven-on-seven made California quarterbacks so good is that while you’d be hard-pressed to find a tackle football league outside the fall, you can play seven-on-seven all year long.
So after conferring with the Californians in the late 90s, Stephens drew up a plan to bring a seven-on-seven league to Texas. And it worked. A 16-team tournament in 1998 turned into a statewide phenomenon, with hundreds of schools of all sizes competing annually for the state title. This year’s seven-on-seven state tournament was in College Station, held back in June.
“These kids can practice all year long if they wanted to,” Stephens says. “We’re fixing to start off in August – why wouldn’t you go out and practice what you’re fixing to do in June and July?”
And mostly, that’s what teams do now. The style of play you see during seven-on-seven tournaments has spilled over to “Friday night lights,” with schools moving on from the physical, running style of Gage’s teams in the 90s. Instead, the idea is to spread out, go fast, and most importantly, throw the ball. It revolutionized high school football in Texas, and gave the state a reputation as the quarterback factory of the 21st century. Colleges across the country caught the passing bug too, and snapped up Texas quarterbacks who could deliver what they needed.
Matt Stepp covers high schools for Dave Campbell’s Texas Football.
“There was a kid from Texas who started at West Virginia, there’s kids from Texas who have started at Michigan, Cal. And I that’s because more and more kids are prepared to play at the next level,” Stepp says.
There’s also an argument to be made that seven-on-seven’s influence has filtered all the way up to the pros. Consider this: the top eight passing seasons in NFL history all came between 2010 and 2017. Texas quarterbacks brought up on seven-on-seven, like Philadelphia’s Foles, Detroit’s Matthew Stafford and Cincinnatti’s Andy Dalton, accounted for more than their fair share of that. To former college quarterback Nate Poppell, it’s a logical evolution.
“Those players are ingrained with it, and at the NFL level, they become such a big investment for these teams, those teams are obligated to do anything they can to make that player as comfortable, as efficient, and as effective as possible,” Poppell says.
Poppell is now the general manager of a football training academy outside Dallas. People like him who spend a lot of time around football will tell you that the game moves in cycles. What’s popular now will eventually be primitive. But in this case…
“I think it will continue to trend in that more open, pass heavy, less contact, less meeting at the line of scrimmage and duking it out. I think it will be a lot less of that,” he says.
There are a few reasons for that. One – seven-on-seven continues to grow. In addition to high school teams, private leagues are starting to pop up, attracting big-time sponsors and ferrying top talent to national tournaments. Another is player safety. Poppell thinks that as football continues to adjust its rules to prevent head injuries, it will become even more rare to play like Ronnie Gage’s battering ram championship teams from the 90s. Instead, the foreseeable future of football looks wide open.