Nick Foles and The Importance of Narratives

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Nick Foles isn’t supposed to be here right now. I don’t know where he’s supposed to be, and that’s the point.

Wherever Foles is supposed to be is wherever professional athletes go when we stop hearing about them and they cease to matter in the way that grown men wearing color coordinated uniforms who play a game that really, ultimately doesn’t mean as much as we probably think it does, matter.

Nick Foles is supposed to be somewhere obscure right now. The backup quarterback of the Arizona cardinals who threw exactly two passes this season, or setting records for the Winnipeg Blue Bombers in the CFL, or spearheading his father-in law’s septic system business in the greater Los Angeles area after retiring from the NFL because no one wanted him.

But Nick Foles is here right now. And right now millions of people care immensely about Nick Foles in a way that is a bit strange and hilarious and basically perfect because just when we think we know exactly what life will throw our way, Nick Foles is starting at quarterback in the Super Bowl.

In all likelihood, by the time Monday, February 5th rolls around, Nick Foles will be just another quarterback that Tom Brady defeated in the Super Bowl. He’ll be that guy we struggle to remember ten years from now and then laugh when someone looks it up on their phone and we remember that Nick Foles actually started at quarterback in the most important football game of the 2017 season.

The standard narrative of Foles journey to extreme relevance goes something like this:

The guy was on the brink of retirement when Andy Reid, his former coach in Philadelphia, wanted him in Kansas City where Foles was able to tread water as the backup long enough for the Eagles to re-sign him before the 2017 season, and then he leads Philadelphia to the Super Bowl after the likely NFL MVP, Carson Wentz, suffers a season-ending injury in Week 14.

This is unusual. It sounds like a madlib. It is also a thing that we do when examining what happened after it already happened.

We pick apart every chance occurrence and marvel that it happened after the fact. This is a very human way to think about things. Which is to say that it’s entertaining and tells a story that’s compelling, but I’m not sure it means so much. At least, it doesn’t mean much more than saying, “This is the way things happened but there were a million other ways it could’ve happened but didn’t, can you believe that?”

When you take these things out of context and realize we could say this about basically anything that happened in any of our lives, it feels weird and rote and a bit hollow.

But this is not an attack on narratives or habitually stating the obvious veiled in an un-obvious sounding way.

Without narratives or some kind of story, football to most people wouldn’t be anything more than twenty-two impossibly gigantic men running into each other on a field of imaginary lines. We need narratives because they’re something to believe in, they give us something to attach meaning to. And without stating the obvious in an un-obvious sounding way, would we have anything to say to each other eighty-five percent of the time?

Without these narratives, without feeling like there’s some order or significance to the way these things happened, we run the risk of everything feeling kind of random and pointless. Which is, I think, something we’re trying to avoid more often than not: how random and pointless and fragile life can seem if we start examining it through a certain lens.

When observing what happened in any of our lives, the field (e.g. all other possible outcomes that did not happen) is always more likely than the one thing that actually happened (that is, of course, unless you believe in destiny or fate, which is an entirely different discussion).

We can marvel at this if we like, and it’s worth marveling at for sure, but it’s a little like exclaiming how amazing it is that a person grew to be five-foot ten inches tall, instead of five-foot nine or five-foot eleven. It’s not the same, but it’s a similar line of thinking.

Even so, it’s nice to have something to talk about, isn’t it? We need these things even if we’re just stating the obvious in an un-obvious narrative-driven way. If nothing else, it gives us something to talk about besides Tom Brady and Bill Belichick.