Come summertime, folks in cars and RVs tracing the path of historic Route 66 -- even the occasional tour bus -- will see the sign and turn off the main highway toward the house where Seattle Seahawk kicker Josh Brown’s parents still live.
Their destination is on the other side of the two-lane country road from the Browns’ brick ranch house: a towering piece of folk art made of painted concrete and advertised as the world’s largest totem pole.
“Just down the end of our driveway, probably 300 or 400 yards, a 90-foot totem pole,” said Brown, who could see it from the window of his bedroom, still a shrine to the athletic accomplishments of an eight-man football phenom who will represent his little town -- population 234 at last official count -- in Super Bowl XL.
“It’s pretty fun. I tell people, ‘Why wouldn’t you go to Foyil? The world’s largest totem pole is there.’ ”
Brown, 26, is among several small-town boys who have made it to the biggest spectacle in sports, quite a ways from the house overlooking what amounts to the Watts Towers of the plains, completed in 1948 after 11 years of toil by one man and now listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
As Sunday’s game between the Seahawks and Pittsburgh Steelers approaches, there is pride all around Foyil, from the totem-pole gift shop to the 155-student high school to the House of Prayer Holiness Church on the outskirts of town, where an autographed photo of Brown is displayed just outside the sanctuary.
“We might be a little strange, but I have a picture of him hanging in the foyer,” said House of Prayer Pastor Richard Hubbard, better known as Brother Hubbard to his congregation.
“It has a message: Josh is a nobody from a nothin’ town and a nothin’ school who played eight-man football and his daddy wasn’t a coach. He did it all on his own,” Hubbard said.
He also knows Brown made missteps. During college at Nebraska, he pleaded guilty to misdemeanor assault after a fight and later was arrested on suspicion of driving under the influence, but he put those mistakes behind him and now volunteers at Vacation Bible School every summer.
“That’s what I want people to understand. They can too,” Hubbard said.
With its one-room city hall and two-block downtown, Foyil looks far from so-called civilization, even though it is only a 35-minute commute to Tulsa. But it is the sort of place where families stay for generations, and where former city dwellers like the Browns come for a little elbow room and schools where you don’t have to pass through a metal detector to go to class.
There wasn’t a lot for Josh to do in high school but play sports, and that was the way Kenneth and Quana Brown liked it.
“We tried to keep him tied up,” Quana said.
Josh felt like “the city kid coming to the middle of the country” after moving from Tulsa, he said.
“There was a lot of violence around the school I was at,” Brown added. “It wasn’t what my parents wanted for me. We bought a house and moved out there. It was almost a dream that people are as wonderful as they are. Everybody knows your name.
“There isn’t really even a town. There’s the gas station, the Top Hat Dairy Bar, an air conditioning place. ... There used to be a deli, where the old men would sit and drink coffee. High school football was all there was. The older gentlemen would come to practice. I compare it a lot to the movie ‘Varsity Blues.’ ”
The youngest of four children, Josh was in eighth grade when the family moved, and he didn’t waste time before introducing himself to football coach Rick Antle, now the Foyil High principal.
“The first thing he said to me was, ‘I’m a kicker. When are you having kicker tryouts?’ ” Antle said. “I said, ‘Son, this is eight-man football. We don’t kick PATs and field goals, and junior-high kicker tryouts are on the day of the game.’ ”
Antle was going over his game plan before the season opener when his assistant coach came in to tell him what the kid they’d named varsity manager and cameraman was doing.
“He says, ‘Antle, have you seen the new kicker, the Brown kid? He’s out there kicking,’ ” said Antle, who played linebacker at Oklahoma State. “I said, ‘Dad-gum, I told him not to be jacking around, horse-playing.’
“I stepped outside and the first thing I noticed was it sounded different. I heard that ‘boom’ when his foot hit the ball. He was hitting 30- and 35-yarders as an eighth-grader and kept moving the tee back. I watched five or six kicks and I said, ‘I think we’re going to start kicking field goals and PATs.’ ”
Eight-man football is its own game, football minus two tackles and a receiver and more akin to arena ball than the big-time football Brown played at Nebraska before the Seahawks drafted him in the seventh round in 2003.
With the scores often lopsided, there’s a mercy rule: The game ends if either team gets a 45-point lead.
When Brown was playing -- starring at running back, defensive back and kick returner as well -- Antle became versed in the art of not blowing out a team too quickly.
“You never want to ‘run-rule’ anybody before halftime. It doesn’t allow you to make much on concessions,” he said.
It was during one of those blowouts that Brown kicked a now-legendary 61-yard field goal, ending a game in the fourth quarter Antle figured he could extend.
He let Brown try a 57-yarder just for kicks, and Brown made it, but an illegal procedure call nullified it and moved the ball back five yards.
“My assistant said, ‘Don’t you want to punt now?’ ” Antle said. “And I said, ‘Naw, he barely made that one. He’s not going to make it.’ ”
His adrenaline pumping after making the first kick, Brown moved back only four yards and cleared the cross bar by 10 feet, giving Foyil a 45-point margin.
“I told the other coach, ‘I want to apologize. I didn’t think he’d hit that field goal and end the game,’ ” Antle said.
“He said, ‘No problem. When we see him playing on Sundays, I’ll be able to tell my grandkids he hit a 61-yarder against us.’ ”
It wasn’t only the chance to see a long field goal that drew as many as 1,000 fans to stand along the sidelines and watch Brown play on Foyil’s tiny home field. It was watching him run the ball too. His senior season, he rushed for 1,891 yards and scored 51 touchdowns, some of them on kick returns and interceptions.
“He could start and stop on a dime,” Antle said. “I don’t want to over-exaggerate, but at our level he looked like Barry Sanders or Gale Sayers.”
Annamae Sellers, who tends the gift shop at the totem pole, remembers how her late husband Calvin loved Foyil football when Brown was playing. And not just the games.
“We’d go every afternoon,” she said. “He’d say, ‘Don’t you think we should be going to ball practice?’ I’d take my crochet needles and sit in the car and crochet.”
When Calvin was so ill he could no longer go to games, he sent his wife to town to peer at the scoreboard lights.
“I had to drive all the way to Foyil to see what the score was,” Sellers said.
And when Calvin died in 1997, Brown, still in high school, sang at his funeral.
“That’s when Foyil found out Josh could sing,” said Brown’s mother, Quana.
Now Foyil waits to see what Josh will do Sunday.
Antle plans to project the game onto a huge piece of canvas in the high school gym.
“We’ll charge $1 in advance, $2 at the door,” he said. “Just to give the community a spot where the ones who want to can come together as a whole group and root for a native son to win the Super Bowl.”
The House of Prayer will hold its regular 6:30 p.m. service, but with a 5:15 p.m. CST kickoff, Brother Hubbard knows he might be lonely.
Most of the Brown family will be at the game, where his mother will watch anxiously, knowing he could have a game like the one in which he made a 58-yarder against Green Bay his rookie year -- or the one earlier this season when he missed a field goal at the end of regulation in an overtime loss to Washington.
“As long as all the field goals are in the first half, that would be fine with me,” she said with a laugh.
Over at the high school, Antle knows enough Super Bowl history to understand Brown could become another Adam Vinatieri, or another Scott Norwood.
“If he was to be able to do the storybook thing and kick a field goal in the last second and win the game, that would solidify his legend forever,” Antle said.
“But I’m kind of like his mama. If he doesn’t kick any field goals and hits all his PATs and gets a Super Bowl ring, I’d be happy.”
Then they’d have a celebration to plan, maybe even a parade.
“We’d probably just have it at the school or in our two-block downtown, past Barbee’s Heat and Air,” Antle said.
There is also the matter of the signs on the edge of town that welcome travelers to Foyil, home of world’s largest totem pole and Andy Payne, a runner who saved the family farm with prize money he won in the Great Transcontinental Footrace in 1928, and who is memorialized with a bronze statue in a forlorn little park.
There’s no mention of Brown.
“I’m hoping like the dickens they win the Super Bowl and I’ll paint a new sign, ‘Home of Super Bowl Champion Josh Brown,’ ” Antle said.
“I talked to Josh Monday and congratulated him. We were laughing, cutting up. I mentioned the sign, and he said, ‘That’d be neat.’ Then I said, ‘What would really be neat would be if we commissioned a statue.
“ ‘I’d move that statue in the park so it would look like you were kicking Andy right in the butt.’ ”
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)
About Foyil, Okla.
* Population: 234 (2000 census).
* Square miles: 0.4.
* Median annual household income (2000): $23,125.
* Median home value (2000): $53,300.
* Nearest big city: Tulsa, 35.5 miles southwest.
* Best known for: World’s tallest totem pole, 90 feet.
* Fun fact: Foyil High graduate Andy Payne won the 1928 Route 66 Great Transcontinental Footrace, covering 3,423.5 miles -- from Los Angeles to New York City -- in a reported 573 hours 4 minutes 34 seconds, earning $25,000 for the victory, which he used to save his family’s farm and marry his girlfriend.
FROM SMALL TOWN TO MOTOWN
For glitz, glamour and overkill, perhaps no sporting event in the world can match the Super Bowl. But many of the game’s participants are products of humble, small-town environments far from the bright lights. This week, we’ll look at four of them:
* Part 1: Today, Josh Brown, Seattle Kicker from Foyil, Okla.
* Part 2: Willie Parker, Pittsburgh Running back from Clinton, N.C.
* Part 3: Shaun Alexander, Seattle Running back from Florence, Ky.
* Part 4: Heath Miller, Pittsburgh Tight end from Swords Creek, Va.