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The High Cost of Moving

Sonny Detmer taught his sons well, and now they're NFL quarterbacks—both for Philadelphia

By Lars Anderson

In the growing darkness of a spring evening, Sonny Detmer and his younger boy, Koy, walk quietly, carefully through the dry, dusty countryside of southern Texas. They are on a hog-hunting expedition in a place so isolated that the nearest business, a gas station, is a 50-mile drive down a rutted country road. Sonny leads the hunt, eventually spying a feral hog meandering through some black brush just behind a mesquite tree and a cluster of prickly pear cacti.

"Three hundred yards away," Sonny whispers to Koy in his heavy drawl. "Use the tree as a shield, and you should be able to get within 100 yards. The wind shouldn't be a factor, so you should have a true shot. Once you get close enough, take a rest so your hands are steady. Make it count because this is your last chance to get a hog before dark."

Koy nods his head, then slowly sidles away. When he's about 100 yards from the animal, he stops, draws a few deep breaths and a careful bead, and fires his rifle. A dull thump echoes through the humid air as the hog falls to the ground, motionless. A perfect shot. Moments later, his hands bathed in blood as he guts the 175-pound beast with a knife, Koy asks his father, "How will this one eat?"

"It'll make great fajitas," he says. A soft smile creases Sonny's Huck Finn face. "You did it just like I said."

Here, in the middle of nowhere, is the answer to how Koy, 23, has been able to enter the rarefied air of the NFL and how his older brother, Ty, 29, has been able to become one of the brightest young quarterbacks in the game: They've always done just as Sonny said.

Though the brothers are only six feet tall and have twigs for right arms, they've flourished on the football field their entire lives. Ty, a sixth-year quarterback, was the NFC's fourth-rated passer last season with the Philadelphia Eagles. Koy, a rookie quarterback for the Eagles, was drafted after his record-breaking career at Colorado. Their success in football, as in hunting, stems from Sonny, the coach of Mission (Texas) High. He's been patrolling the sidelines of high school football fields for almost 30 years, and the counsel he's given his boys has meant everything.

"No question," says Ty, "the reason Koy and I play this game well is that Sonny's always been there talking football, and we learned from that even when we didn't know we were. [The Detmer boys have always called their dad Sonny. "We heard Grandpa calling him Sonny, and it just kind of stuck," says Koy.] I think as a result we could read fairly sophisticated defenses when we were still in high school, and we've both grown a lot since then."

You can see this in how Ty plays, the way he seems to appreciate the game in much the same fashion a painter appreciates the potential of a blank canvas. Ty passes to places, to seams in the defense, not to receivers. That's the way Sonny taught him, and that style helped him set 59 NCAA records at BYU and win the 1990 Heisman Trophy. But this manner of passing—and the fact that his physique is more Seinfeld than Schwarzenegger—did not endear him to NFL scouts. He wasn't selected until the ninth round of the '91 draft, by Green Bay, and in his first four seasons he threw only 21 passes.

Yet those were valuable years for Ty. The game became a mental exercise for him as he spent his bench time studying the Packers' West Coast offense. Ty understood that with Brett Favre and Mark Brunell playing ahead of him, his chances of starting for Green Bay were slim. He learned. He waited. He did everything you would expect a coach's son to do.

At the end of the '95 season, Ty became a free agent and proffered his services to just two teams, both of them with West Coast offenses: Kansas City and Philadelphia. Eagles coach Ray Rhodes and his offensive coordinator, Jon Gruden, had been assistants in Green Bay and had seen Ty dissect the first-team defense in scrimmages. To Rhodes, the decision to sign Ty to a two-year, $1.7 million contract in March '96 was a no-brainer.

"You could see how crafty he was," says Rhodes, recalling Detmer's days on the scout team in Green Bay. "He'd be moving the ball on us and I'd ask my linebackers what he was doing, and they'd say, 'He's playing with us. He's staring us down, looking right at us and throwing in a different direction.'"

Ty became the Eagles' starter after Rodney Peete tore his right patellar tendon in a late-September game against Dallas, and he led Philadelphia to victory in each of his first four starts. In his second start, against Miami, Ty became the first Eagle since Randall Cunningham in 1990 to throw four touchdown passes in one game. In his third start, Carolina linebacker Lamar Lathon, all 6'3" and 260 pounds of him, tried to intimidate Ty by administering a consciousness-rattling head-butt. He head-butted him right back. No wonder teammates call Ty the Texas Terrier.

Ty's fourth start, in Dallas on Nov. 3, was the only game that Sonny saw in person last year, because of his coaching schedule. Ty outplayed Troy Aikman and led the Eagles to a 31-21 victory. After the game, Sonny approached Rhodes in the catacombs of Texas Stadium, embraced him and thanked him for believing in his son, for believing in someone who is now the smallest starting quarterback in the NFL. Some things, some people, Sonny never forgets. "Not only does Rhodes believe in Ty," says Sonny, "but now it sure looks like he believes in Koy, too."

Like his brother, Koy has dealt with questions about his size since junior high. Though he was the most prodigious passer in Texas high school history (he threw for 8,221 yards), many recruiters considered him too slight and candy-armed to play big-time college ball. Colorado offered him a scholarship; last season Koy rewarded the Buffs' faith by setting single-season school records for touchdown passes (22) and passing yards (3,156). The Eagles selected Koy in the seventh round of the draft even though they already have three entrenched quarterbacks--Ty, Peete and Bobby Hoying. No team in the NFL kept four quarterbacks on their active roster last season, but Rhodes has said he won't hesitate to do that if all four play well in the preseason.

Gruden says the fact that the Eagles are now the only NFL team with brothers vying for the starting QB spot is no fluke: "It was certainly in the back of our minds when we drafted Koy that he had the same genes as Ty. They're both great situational football players. Maybe Coach Rhodes drafted Koy to get Sonny up here as an offensive coordinator."

"I didn't think I'd get drafted, so I'm happy with the chance," says Koy. "I've always tried to follow the footsteps of my brother at each level, and I'm willing to wait and learn just like he did. It certainly turned out O.K. for Ty."

That's because it was practically predestined. The elder Detmer boy's first football experience was a game of catch with Sonny in the family's front yard. Ty was three. As he grew, the father-son game took on more purpose. If Ty threw a sidearm pass or if his elbow wasn't propped up in the fundamentally correct way, Sonny would stop and holler, "Ty, if you're not going to do it right, we're not going to play at all."

Koy didn't have to wait as long to start. Ty conscripted his still-diapered little brother to be his center and dragged him outside to show him the delicate art of the snap. They both remember lying on the living-room floor, listening to Sonny and his assistant coaches break down game film, mesmerized by the black-and-white images flickering on the wall. Sonny swears that this is when his sons began picking up the finer aspects of the game, staring silently at that wall, listening, thinking, learning.

By the time the boys were in junior high, Sonny was teaching them his sophisticated, passing-based offense. The Detmers have an unwritten rule that football cannot be discussed by the family at home, so the brothers would spend hours in Sonny's office after school learning the precepts of his game, which are similar to those of the West Coast offense. "Sonny stresses flooding the zones and getting a lot of receivers out into routes," says Ty. "It's the same idea with the West Coast. It's getting the other teams to leave a hole in the defense and having a receiver fill that open area."

Sonny was a wide receiver at Wharton County (Texas) Junior College and later played three years (1967-69) in the Continental Football League. Though he never made it to the NFL, he had a sneaking suspicion that someday, somehow, his offspring would. And so he named his boys with that hunch in mind. He chose the name Ty because he'd once heard the name at a local football game and liked how it sounded when it rolled off the loudspeaker. "Ty Detmer," he said to himself. He had the same feeling when he heard the name Koy at a University of Texas football game.

In his day, Sonny was built just like his boys are now; he and his wife, Betty, have two girls—Dee, 28, and Lori, 17—who share their brothers' wispy physiques and athleticism. The size issue has dogged the Detmer family for two generations now, but Sonny is adamant in his belief that small quarterbacks can succeed in the NFL—if they have the proper training. "If you throw with touch and put the ball into the defensive hole the receiver is running to, you don't need to be tall," says Sonny, noting that two Pro Bowl quarterbacks, Steve Young and Jeff Blake, are each just a hair over six feet tall. "What you need is accuracy and a natural feel for the game."

As he speaks, Sonny feeds hay to the five horses he keeps on the family's five-acre ranch outside Mission, just 15 miles from the Mexican border. Lightning snaps across the sky as thunder booms all around. "We love the outdoor lifestyle," he says. "Hunting, fishing and football are all we've ever known. I've tried to teach my boys to be tough and to go after it. If you start something, you better well finish it."

It starts to rain, but Sonny isn't rushing inside. He's got a feeding to finish.