If we are very fortunate, we grow older. That first gray hair triggers an avalanche, wrinkles are the uninvited guests who just won’t leave. Cynicism begins to invade spaces in our brains where excitement used to live. It happens to all of us; it has happened to me.
If we are extremely fortunate, we’re able to cling to wonderful things that never grow old, even as we do. Rubbing my dog’s belly. That springtime green. Reminiscing with my mom. Sticking my toes in the sand for the first time each year. All very personal moments; the thrill is never gone.
If we are incredibly fortunate, our professional lives spill over into the personal and gift us with things, moments and people who never outstay their welcome. I love a sea of Kentucky blue in an opponent’s basketball arena, a stinging barb from the old ball coach and a muggy Saturday evening at LSU. Painful as it was, I love saying I had a front-row seat at the greatest college basketball game ever played. And I love talking about Matt Ryan.
Before I became a full-time realtor, I was the media relations director for Boston College, where Super Bowl-bound quarterback Matt Ryan (how I have longed to type those six words) earned his degree and became a football star. I am very, extremely, incredibly fortunate to have met Matt Ryan. Though it may seem quite the opposite, I write this in all humility, not in a name-dropping “I-know-the-NFL-MVP” kind of way (although that’s fun, too), but in a “how lucky am I?” kind of way. To brag about knowing Matt Ryan would be disingenuous simply because Matt Ryan would never brag about anything. He is the essence of humility. But someone needs to brag about him, because in a world that sometimes seems to have gone mad, in a sports subculture that seems even madder, we’re very, extremely, incredibly, enormously fortunate to have Matt Ryan.
At first, I thought he was an above-average quarterback, at best; we all did. In 2004, BC’s starting quarterback was Paul Peterson (whose character is just as stellar). In the last game of the regular season, BC was playing Syracuse for the outright Big East championship and a Fiesta Bowl bid. Paul got injured, Matt got the start, and any BC fan who claims they were not nervous is lying. Although BC ended up losing that game, no BC fan would claim it was Matt’s fault. And so it began.
Any skepticism about Matt’s ability was turned upside down early in the 2005 season, BC’s first in the ACC, at Clemson. Matt took a hit in that game that would have staggered Ali but dusted himself off and led BC to its first-ever win in its new conference. It was on. My intention here, however, was not to talk about what a great player he became; there will be a trillion of those stories written in the next two weeks. I am writing to talk about what a great young man he was and what a great grown man he is now. I know this for a fact, and I want you to know it, too.
Matt’s senior year, 2007, was one of the most successful in BC football history (thanks to Matt but also a VERY talented supporting cast recruited by Tom O’Brien). The Eagles started the season 8-0 and were ranked No. 2 in the nation; my fingers must have typed those words 12,000 times in the past 10 years. Early that year, we played an ESPN Saturday night game at Georgia Tech, and Matt was brilliant. He threw a “No-He-Didn’t” touchdown pass to our nifty wide receiver Brandon Robinson in a game that really thrust him onto the national radar (ironically just a few blocks away from his professional home at the Georgia Dome).
The wins kept coming and, with each one, the media attention was ratcheted up a notch or 20, to the point that Matt had a standing appointment to come to our office a few days a week. I was the primary football contact so technically he was coming to see me, but he would get sidetracked along the way. He would fling open the front door to be greeted by our secretary, Stephanie O’Leary. “Hi, Steff!” was invariably followed by a peck on the cheek (and a “if I were only 30 years younguh” exclamation from our Boston-bred Steff). He would turn to his right and open the door to the area where our interns were working. “Hi Meredith. Hi Zanna. Hi Ben.” I mean, who does this? Steph Tunnera and Tim Clark received identical greetings before Matt would adjourn to my late colleague Dick Kelley’s office (Dick tragically succumbed to ALS a few years ago) to talk politics for a good 10 minutes. Dick would critique Matt’s press conferences, once famously telling him “you have a degree from Boston College. Talk like it.” Occasionally I’d manage to work in a conversation about the day’s media requests.
In 2007, college football was rife with big-name quarterbacks (Tim Tebow, Colt Brennan and Chase Daniel, among others) so we knew it would be an uphill battle but, midway through the season, the word “Heisman” started being tossed around. On one of Matt’s routine visits to our office, we took him to the conference room and sat him at the head of the table, surrounded by our entire staff. “Matt,” I said, “you know, you’re not half bad. We were thinking it might be time to put together a Heisman Trophy campaign for you.” The next thing I remember is seeing the top of his head after he turned 50 shades of red and looked down in embarrassment. My colleague Steph Tunnera started laughing and said “come on! You know you’re good.” It took arm twisting but he let us do it.
Arguably Matt’s defining moment occurred on October 25, 2007 in a sopping-wet Thursday night ESPN game at Virginia Tech. BC was 7-0 and ranked No. 2 but played like anything but for the first 57 minutes and 49 seconds. Matt threw two touchdowns in the final 2:11, the Eagles won, and Kirk Herbstreit called it “Matt Ryan’s Heisman moment.” Afterwards, he was graciously and patiently speaking with a media mob when wide receivers coach Ryan Day emerged from the coaches’ locker room. Day had an emergency appendectomy the day before, then checked himself out of the hospital against doctor’s orders to fly to the game. Upon spotting Day, Matt said “why are you all talking to me? THAT man is the real hero of this game.”
In the small world department, Tom Brady and his wife Gisele live in Chestnut Hill, Mass., 1.6 miles away from the Boston College campus, where Matt the young woman who would become his wife, Sarah Marshall (not THAT Sarah Marshall). Boston College draws the cream of the crop in the first place and at the risk of making your eyes roll, these two rise to the top. In Sarah, Matt met his match, both as an athlete (she was the starting point guard for the BC women’s basketball team) and in the character department. Matt may be the MVP of the NFL but he’d be the first to tell you Sarah would take him in a game of horse four out of five times. And if Sarah were playing in the Super Bowl, this story would be about a woman of unimpeachable character meeting her match in a dude named Matt Ryan. How can you make this stuff up?
Now, about Matt and Atlanta. I lived in Atlanta for seven years before moving to Boston, and I adore the place, but there were times when I thought Atlanta didn’t deserve Matt Ryan. Admit it, Atlanta – you didn’t want Matt. The night of the NFL draft in 2008, I sat at my computer for hours angrily reading icy Matty posts in the comments section of AJC.com and responding to many of them. “Just wait,” I wrote, and, to Atlanta’s credit, it has waited through some undeniably frustrating seasons. For this reason I now feel Atlanta does deserve Matt Ryan, admittedly while whispering “I told you so.” For their patience, Atlantans have been rewarded with a Super Bowl. Forgive me for ever doubting you.
Sunday afternoon I watched nervously from my couch as the Georgia Dome rocked one last time. The Dome lived a relatively short life, but it lived hard, even withstanding a tornado. Here I watched SEC and NCAA championships and Elton and Billy performing a masterful “Piano Man” duet, nirvana for a child of the ’60s. It’s where a gimpy Kerri Strug nailed that second vault (“you can do it!”), But Atlanta famously grows tired of its buildings after a couple of decades, and today’s NFL stadiums need room for sushi stands and scoreboards the size of Rhode Island, so she’ll be deflated to make room for the massive blooming onion next door. That her final act involved Matt Ryan standing atop a stage with an NFC Championship trophy, well, mic drop. When it became obvious the Falcons were going to win, I received a text from Steff O’Leary, whom Matt treated like a queen when she was my secretary: “This is just plain great.” As Matt was about to be interviewed, I closed my eyes and imagined my friend Dick Kelley saying “you have a Boston College degree. Talk like it.” He did. And I cried.
I have at least 58,000 more Matt Ryan humility stories but I’ve narrowed it to a final two. After he was drafted third overall and became a gazillionaire and an NFL star, Matt came back to campus for a game on a Falcons bye week. Before the game, I grabbed him to come with me to the media suite to meet with our media. As we were about to enter the building, a security guard who did not immediately recognize Matt told him he could not enter without a credential. “Oh, man, okay; I’m sorry, sir.” When he realized it was Matt, the guard was mortified, but it would take a helluva’ lot more than 70 million bucks to coerce Matt Ryan into demeaning a guy making minimum wage.
One final thought. Each year Orlando hosts two bowl games, the Capital One Bowl and what’s generally considered the undercard, the Citrus Bowl (in our case in 2007, the Champs Sports Bowl). My intern Meredith Cook (as in “Hi Meredith! Hi Zanna! Hi Ben!) and I took Matt to a fan event for both bowls, with four sets of fans. We were playing Michigan State the next day with Florida set to play Michigan a few days later. Matt was treated respectfully but the star of the show was Tim Tebow. There must have been 800 people waiting in line to get Tebow’s autograph; Matt signed maybe a dozen before walking relatively anonymously past the Tebow throng out the front door. I remember thinking “just wait.” With all due respect to Tim Tebow, well, hello. The wait is over.
I always wondered what it would be like to know a famous person, and I guess I do now, but it doesn’t feel like it. Matt Ryan would be the last person to call himself famous, so who am I to brag that we know each other? Besides, it’s not that I’m proud that he knows me; I’m grateful that I know him.
Very, extremely, incredibly grateful.