From Boston College to Super Bowl LI: How Matt Ryan keeps flashing a winning smile

Mike Petraglia
February 01, 2017 - 12:33 pm

Tom Brady (left) and Matt Ryan have taken different paths to the top. (Troy Taormina/USA Today Sports)

HOUSTON - Matt Ryan has a charming, warm smile that is lighting up TV cameras this week in Houston. It's the first extended national exposure in the NFL for the 31-year-old Falcons quarterback.

From his days at Chestnut Hill, Matt Ryan has always beamed happiness and confidence. It's the core of his nature. But that smile can also be very misleading.

Like Tom Brady, Ryan's smile hides an inner edge and competitive fire that has finally brought him to precipice of a world championship.

When I covered Ryan at Boston College, the story seemed to always find its way to how a nice guy like Ryan - who was always there to help out teammates and friends alike - could muster up the intensity and competitiveness to bring his team to a different level.

And, more than any quality, that's what Ryan did for Boston College. He brought them to a very high level. Ryan was 30-10 in 40 career starts for the Eagles, throwing 56 touchdowns and leading his team to a perfect 4-0 mark in bowl games.

As accomplished as he was on the field, Matt was just as so in the classroom. He was awarded the 2004 Freshman Male Scholar-Athlete award, and even launched a website (Mattyice.com) during his senior year, where fans and media had 24-hour access to video highlights, updated biographical information, statistics and other information about him. This past fall, Boston College retired his jersey.

Ryan, like Brady, has always been image conscious.

When asked about his easy-going appearance and friendly demeanor, Ryan would often say in his press conferences after games in Chestnut Hill that he's a nice guy until he steps on the field. He often spoke of how he valued time with his teammates on and off the field. In the latest edition of ESPN The Magazine, Scott Eden references the ping pong matches that he still plays to this day with his teammates and how little games like that fuels his competitive desire.

How will he help his Falcons teammates this week?

"I think you talk to them about trying to get into a normal routine and continue to do the things that we've done all year and trust in the process that our coaching staff rolls out for us," Ryan said. "We understand that there's going to be some extraordinary events like tonight and embrace them and enjoy it, and that's all part of the experience. When it comes time to work and it comes time to get into our meetings and get into the practice routine, just do what we do. I feel like guys have done that so far."

Before Ryan, Doug Flutie was the school's most significant player in program history, bringing the school national acclaim with the "Hail Flutie" against Miami in 1984 and a subsequent Heisman Trophy. Ryan never won the Heisman, finishing seventh to eventual winner Tim Tebow in 2007.

But that '07 year was the year he opened eyes. He brought the Eagles within a whisker of No. 1 in all of the land midway through the college season. After a 27-14 win at Notre Dame, the 7-0 Eagles moved up to No. 2 in the country. They followed that up with an impressive 14-10 road win at No. 10 Virginia Tech, when he engineered a last-minute touchdown drive. They remained No. 2 before the season changed drastically. They lost their next two games and three of their next five, in a re-match with Virginia Tech in the ACC title game. They finished 11-3 and No. 10 in the country, claiming a 24-21 win over Michigan State in the Citrus Bowl.

Here's the thing about Matt Ryan: He has always played in the shadow of greatness.

Whether it was Doug Flutie at Boston College, taking over for Michael Vick in Atlanta, playing in the same division as Drew Brees or now sharing the stage with the most-accomplished and prolific quarterback in Super Bowl history, Ryan has always found a way to shine though.

The obvious storyline this week is also the most telling. Tom Brady making his record seventh Super Bowl start at quarterback and Ryan making his first.

"I've gotten to know Tom over the last seven or eight years," Ryan said of his relationship with Brady. "We met, really for the first time when they came down for training camp, and I got to spend some time with him. Tom has been awesome to get to know. He's incredibly supportive. We exchange text messages back and forth quite a bit. I think all quarterbacks and younger guys have looked up to Tom throughout their career. His consistency, his longevity, just the way he has competed throughout his entire career has been impressive. So, I think all of us have looked up to him."

While Ryan got to know Brady a bit during his time at Boston College, Ryan - a Philadelphia native - never became a Patriots fan.

"Not really. I wasn't really a Patriots fan while I was there," Ryan said. "I kind of grew up in Philadelphia and was an Eagles fan when I was younger. Obviously, while I was there you had to follow them, because they had such great success. They've continued that for such a long time." 

Ryan and Brady have burned up the data in texting each other over recent months and years. It's something that allows Brady to stay in touch with a young quarterback whom he admires a great deal, partly because he can see some of his own physical traits in Ryan's game.

"They stopped a little while ago. I'm happy for him, because everybody has different experiences and pasts," Brady said.

Brady, of course, is referring to the fact that he was a sixth-round pick at No. 199 overall, whose stock inexplicably plummeted in April 2000. Ryan was considered a sure-fire first-round pick - the prototypical NFL quarterback in waiting. Ryan was picked third overall by the Falcons in the 2008 draft.

"In a lot of ways, I feel fortunate to be a late-round pick," Brady said of the different perspectives Brady and Ryan had entering the league. "That first year when I was with our team, I was really under the radar. No one knew anything. I was just trying to work hard to earn a spot. When you're the first pick overall, that's a tough journey, and I have a lot of respect for those guys.

"Peyton (Manning) was another one who did that the hard way like that. You can't do anything wrong, so those guys like Peyton and Matt who have done it at such a great level, and Matt is having an incredible year. Obviously, they're here for a reason. They got great quarterback play, great leadership from him. I'm sure our guys are going to be facing a very stiff test on Sunday."

Indeed, Ryan is having a year so good that he is considered a real favorite in the NFL MVP race, with 38 touchdowns, a career-low seven interceptions, a career-high 4,944 yards passing and NFL-leading numbers in QB rating (117.1) and yards per attempt (9.3).

Those were the numbers the Falcons were hoping for when they drafted him to take over for the disgraced Michael Vick, who left Atlanta after the 2006 season in the wake of his federal dog fighting and abuse crimes. It's a twist of fate that Ryan acknowledges even now.

"Obviously, when I got drafted here, Mike had been here for such a long time, and everybody knows how that ended in Atlanta. For me, early on I just tried to go in and do the job the best I could," Ryan said. "Michael has been incredibly supportive of me as I've gotten to know him, as I've gotten older. That support has meant a lot because he is such an icon for the city of Atlanta. He was such a huge part of the sports fabric in that town, and for him to be supportive and help me out in the way that he has throughout my career has been really, really nice."

Sunday will be fascinating on a number of different levels. But it starts with all eyes on the quarterbacks, something Ryan has grown accustomed to over his career.

"I'm sure everyone will be excited and anxious going into it, but as far as nerves, I feel like we've prepared ourselves for this moment, and we worked really, really hard," Ryan said. "This is exactly where we wanted to be. We've put in the work, we've put in the time and I think we'll all be ready to go and excited."