CHESTNUT HILL, Mass. — One of many roundabout stories that connect Matt Ryan to Boston and Tom Brady begins in 2004, when Steve Logan became the head coach of the Berlin Thunder. His quarterback there was Rohan Davey, who had spent the previous two seasons in New England, serving mostly as Brady’s backup.
Before Logan embarked for NFL Europe, Patriots coach Bill Belichick invited him to practice. Logan spent three days with the staff, learning Brady’s preferred option route concepts, so Davey could work on them. Logan then installed them in his offense, won a World Bowl with Davey and four seasons later brought those same concepts back to the U.S., where at Boston College he tutored another quarterback who became a star but wasn’t supposed to be one. The youngster’s name was Matt Ryan, and Logan constantly reminded him where some of his favorite pass plays came from—the budding NFL power to the south in Foxborough.
The option routes were fairly simple, says Rich Gunnell, one of Ryan’s favorite targets in that 2007 season (and the current BC wide receivers coach). He would run slant routes from the slot, for instance, over and over, until the defense would bracket him inside with a second defender, at which point he would option toward the sideline into the flat. Slant ’til you can’t, the coaches told him. They had all sorts of rules like that—stuff that came directly from New England. Another was, When in doubt, run the out. “I see those exact plays when I watch the Patriots,” Gunnell says. “[Julian] Edelman and [Danny] Amendola, those are the routes they run.”
Ryan loved those option passes, and he spent many mornings in Logan’s office, going over them. Where in four previous seasons, Ryan had redshirted, served as a backup, taken over midseason as the starter and played his way into becoming an NFL draft prospect, in his senior year, he threw on what seemed like every down. Logan unleashed him. The other coaches used to jokingly ask if he ever planned to run the ball. “Probably not,” he always responded. Every run felt like a wasted play.
Even now, nine seasons later, with Ryan starring for the Falcons and Brady, somehow, still shining for the Patriots at 39, Logan thinks back to that season. That’s the year everything changed for Ryan, with an assist from New England, his opponent in Super Bowl LI. “I knew right away, when he could handle all the Patriots stuff,” Logan says.
“You don’t coach Matt Ryan. You get to coach him.”
On Boston College’s painting of a campus, inside the Yawkey Athletic Center, pictures of Ryan line the walls. It’s the most pro-Falcons space in the greater New England area, at least with the game about 10 days out. Snapshots of Ryan in bowl wins and comeback victories. Wall-length portraits of him about to throw, his arm cocked, or of him throwing, or of him throwing on the run. Half a trophy case is dedicated to his accomplishments. Barry Gallup pauses there, the memories coming back, and says, “Matt is like a son to me.”
Gallup is in his 43rd year on the BC campus, where he went to school and played wide receiver and served as a longtime coach and administrator before and after the nine seasons he spent in charge of Northeastern’s football program. Many who roam those halls call him Mr. BC, and Mr. BC is aware of all the Boston-centric Super Bowl connections. Gallup himself was drafted by the Patriots, and Belichick this season called him a “tremendous fixture in college football in this area.” Statements like that rank among Belichick’s highest praise.
“You can’t write a better story,” Gallup says. “Matt against Tom Brady and the Patriots against the Falcons. The Boston kid playing against the Boston quarterback.”
Ryan is from suburban Philadelphia, but he did play his college ball here near Boston, where the Patriots won back-to-back Super Bowls in the 2003 and ’04 seasons. The quarterback and his four roommates attended the second victory parade in bitter cold after a winter workout. He also met his wife, Sarah Marshall, while in school, and her family was filled with true Patriots of the football variety. Her parents had season tickets. Every Sunday, they went to church, ate at the same sandwich shop and then screamed for the Pats to win.
Only 27 miles separate New England’s headquarters and the BC campus, where Ryan and his teammates watched Brady’s career launch into greatest-of-all-time orbit. Gallup says Patriots mania was so pervasive that many of the players’ fellow students abandoned the Jets and Giants to become Patriots fans. There were so many connections. Even the father of Eagles coach Tom O’Brien knew Belichick’s dad from the Naval Academy. O’Brien used to attend Patriots practices. He introduced Ryan and Belichick at a regatta. They shook hands, just as they will on Super Bowl Sunday.
As if to underscore all these various connections, Ryan calls for a scheduled interview while Gallup is deep into another story about … him. Gallup answers. “I was just telling him about that Wake Forest interception,” he says, in that pronounced Boston accent.
“I’d recognize that voice anywhere in the world,” Ryan says, laughing.
He ends the call with, “Love you, Barry.”
Ryan had four college options: Iowa, Purdue, Georgia Tech and Boston College. Even BC took some convincing. Ryan’s uncle, John Loughery, had played quarterback for the Eagles, leading them to an upset victory over John Elway and Stanford in 1980. Loughery got hurt his senior year and his pint-sized replacement took the job from him. His name? Doug Flutie. Gallup likes to joke that Loughery is the Wally Pipp of BC football.
Anyway, Loughery recommended his nephew to O’Brien and his offensive coaches, noting his height (he’s 6' 5" now) and classic dropback style, but not his weight. Ryan weighed, by his own generous estimate, 185 pounds when he came to an Eagles football camp. “Like he had never touched a weight in his life,” Gallup says.
Still, O’Brien and his quarterback guru, Dana Bible, only needed to see Ryan throw once to marvel at his arm. Like literally one session. Or literally one throw. “It jumped out of his hand with this perfect spin,” Bible says. “It looked the part. It sounded the part. Just everything about it. I knew from that first pass he was not normal.” Bible was so awed he asked Ryan who taught him how to throw.
He came to realize that much of Ryan’s success owed to natural ability. He picked up and implemented concepts “as quickly as anyone I’ve been around,” Bible says. In his redshirt freshman season Ryan relieved the starting quarterback for the first series of every second quarter, an O’Brien specialty fans hated. Ryan was also spending hours in the weight room. One of his linemen, Jeremy Trueblood, always noticed the beanpole quarterback doing cleans and jerks and squats, the kind of lifts the linemen specialized in.
Compared to his roommates, the quarterback was clean and orderly at home, says one of them, former lineman Ryan Poles (who now works in the Chiefs front office). For years now, Poles has listened as the world described Ryan as poised, calm and efficient—the preferred quarterback of accountants everywhere. And that’s all true, to a point. “Every game, he’d come back home and throw up,” Poles says. “It was like all the stress was coming out of him.”
In his sophomore season, a Clemson defender hit Ryan so hard he knocked the quarterback’s helmet off (feel free to YouTube it, but not before dinner). That was his second start, but Ryan missed only one play. Trueblood remembers him coming back to the huddle looking like a vampire, his mouth filled with so much blood his teeth were red.
That was Ryan: tougher than he looked, better than anybody knew back then. He started five games as a sophomore, ending Boise State’s 31-game home win streak in the MPC Computers Bowl. Still, ESPN ran a segment the next season that highlighted how few Bostonians knew who Ryan was, and after his junior year (2,942 passing yards, 15 touchdowns), he inquired about his draft stock and was told he was likely a third- or fourth-round pick.
In 2007, BC launched a Heisman campaign built around Ryan’s nickname, Matty Ice. The school created a website, naturally, www.MattyIce.com and made a video of their QB obliterating a sheet of ice with a spiral. Logan also took over the Eagles’ offense, upping Ryan’s attempts by more than 200 (from 427 to 654), allowing him the freedom to change any play at the line of scrimmage. Ryan changed a run to a pass on the first play in the opener against Wake Forest—and threw an interception, as Gallup duly noted to him on the phone. (He finished that game with five touchdown passes.)
The Eagles would beat four top 20 teams that year away from home. They won their first seven, climbing to second in the national rankings, as they traveled south to play Virginia Tech. They trailed 10–0 with 4:11 remaining, and Ryan brought them back, first with a 92-yard scoring drive and then with a perfect 24-yard rainbow touchdown pass in cold and rain with 11 seconds left. That time TV cameras captured him puking on the sideline, just before the final throw. (Victory vomit, they called it.) Gallup estimates that about 1,000 students greeted the team when it returned to campus, and Ryan stayed for so long they “had to drag him away” from the crowd. It was close to 6 a.m.
Boston College finished 11–3 that season, its best football mark since 1940. Ryan won ACC Player of the Year honors and garnered multiple awards as the nation’s top quarterback. He capped that season with a victory over Michigan State in the Champs Sports Bowl in late December. The next night, Dec. 29, 2007, the Patriots capped an undefeated regular season by defeating the Giants.
The Falcons took Ryan with the No. 3 pick in the draft the next spring, the highest any BC athlete had ever been selected in any sport. Logan believes he knew why. “Accuracy and anticipation overcome big arms,” he says. “You can’t coach either of those things, by the way. Anybody who tells you they can is lying.”
Here’s where it gets crazy, Logan says, all the connections. Brady grew up in the Bay Area, idolizing 49ers legend Joe Montana, a quarterback among the more accurate and anticipatory in NFL history. Brady himself is often described that way, and Ryan studied him for five years at BC. “Visually, for me, I can draw a straight line from Joe Montana to Tom Brady to Matt Ryan,” Logan says. “I’m standing there on the practice field saying if Tom Brady is Joe Montana all over again then Matt Ryan is Tom Brady all over again. And here we are.”
Ryan left BC after that magical senior season, but BC never left him. Trueblood even played for the Falcons in 2013, and Ryan helped him learn the playbook by relating specific plays to what they ran in college. He remembered all the terminology for both offenses.
When Ryan scuffled through a down stretch last season, O’Brien sent him text messages of encouragement. Stuff like keep grinding. When Boston College retired his jersey in November, Flutie sent him a congratulatory message. (Ryan left shortly after the ceremony to fly back to Atlanta … for a voluntary player’s only practice … on his bye week.) When he decimated the Packers in the NFC Championship Game in late January, several of his Eagles coaches were in attendance, and in the group text message thread he has with his college roommates he offered them all tickets to the Super Bowl. (Two of the four are going.)
As the game approaches, Gunnell makes fun of Ryan’s “perfect tan.” Logan worries about the Falcons’ young defense. “That’s what my fear for Matt was, and I still fear it,” he says. “I never thought the Falcons were going to put a defense together that was going to support him relative to achieving a Super Bowl. I’ve been more right than wrong on that.”
On campus, they feel slightly conflicted, even as they all say they’ll root for Ryan regardless of regional alliances. “To BC people, he’s more of a hero than Tom Brady,” Gallup says. “I gotta be careful cause I’m friends with Bill Belichick.”
“I’m rooting for Matt Ryan,” he says. “I’m not rooting against the Patriots.”