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First and Goal

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Matt Ryan has always surrounded himself with quarterbacks—and the quest to become one. Much of the exposure he dictated; some of it he couldn’t control. All of it has been beneficial.

Before he was born—and way before completing his own three-year run as the starting quarterback at Boston College—an uncle, John Loughery, was BC’s quarterback from 1979 to 1982. When Ryan started as quarterback for three years at Penn Charter, his head coach, Brian McCloskey, was a former college quarterback. Growing up, Ryan’s older brother, Mike Ryan, was Malvern Prep’s quarterback, and their younger brother, Don, is currently filling that role at Penn Charter.

Now, as April’s NFL draft approaches, Matt is the quarterback everyone is huddling around. A few years removed from summers with family in North Wildwood, N.J., and weekends with friends at the Exton Mall, he’s a projected first-round pick with a franchise tag.

“Playing quarterback was always something I was interested in,” says the 22-year-old Exton native. “For me, it’s been everything. Playing in the NFL was always my dream. At this point, it’s turned into somewhat of a reality, and there’s nothing else I want to be doing.”

When you hear which quarterbacks he studied, you know Ryan is in good company. He first idolized Joe Montana, though he was at the tail end of his career. So Ryan moved on to John Elway, then Brett Favre. At BC, he’s been in the formidable shadow of Tom Brady.

“It’s every little kid’s fantasy to be a Joe Montana or Tom Brady,” Ryan says. “I’ve always watched games the same way everyone watches: I sit on my couch and enjoy them. But at the same time, I’ve always had a critical eye. When I was younger—it sounds corny—but I’d wear a wristband on a certain arm to make myself more like this player or that.”

These days, Ryan knows it’s important to understand his own limitations and capabilities. He has to be himself—and that ought to be more than enough to make some NFL team ecstatic for years to come.

If Ryan was to change as a quarterback or a young man, it would’ve happened this past season, when the national media swarmed around the fifth-year senior’s Heisman Trophy candidacy and his elite draft potential. Or perhaps a new head coach and offensive coordinator could’ve tweaked his style. In years prior, BC offensive coordinator Steve Logan had coached quarterbacks to scramble at East Carolina University. But the 6-foot-4, 225-pound Ryan’s strength has always been standing in the pocket and firing downfield. Head coach Jeff Jagodzinski had spent the previous season as offensive coordinator for the Green Bay Packers. Ryan watched “a ton of tape—and all of it was Brett Favre.”

But even Favre, Sports Illustrated’s Sportsman of the Year, has said he’s no model of fundamental excellence anyone should emulate. “His mechanics are all over the place, but no one wants to win as badly as he does,” Ryan says. “He’s the ultimate throwback, an old-fashioned gunslinger. What we did [at BC] is similar to Green Bay, but Favre’s unmatched in style. So no one was trying to make me Brett Favre. His durability has been unbelievable, but a lot of that has been gutting it out. He keeps going and isn’t concerned with what everyone else says. I say it all the time: He’s a real man; he’s someone to look up to.”

If Ryan can incorporate even small portions of each of his idols, he should have a long, successful NFL career. “I hope I get a chance,” he says. “I’ve done everything I can to be given that chance, but nothing is guaranteed. So I just don’t know.”

Having already graduated with a degree in communications and a concentration in advertising, Ryan moved out of his Boston apartment before Christmas, then spent a few days after the Champs Bowl (a 24-21 win over Michigan State, in which he threw three touchdown passes) in Orlando, Fla., with his parents, Mike and Bernice, at their condo. He played in the Senior Bowl in Mobile, Ala., in January, participated in the NFL Combine in February, and has otherwise spent the winter in Arizona working out and waiting for the draft. “Ultimately, I’ve been training for another season, which I really hope happens,” he says.

Along with his size, experience and powerful, accurate arm, Ryan is tough and gutsy. He knows how to win games, stands tall in the pocket, and has excellent mechanics and good vision. Among his own perceived strengths are his decision-making and ability to distribute the ball. As for weaknesses, he’s worked tirelessly to improve his movement under a rush in the pocket, while maintaining his athleticism. Without question, he’s a self-described “old-style,” throwback-type quarterback.

“In the college game, a lot of offenses have spread out and require a running quarterback,” he says. “I’m not going to break 80-yard touchdown runs, but I think I can get outside and extend a play and throw downfield. In the pro game, athleticism has become more important, but teams still want a quarterback who can sit in the pocket, throw downfield, take hits and distribute the ball—and that’s a role I can fit into.”

Last season, the Boston College Eagles won 11 games for the first time since 1940, but lost 30-16 to Virginia Tech in the Atlantic Coast Conference title game. BC had beaten Tech 14-10 earlier in the season, when Ryan threw two touchdown passes in the final few minutes. Those heroics spurred Heisman conversation and kept BC at its then-No. 2 ranking in the BCS Poll. The Eagles also beat Clemson 20-17 and Notre Dame 27-14. Ryan threw for a personal-best 435 yards in a 24-10 win over Georgia Tech, and for 408 yards and five touchdowns in a season-opening 38-28 win over Wake Forest, where he connected with 10 different receivers.

Later in the season, though, when Florida State’s Geno Hayes returned Ryan’s third interception for a 38-yard touchdown with just over a minute left to play, the Seminoles ended the Eagles’ run at an unbeaten season and shook up the BCS standings.

The University of Florida’s Tim Tebow won the Heisman. Prior to the bowl games, Tebow threw for 2,770 yards and 26 touchdowns, but also ran for 749 yards and 20 touchdowns. Ryan threw for 4,258 yards and 28 touchdowns—both BC records. He had nine 300-yard passing games, including four games with 400-plus yards. Ryan captured honors as ACC Player of the Year and an American Football Coaches Association All-America. He was the 2007 Johnny Unitas Golden Arm Award Winner, an honor bestowed on the nation’s top senior quarterback based on performance, character and citizenship.

True to his personality and upbringing, Ryan doesn’t focus on personal accolades. BC’s Doug Flutie had won the Heisman in 1984, before a long NFL career—and if it had happened to Ryan, “it would have been incredible,” he admits. “But I just wanted to be part of the team—to do my role and give us a chance to win. As a team, we didn’t win enough games.”

In his junior year, Ryan put up gaudy numbers, too, despite a high-ankle sprain in the first game against Central Michigan. When it finally looked like he was getting healthy, he broke his foot in a win against Virginia Tech. He still managed to lead BC—which, so far, has had only one prior first-round quarterback (Don Allard, who joined the Washington Redskins in 1959)—to a 10-win season.

At Penn Charter, Ryan captured All-Southeastern Pennsylvania accolades as a senior, when he threw for 1,300-plus yards, 15 touchdowns and just two interceptions. He gained All-City first-team honors in 2002 and second-team honors in 2001. He was a three-time All-Inter-Ac League selection. A captain in football, basketball and baseball, he also graduated with a 3.25 GPA. In 2004, he was BC’s Freshman Male Scholar-Athlete Award recipient.

Ryan first played football in second grade for the Downingtown Young Whippets. He moved between positions until making a transition to quarterback in seventh grade with the Marsh Creek Eagles. “I’m glad I made the move to quarterback,” he says. “We threw the ball around quite a bit for a young team.”

Ryan’s sophomore year at Penn Charter is memorable less for athletics than a car accident that ended his brother Mike’s quarterbacking career—and almost his own. On a routine trip to play a round at Kimberton Golf Club, the two were blind-sided and pushed into oncoming traffic, where a U.S. Army truck struck their car.

“It was scary—definitely scary,” Ryan remembers. “Mike (who played one year at Widener) ruined his throwing elbow and arm. I was next to him. I had minor scrapes and broke an ankle. It was a significant accident, but we had our seatbelts on. We came out alive, and we’re thankful for that. After the accident, our mom said we were lucky and blessed, and that we’d been given second chances because we’re good people. So you have to believe that.”

Now some NFL city will be thankful, too. As for which city, Ryan’s not picky. “Wherever it may be, I’ll be excited to go,” he says.

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