Matt Ryan would have been justified in running a down-and-out-of-the-country. Everyone would have understood if the Atlanta Falcons quarterback had jetted to some secluded island where nobody has heard of Tom Brady and Bill Belichick; some place where he wouldn’t be reminded ad nauseam that his team had just suffered a cataclysmic collapse in the Super Bowl, frittering away a 25-point lead while losing to the New England Patriots.
Instead, a scant 48 hours after that Feb. 5 debacle, Ryan felt compelled to perform an autopsy on himself and his teammates. The National Football League’s Most Valuable Player plopped in front of a large-screen television and relived the agony.
Sounds masochistic doesn’t it?
Ryan said there was a method to his madness. The grieving quarterback believed that by backpedaling he could move forward. He needed to work through the heartbreak, then become analytical. Heeding the advice of philosopher George Santayana, Ryan wanted to learn from history so he wouldn’t repeat it. And he decided he needed to do so right away. Not once, not twice, but three times in the past two months he has re-watched the collapse.
“The first time through the tape was quite emotional,’’ said Ryan, this year’s winner of the Rochester Press-Radio Club’s Coca-Cola Sports Personality of the Year Award. “The scar is still fresh and the wound is going to get reopened. You hurt a lot because you immediately see things you could have done differently that would have changed the outcome. But after you get through the emotional part, you are able to be a detached observer. You make notes of what went right and what went wrong, and it helps you move forward.’’
His approach is in stark contrast to way most athletes and coaches handle calamitous, often career-defining defeats. I remember sitting in Jim Boeheim’s office several months after his Syracuse University basketball team suffered a last-second loss to Indiana in the 1987 NCAA championship game. I asked the Orange coach if he had watched a replay of the game. He told me emphatically he hadn’t, nor would he ever. I received similar responses from members of the Buffalo Bills following their four consecutive Super Bowl losses in the early 1990s.
Ryan opted to confront his sports grief head-on and immediately.
“Again, I wasn’t doing it to punish myself,’’ he said. “I realize I can’t change what went on in that game. But I can change the outcome the next time we’re in that situation.”
And he’s preparing as if the “next time” will occur this season. Last week, he and about 40 of his teammates gathered for some informal, player-organized workouts and cookouts in Miami. It was the first time most of the Falcons had been together since the Super Bowl, and Ryan was pleased with his team’s mental state.
“We’ll always carry a scar, but I think the guys have the same attitude that I have,’’ he said. “Everybody seems hungrier than ever because they realize how close we came. I like that, and I like this team. We’ve got a young team with a lot of play-makers. If we work hard and use that defeat as motivation, we can finish the job.”
Ryan, who turns 32 on May 17, is coming off one of the best statistical seasons by a quarterback in NFL history. The nine-year veteran threw a career-high 38 touchdown passes and a career-low seven interceptions, completed 69.9 percent of his passes for a franchise-record 4,944 yards and an astonishing 117.1 passer rating.
Ryan gives new meaning to the term “old school,’’ having graduated from Philadelphia’s William Penn Charter High School, which was founded by its famous Quaker namesake in 1689. Think about that. His high school opened its doors 328 years ago, 87 years before we declared our independence from Great Britain.
Ryan was a three sport-star at Penn Charter, serving as captain of the football, basketball and baseball teams. Early on, he showed a proclivity for remaining cool under pressure, prompting teammates to call him “Matty Ice,” a nickname that has stuck. Despite his successes at Penn Charter, at Boston College where he broke most of Doug Flutie’s passing records, and in the NFL where he’s earned four Pro Bowl invitations, Ryan has always come across as humble and low-key. His grandfather, a survivor of the attack on Pearl Harbor, and his father taught him to let his actions speak for him.
“They always preached that it’s about a bat, a ball and a glove; not my mouth,” he said. “It was great advice.”
The Falcons made Ryan the third pick overall in the 2008 draft, and he hasn’t disappointed, guiding them to an 85-57 record, while smashing all of the franchise’s major passing records. He’s also been a model citizen off the field, immersing himself in several charitable causes in the Atlanta area, including a program that encourages young people to read. Each year, without fanfare, Ryan provides free tuition for 20 students to attend his high school alma mater.
His sportsmanship was on full display following the painful Super Bowl loss, when he battled through the on-field media scrum to congratulate Brady. No one would have given it a second thought had Ryan instead made a bee-line to the locker room.
“I didn’t see it as a big deal that I went up to Tom right away,’’ he said. “I saw it as something you’re supposed to do after a game—kind of an unwritten code between quarterbacks. It was a tough, tough loss, but things don’t always go your way on the field or in life. Regardless of the outcome, you still need to do the right thing.’’
Just another case in which Ryan let his actions speak for him.
Best-selling author and nationally honored journalist Scott Pitoniak is the Rochester Business Journal sports columnist.