At Philly’s venerable Penn Charter, they remember Matt Ryan as a low-key, egalitarian leader for whom a team win, not stats or stature, was the priority. The Falcons QB has carried that ethos all the way to Super Bowl 51

By Jenny Vrentas
January 24, 2017
The MMQB is back on the road for the Super Bowl. Jenny Vrentas, Tim Rohan, Kalyn Kahler and our video team are driving to Houston for Super Bowl 51, along the way doing stories, videos and social content on the Patriots and Falcons and the biggest sporting event in America.
 

PHILADELPHIA — One sweltering Friday last July, the football team for William Penn Charter School pushed its morning workout back to the afternoon. Some alums might be stopping by, the high school players were told. At a school that’s been around since 1689, that isn’t anything out of the ordinary.

The 47-acre campus of the private pre-K–12 school in Northwest Philadelphia has many amenities, shade for the football field isn’t among them. For the Northeast kids, running routes in 90-plus degree temps under a blazing afternoon sun would be one of the most grueling sessions of the summer. Until they found out whose passes they’d be catching.

“Alums” weren’t stopping by. Just one alum. Matt Ryan, Class of 2003, was fresh off a flight from Atlanta and had casually asked one of his old coaches if there was a football practice going on.

The high-schoolers all queued up to have a catch, from the senior receiver who was nervous about how hard Ryan would sling it at him to the two freshman offensive linemen who mustered up the courage to give it a try. One of those two freshmen lined up at receiver; the other at cornerback. They rumbled down the field, and the receiver wriggled free on a double move. He laid his body all the way out to catch the pass Ryan lobbed his way because, well, how often do you get to make a catch from an NFL quarterback?

On Monday, those stories of Ryan’s summer visit to his alma mater required a significant annotation: How often do you get to make a catch from a Super Bowl-bound NFL quarterback?

Ryan prefers to conduct himself exactly the way he showed up at Penn Charter that day in July—low-key and under the radar. This is the kid whose message to his dad in his senior yearbook read: “Pop: thank you for your support and advice. I’ll always remember to play with a bat, ball and a glove: not my mouth.” Of course, good luck staying under the radar the day after the homegrown son led his Falcons to Super Bowl 51. Two local news channels sent broadcast trucks out, one at noon and one at 3:30 p.m.; a fifth-grade class spontaneously erupted in “MVP! MVP! MVP!” chants; and the stories of Ryan’s summer visit had begun to grow into Super Bowl legend.

“Me and him just had that connection,” Denarii Beard, a senior receiver at Penn Charter, playfully boasted during his lunch period Monday afternoon. “I was getting him ready for this game, right now. A young Julio, as they call me.”

* * *

Turn into Penn Charter, behind the white fence and past the historic landmark sign, and the sprawling campus feels more like a small college. There are buildings for the Upper, Middle and Lower schools; a performing arts center; and four different facilities for their sports teams. A friendly security guard jokingly offers to barter a parking spot near the main entrance to the Upper School for a pair of Super Bowl tickets. (On second thought, maybe he wasn’t joking.)

Inside, three weeks after the hometown Iggles played their last game, it’s a Victory Monday. Brian McCloskey, a math teacher who was head football coach when Ryan played here, has worn a Falcons red polo under his black pullover. One student in the 8:10 a.m. Bioethics class has tested no-logo Upper School dress code with a Falcons tee. In a second-floor classroom in the Lower School, the fifth-graders are trying to one up each other as to who is the biggest Ryan fan.

Do you know what number he wears?

Two.

What college did he go to?

(Pause).

You don’t even know that he went to Boston College?!

Matt Ryan is one of 10 members of his extended family to attend Penn Charter. At least, his cousin, Mary Jane McGlinchey, a senior here, thinks the number is 10. She counts out loud (Uncle John … cousin Pat … my brother Mike) the nine other male relatives who enrolled here in part because of the sports programs. The first was John Loughery, Class of ’78, her uncle and Matt’s, who also went on to play quarterback at Boston College. Loughery taught Ryan how to throw, same as he did the current Penn Charter quarterback, Michael Hnatkowsky.

Penn Charter is the oldest Quaker school in the world, established by members of the Religious Society of Friends at the behest of, yes, William Penn, founder of Pennsylvania. Out in front is an elm tree that’s five generations removed from the one on the banks of the Delaware River under which Penn is said to have forged a treaty of peace with the Lenape Native American tribe in the 1680s. The school moved to its current location in the 1920s, and the original wood-block floors still line the hallways of the Upper School.

The Penn Charter motto is pulled from the writings of William Penn: “Good instruction is better than riches.” Ryan was a captain of the basketball and football teams, and pitched on the baseball team; he also took classes such as computer science and oceanography. And every Thursday from 11:05 to 11:45 a.m., Ryan and all of his classmates joined in the Meeting Room for a Quaker practice called Meeting for Worship. It’s a period of silent meditation during which members of the community can also stand up and share something that’s on their minds.

The Ryans lived in Exton, Pa., about an hour’s drive from Penn Charter. To make it work, Ryan carpooled to school with the daughters of one of the chaperones of his youth football team, Jack Rogers, who lived out in his direction. Ryan would arrive at the Rogers house always with enough time to spare for a breakfast sandwich with Jack (Ryan’s favorite was pork roll, a processed meat that’s a Philly delicacy, with egg and cheese). On his way home in the afternoons, he’d come inside and visit Jack’s mother-in-law, who was bedridden with COPD and congestive heart failure.

“She followed his career until she died in 2011,” says Rogers, who now works in development for the school as the chief advancement officer. “Had a Falcons jersey and everything.”

* * *

Before Ryan came to Penn Charter, he played for the Little Quakers, an all-star team supported by the school. Ryan stood out as an eighth-grade quarterback, the first quarterback coach Ed Foley had at that age who could read the defense and audible into a play that was actually better than the one they had called.

That wasn’t the only reason he stood out. The Little Quakers were a traveling team, and their big trip that season was to a game in Sarasota, Fla. In that game, they had fourth down and two feet to the end zone with less than a minute to go and and needing a touchdown to win. The play called for Ryan to hand off to the fullback, who would bull his way into the end zone.

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“Well, the fullback went so hard to score, he never gave Matt a target to put the ball on,” Foley recalls. “The ball got on the fullback’s hip, he fumbled it, and the other team ran it back 99 yards. Matt took responsibility for it, even though when you watch the film later, you see he had no chance to get the ball in there.”

Egalitarianism is a key tenet of Quaker thought, and also of Penn Charter, which gives out $9 million yearly in need-based financial aid. The Ryans are devoutly Catholic—a family friend says his mom, Bernie, attends daily Mass—but Matt’s four years at Penn Charter were also influenced by Quaker principles. And there’s always been something very egalitarian about the way Ryan plays quarterback. Heck, he was a triple-option quarterback at Penn Charter, who passed for a little more than 3,000 yards in his high school career.

“Fire the coach,” jokes McCloskey. “But hey, we won a championship. So it’s all good. We kid about that now.”

The team runs a multiple spread offense today, but that wasn’t en vogue back then. So Ryan was back there reading the defense to decide whether to give to the fullback, keep or pitch to the tailback. McCloskey found some vindication in Ryan’s first touchdown in Sunday’s 44-21 NFC Championship Game win against the Packers, that little flip to Mohamed Sanu in the end zone.

“That one he flicks backhand, that’s that option pitch,” McCloskey points out. “I’ll have to tell him that—it paid off. Thumb down, pinkie up. Taught him that technique many years ago.”

Ryan picked Boston College because he’d get to run a pro-style offense there. But just as big a reason he ended up in Atlanta? That egalitarianism. In 2008, Peter King wrote about how the Falcons contingent grilled Ryan at dinner after a workout in Chestnut Hill, Mass. There had been a lot of dropped passes for BC that season, and GM Thomas Dimitroff asked Ryan if he thought he’d have had a better season if he’d had better receivers. Ryan replied by saying he wouldn’t want to play with anyone else. He passed the most important test. A few weeks later the Falcons used the No. 3 overall pick to make Ryan the new face of their franchise.

Sharon Sexton, the school’s communications director, found a quote from Ryan when he was a senior at Penn Charter looking back at his career: "It’s nice to put up big numbers," he said then, "… but it’s more important to win. I love to win."

This year, with 4,944 passing yards and 38 touchdowns, and a Super Bowl bid, he’s done both.

* * *

Down a narrow staircase, and past a bulletin board with clippings of a Sunday Philadelphia Inquirer spread on Ryan, the Penn Charter eighth-graders are buzzing about their school’s best-known alum during the early lunch period in the cafeteria.

He’s a savage.

Hes a beast.

Destroyed it.

Kaylee Dyer, 13, thinks the students should have off the morning after the Super Bowl, if the Falcons win. Her mom works at the school, so Kaylee plans to see this idea through.

“I thought, what if I have the same locker as him?” Kaylee continues, while opening a box of sushi. “That’d be pretty cool. Probably not, but…”

Ryan’s ties are greater than that just that visit in July. Once a year, he hosts the Little Quakers team in Atlanta, helping them with travel and hosting them at a Falcons game on Sunday after they play their own game in the area. And he uses his Nike contract to help the Little Quakers buy personalized jerseys for each player. According to Rogers, Ryan has made it possible for 20 area athletes who could not otherwise afford Penn Charter to be able to attend the school. He’s also one of the faces congratulating accepted students in the school’s admissions video.

Oh, and Ryan’s Falcons bobblehead is front and center in a gymnasium display case. As that gymnasium filled up for an afternoon physical education class, the teacher called out to a group of visitors: “We’re worried about the next Matt Ryan!”

Story idea or suggested stop for our Super Bowl 51 road trip? Email us at talkback@themmqb.com.

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