Worth the wait

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He's the quarterback and key leader of the SEC champions and the life of the party off the field. Matt Flynn is comfortable in the spotlight, but there is one thing that can turn him a shade of red -- the fact that he is the spitting image of actor Matt Damon.

"He's not shy at all, but for some reason that embarrasses him," says good friend and LSU running back Jacob Hester.

In Sept. 2007, The Advocate of Baton Rouge conducted a poll asking readers what they thought of the comparison, and the overwhelming response (85.2 percent) was the two Matts do look similar. Of course, in Louisiana the feeling is Matt Damon looks a lot like Matt Flynn.

Flynn knows being linked with People magazine's Sexiest Man Alive "is not a bad comparison," but he has earned his brief time not because of what he looks like, but how he's produced when finally given the chance. After three years of backing up Marcus Randall and eventual No. 1 NFL draft pick JaMarcus Russell, Flynn came into '07 as the starting signal-caller for the Tigers. Before the season, many LSU followers considered highly touted sophomore Ryan Perrilloux as a serious challenger for the job, but Flynn's solid spring performance eliminated any doubts. The Tigers go after their second national title in five years with Flynn at the helm.

Two years earlier, Flynn showed he could handle the responsibility of leading the team when he earned offensive MVP honors in the Peach Bowl at the end of the '05 season. Stepping in for an injured Russell, Flynn directed the Tigers to a 40-3 rout of Miami, throwing for 196 yards and two touchdowns while running for another 39 yards. It was the kind of game he knew he was capable of, but he returned to the bench behind Russell for the 2006 season.

"Obviously, JaMarcus was as gifted, or more talented, in terms of arm strength as anybody else in the world," Flynn said. "He could do things that nobody else could do. It was tough to not be playing, but I never doubted my decision. I knew if I kept working, good things were going to happen."

Things started to fall into place for Flynn when Russell decided to skip his senior year and enter the NFL Draft. Flynn was one of the first to learn of he decision, and he entered the season knowing he would be doing a lot more than holding on extra points and field goals. Flynn's presence made for a smooth quarterback transition at LSU, which entered the season with national-title aspirations despite losing Russell and three other first-round draft picks.

"Luckily, we had a quarterback that had been here for so long. Even though he hadn't been a starter, he had played in some games and had the leadership skills," Hester said. "Anytime there is a new quarterback, it is a tough situation that takes a couple of games, but with Matt, his experience really helped him."

Becoming a team leader was natural for Flynn, who Hester said is "hilarious, but as soon as he steps on the field, he's a different Matt." Flynn likes to quote all things Will Ferrell, with Anchorman being his movie of choice. The team has frequent get-togethers at the house Flynn and backup center Ryan Miller share not far from Tiger Stadium.

Despite the roadblock at quarterback early in his Tigers' career, Flynn never questioned his decision to attend LSU. The Tyler, Texas, native fell in love with the SEC during his junior year in high school when he and teammate Grant Dickey, who had committed to Alabama, attended an Alabama-Tennessee game in Tuscaloosa. Flynn had been brought up on Southwest Conference and Big 12 football; his father, Alvin, played quarterback at Baylor from 1967 through '69. But there was something about the SEC that took a hold of him.

"The atmosphere and everything about it was amazing," Flynn said. "There is something about the tradition of the SEC. It stuck out to me and really made me want to play in the SEC. [Football] is a way of life around here."

There wasn't a lot of time for Flynn to ease into his starting role with No. 9 Virginia Tech visiting Baton Rouge on Sept. 8, but he seized the opportunity, directing the offense to 598 total yards in a 48-7 shellacking of a unit that would end the regular season as the No. 2 scoring defense in the country. Flynn completed 17-of-27 passes for 217 yards and ran for a touchdown. LSU appeared ready to roll to the national-title game, but that victory turned out to be the only decisive win over a quality opponent the rest of the way.

No. 9 Florida visited a month later, and the Tigers rallied from 10 points down in the fourth quarter to win 28-24. The following week, LSU lost to Kentucky in triple overtime. The week after that, Flynn threw a touchdown pass with one second left as the Tigers nipped Auburn 30-24. Two weeks later, LSU erased a 10-point Alabama lead in the third quarter and scored the winning points in the final two minutes of a 41-34 battle. And then on Thanksgiving weekend against Arkansas, another triple-overtime thriller ended in heartbreak. Playing most of the game with a separated throwing shoulder, Flynn misfired, throwing an interception on the final two-point conversion attempt. Arkansas 50, LSU 48.

"Matt played one of the greatest games in our program's history [against Arkansas]," Hester says. "Coming out of the locker room after getting shots in his shoulder, he kept throwing for touchdowns and yards. That was one of the gutsiest performances I've seen in a long time."

In the stands, Flynn's parents could only watch as their son sat on the Tiger Stadium field while the Razorbacks celebrated. Alvin and Ruth Flynn attended all but one LSU game in five years, and they could not believe the ups and downs of this final fall, the season they had been waiting for.

"It was an exhilarating year, but also the most emotionally taxing," Alvin says. "I told Matt he could help us not have so many coronaries up there."

After the Arkansas loss there was nothing Flynn could do but wait. His shoulder would not heal in time for the SEC championship game, so he reverted to his pre-2007 self and became an observer on game day as LSU, behind Perrilloux, edged Tennessee 21-14 in Atlanta.

That night there was more waiting, not just for Flynn, but for the rest of the Tigers as well. On the team's charter flight back to Baton Rouge, the pilot began reporting scores from other significant games. First No. 2 West Virginia lost. Then No. 1 Missouri lost. The waiting continued until the next night's announcement of who would be in the BCS championship game. But waiting is something Flynn has mastered. He waited four years, including a redshirt season, to get the starting job at LSU. What was one more day?

On the day of the announcement, Flynn sat with Hester in the team meeting room to await the news. Rumors were flying, and both players had heard different things. When the official word finally came, there was relief, joy and anticipation. The shot to compete for the national title magically reappeared.

"As a guy who backed up a quality quarterback and really lent his qualities as a person to this team, there is no more deserving guy [to play for the BCS championship] than Matt Flynn," LSU coach Les Miles said.

Flynn had one chance to shine at LSU, and he made the most of it. Despite injuring his ankle early in the season and his shoulder late, he has guided LSU to a place even the wonderfully talented Russell couldn't reach.

"I think I've gotten more out of this season than I expected originally," Flynn said. "With all the games coming down to the wire, and having to make big plays, it's been crazy. I definitely got everything out of this season I could have, and then some."

Hester had a front-row seat for Flynn's season in the spotlight, and he came out of it with even more respect for his friend than when he started. "It was a tough situation he was already coming into, and then to play with an injury early in the season and lead us to the championship speaks to the character of Matt," Hester said. "I give him all the credit in the world for handling it the way he did."

The final chapter still needs to be written, but the Hollywood script would have it end on the Superdome turf with LSU celebrating a national championship. And if this story ever made the big screen, we all know who would be cast as the LSU quarterback.