HOUSTON — It was the kind of hit that would have other quarterbacks questioning why they ever picked up a football in the first place.

Matt Ryan, then a redshirt sophomore at Boston College, took the snap, dropped back, and quickly scanned the field as he rolled to his right. Just as he dumped off a short pass to his running back, Ryan was flattened by 225-pound Clemson linebacker David Dunham, the chest shot hitting him like the butt end of a swinging log. Ryan’s head snapped forward violently, his helmet flew off and his chin bounced off his chest.

Video of the hit instantly went viral and now, a dozen years later, has more than a half-million YouTube views. But it’s what happened after that video clip that captures the essence of who Ryan is as a quarterback, and helps explain how this season he has lifted the struggling Atlanta Falcons – 18-30 the past three seasons – to the NFL mountaintop.

After briefly regaining his composure on the sideline in that 2005 game, Ryan jogged back onto the field and reclaimed command of the huddle.

“He comes back in a play later, his mouth’s all bloody, he looks at us and, I don’t want to swear, but, ‘Let’s … go,’ ” left tackle Jeremy Trueblood recalled of that 16-13 overtime victory at Clemson Memorial Stadium, nicknamed Death Valley. “I’m like: ‘All right. I can deal with this guy.’ He’s one tough S.O.B.”

That toughness was on display for the nation the last two weeks, when Ryan directed the Falcons to playoff victories over Seattle and Green Bay to set the stage for a Super Bowl LI showdown against the New England Patriots. Time after time, with pass rushers bearing down on him, he stepped into throws and made key completions with seemingly no regard for his body. In many cases, the leveled quarterback has to monitor the reaction of the home crowd to know if the play is successful.

mike-lowe in houston“You’re on the ground kind of listening to see what happens,” said Ryan, 31, in his ninth season.

A leading NFL MVP candidate, Ryan finished the regular season with a league-best 117.1 passer rating, and in his last six games has 18 touchdowns and no interceptions. He set club records this season for passing yards (4,944), touchdowns (38), completion rate (69.9 percent), and completions of 25 yards or longer (42).

The Falcons made the playoffs four times in Ryan’s first five seasons, then slipped to 4-12 and 6-10 in the final two seasons under Mike Smith. Last season, Dan Quinn’s first, Atlanta started 5-0 but lost eight of its last 11. The franchise rebounded strong this season, going 11-5, setting a club scoring record with 540 points, and leading the league in scoring with an average of 33.8. The Falcons are loaded with weapons, none more dangerous than Ryan.

All these accomplishments come as little surprise to the people at Boston College, who watched Ryan ascend from a gangly kid out of Penn Charter, a small private school in Philadelphia, to a solid, 6-foot-4, ultra-dedicated college standout who went third overall to Atlanta in the 2008 draft, selected earlier than any other Boston College player in any sport.

What he did for that university rivaled the impact of Heisman Trophy winner Doug Flutie, who captured the national spotlight a quarter-century earlier. Ryan was 3-0 in bowl games, 3-0 in overtime games, beat four top 20 teams on the road – Georgia Tech, Notre Dame, Virginia Tech and Clemson – and as a senior won both the Manning and Unitas awards as the nation’s top college quarterback.

“People always say the Doug Flutie era sparked everything,” said Barry Gallup, a longtime fixture on the Boston College coaching staff, and now associate athletics director. “Our applications went up about 33 percent, just going from a regional school to a national school. It’s the same thing with Matt now.”

At the Yawkey Athletics Center on campus, there’s an entire display case dedicated to Flutie, including his jersey, Sports Illustrated cover and Wheaties box. There is a corresponding case that honors Ryan and Carolina Panthers linebacker Luke Kuechly, the 2013 Defensive Player of the Year. Their college jerseys were retired at a joint ceremony in November, with Matt’s uncle, former Boston College quarterback John Loughery, unveiling his nephew’s jersey.

It seems everyone at the school has a Ryan story that illustrates his toughness, competitiveness and dedication.

During the 2006 season, Ryan suffered a broken bone in his left foot. Longtime trainer Steve Bushee informed him he had two choices for treatment: a cast, or surgery to insert a screw that would hold the bones together.

“He looks at me and goes, ‘No, we’re not doing either of those. I’m playing,’ ” Bushee said. “He said, ‘It’s already broken, so I’m not going to break it worse, right? So if I can deal with this, I can play?’ And the doctor, Diane English, and I looked at each other and said, ‘Well, we haven’t really ever had anyone ask us that before, but you know what, we’ll make it happen.’ ”

So Ryan spent the rest of the fall practicing in a walking boot, and playing on Saturdays with an orthotic brace cradling his foot. He didn’t flinch, leading the Eagles to a 10-3 record and a victory over Navy in the Meineke Car Care Bowl. It was only after the season that the information was publicly disclosed.


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