Matt Ryan was always team-first, Penn Charter mates say

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Falcon's quarterback Matt Ryan, seen here as a 17-year-old Penn Charter High School student in his backyard throwing passed to his dad.

Matt Ryan was the best high school quarterback in Philadelphia in 2002. A scholarship waited at Boston College, and his size and ability would later make him one of the NFL's elite quarterbacks.

But with the Inter-Ac football championship on the line in the final game of the 2002 season, Penn Charter's coaches asked Ryan to hand the ball off.

Ryan was the compliant leader of a triple-option offense, which meant he attempted only 11 passes and totaled only 34 passing yards in a win over Germantown Academy to finish his high school career. He threw for 1,048 yards as a senior. What mattered to Ryan and his teammates was that they won eight of nine games.

That will not be the offense he uses Sunday, when Ryan will be one game away from a Super Bowl appearance with the Atlanta Falcons and is the front-runner to win the NFL MVP award after throwing for 4,944 yards and 38 touchdowns this season.

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"The reason Matt didn't put up those numbers in high school was he was a system guy, and at Penn Charter, we ran the option," said teammate Tony McDevitt, who rushed for 328 yards that day. "It shows Matt's unselfishness. People always say football is the ultimate team game. And Matt was the ultimate teammate. Because he had all this talent . . . yet the system called for us to be more of a running team."

On Sunday, he'll be "Matty Ice" - Atlanta's franchise quarterback whose calm demeanor and prolific production put him in the conversation with fellow championship-weekend quarterbacks Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady, and Ben Roethlisberger.

When Ryan, 31, received the nickname from teammates in high school, he wasn't seen as a future NFL star who would be on national television every weekend. He was their classmate who'd go to Dalessandro's and Chubby's for cheesesteaks at lunch, who would grab a burger at the Henry James Saloon before Friday night basketball games, who spent Sundays cheering for the Eagles and summers in Wildwood.

"Every time I watch him play, it's funny, I still see him as a high school teammate," Zack Zeglinski said. "You come to the realization that, 'Wow, look how far [he's come].' One thing is it reminds me how old we've all gotten. But he's out there still playing. He's doing something we all loved doing in high school. It's kind of surreal watching him be the MVP."

An early clue

Brian McCloskey first spotted Ryan when he was an eight grader trying out for the Little Quakers football team. Ryan, who is from Exton in Chester County, was raised in Philadelphia-area football. He also played for the Downingtown Young Whippets and the Marsh Creek Eagles.

"We knew fairly quickly that he was a kid who was special," said McCloskey, who was Ryan's coach at Penn Charter. "I'm not saying we could predict where he'd be today. But certainly he had those intangible-type of qualities that you look for when you're looking at a young player. He had the size . . . but, most importantly, the intellect and aptitude."

Ryan's teammates saw him undergo a growth spurt between his freshman and sophomore years at Penn Charter, nearing the 6-foot-5 that he stands today. But he was far from his current listed weight of 217 pounds. Ryan was about 50 pounds lighter when he was in high school, so he needed to grow into his body and develop the athleticism.

Penn Charter's triple-option offense predated McCloskey's tenure. Spread offenses were not yet in vogue. Not even Ryan's prodigious talent could sway the Quakers' game plans - although McCloskey is self-deprecating years later about how the head coach wasn't smart enough to unleash Ryan's right arm.

"That was what I wanted to do as an offense," McCloskey said of the option. "In retrospect, looking back at it now, we did win a championship. Matt had a pretty good record. Matt probably could have statistically greater numbers had we done some different things on offense."

Ryan wasn't just accepting of this strategy - he was also the impetus on many occasions. He had the liberty to change plays at the line of scrimmage. The coaches would call for a passing play, but they'd see Ryan adjust. McCloskey wondered what he was doing, only to see a running play work.

"Matt would audible out of passes into runs, which is . . . rare at the high school level - especially when you're a guy being recruited by Division I schools," McDevitt said.

When he threw the ball, there was the chance for something special to occur. Penn Charter's only loss of Ryan's senior season came against Mainland, when the Quakers played without McDevitt. Ryan was never going to be confused with a running back, yet he kept the ball on an option, eluded a defender, and raced for a 60-yard touchdown run.

"Matt hadn't run 60 yards and not get caught by someone I think ever," McDevitt joked.

The celebration was halted by a penalty flag that nullified the run. So on the next play, Ryan audibled to send wide receiver Sean Singletary - who later played in the NBA - on a go route for a 70-yard score. Multiple teammates pointed to the play as the most memorable of Ryan's career.

"Just ran 60, 10 yards for holding, and the very next play throws a 70-yard pass to Singletary?" McCloskey said. "That was a special moment."

But most of the highlights that season were runs, and teammates said Ryan never complained. He told the Inquirer in 2002 he never was jealous of quarterbacks in other systems because "statistics are secondary to winning" - and Penn Charter won often.

"When Tony's running for 375 yards, you don't need to throw it," teammate Rob Hitschler said. "It's probably to Matt's detriment from a numbers perspective. Matt always played well. But he always played within the system."

'Humble, normal kid'

Despite his modest statistics, Ryan's teammates knew he could become a good quarterback in college. They couldn't have guessed he'd develop into an NFL star.

Hitschler remembered when Ryan was excited about the possibility of starting at Boston College. They watched in awe during Ryan's national coronation in a dramatic prime-time win over Virginia Tech in 2007, and it started to sink in that he could be a first-round pick. Now that he's one of the best players in the NFL, it's surreal for those who still remember their inside jokes.

"Some guys act like they're in the NFL when they're in high school," Hitschler said. "In no way did Matt act like that. He was just a humble, normal kid who walked through the Penn Charter halls."

Ryan once threw at a batter in a rivalry baseball game, retribution for the pitcher's hitting a Penn Charter batter. After the game, Ryan sought out the opponent and apologized. It wasn't personal - just the baseball code.

Because he lived in Exton and took sports seriously, Ryan wasn't the life of the party on weekends. But he was a three-sport athlete who was a key member on each team. In fact, the best Ryan memories from some of his teammates came in other sports: Zeglinski cited a Ryan dunk in a basketball game, McDevitt recalled a big second half by Ryan during an off day for Singletary, and Hitschler remembered Ryan's extending an at-bat in a crucial baseball game.

Over the years Ryan has developed a slight Southern twang when he speaks. As a popular Atlanta athlete, he wears Braves caps in interviews. Atlanta has been his home for all nine seasons of his NFL career.

But McDevitt was thrilled to reminisce about their times in high school because "at the end of the day, Matt is so Philly." And despite McDevitt's success as a lacrosse standout at Duke, "playing high school football at Penn Charter [with Ryan] was the greatest athletic experience of my life."

During the game Sunday, some of Ryan's former teammates won't see the potential MVP. It will just be their friend from high school - and McCloskey will still view Ryan as the teenager who ran the triple-option.

"I think people would be lying, other than Matt himself I'm sure, to tell you they thought he'd be in the position he's in today," Zeglinski said. "But other than that, it's beyond anyone's imagination what's going on right now. Possible MVP of the NFL. It's just unbelievable."

zberman@phillynews.com

@ZBerm www.philly.com/eaglesblog