You are not about to read a meditation on the virtues of Saint Matthew Ryan, savior of the Atlanta Falcons. First off, contrary to the general perception, he was never a choirboy. Altar boy, yes. Server of Holy Communion, yes. Only player in the history of traveling youth football teams to rise early on a trip to Disney World and beg a chaperone to take him to Mass, yes. But choirboy? Not a chance. You should hear him sing karaoke.
Then there is the torrent of money, a dollar a second, as much in a day as his average fan makes in a year. Never mind that he can look into the eyes of the other ten men in the huddle and gauge the mental and emotional condition of each one, tailoring the play accordingly; or that he can lift the mood of this city with the toss of a football; or that once, at the prodding of a family friend, he captivated the room for an hour with a dialogue about pottery. Never mind all that. When it comes to privileged suburban kids who attend costly private schools and go on to become professional football players who live on championship golf courses, I am reluctant to write about goodness
. Because I’m afraid you wouldn’t believe me.
Besides, moral history is against him. In the past two decades, two other Falcons quarterbacks were poised for greatness. Both left in disgrace. One was Roman Catholic, just like Ryan, and he could throw the ball seventy-eight yards even with a tired arm. Like Ryan, his first professional pass went for a touchdown. But it was scored by the other team. He caroused his way out of a job. The Falcons ditched him after one season. He was one of Ryan’s boyhood heroes. His name was Brett Favre.
Ten years later we had Michael Jordan in shoulder pads, the man who turned the Georgia Dome into an amusement park. No one in football ran faster or threw harder. Late in 2002, when ESPN asked fans to name the most dynamic person in all of sports, he got more votes than everyone else combined. That winter he marched the Falcons to Lambeau Field in Green Bay, Wisconsin, where Favre had gone to become a mortal god, where no visiting team had ever won in the playoffs, and Michael Vick trampled the Packers. His blood-red No. 7 jersey still hangs in my closet. I wear it once in a while, when I want to masquerade as a multiple felon.
“Oh, he’ll be wonderful for your city,” Ryan’s fifth-grade teacher told me on a raw spring day in Exton, Pennsylvania, his hometown, where I traveled to investigate our franchise quarterback. Others said the same. My notes began to repeat themselves:
“You’re not gonna find dirt.”
“No dirt. No dirt. There really isn’t.”
“Not gonna find any dirt.”
But one person dared to challenge convention. He is Joe Perrott, a Freudian psychotherapist. I met him in a conference room inside the old stone walls of the William Penn Charter School in Philadelphia, the Quaker high school where he taught Ryan in a course on developmental psychology. The school was founded by William Penn himself back in 1689, and its official seal carries these words: Good instruction is better than riches
“It’s a pleasure to see someone deserving get what they deserve,” Perrott said, referring to the success of Ryan, one of his favorite former students. And then, as an afterthought, he added, “I think Brett Favre is a horse’s ass.”
When I asked him for the psychological basis of Ryan’s success, he said it must be rooted in the first five years of his life. Everything must have gone right.
“Shame and guilt are the twin horrors of childhood,” he said. “I’ll bet Matt got no shaming at all.”
“He’s totally unafraid of adverse public opinion.”
Then he said something even more intriguing. Ryan was simply too much fun
to be a choirboy.