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Having survived a car accident and overcome guilt about playing while his older brother couldn't, Boston College's Matt Ryan has developed into one of the nation's top passers and helped make the Eagles a BCS contender

Posted: Tuesday September 25, 2007 8:49AM; Updated: Tuesday September 25, 2007 8:53AM
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Jagodzinski opened up the offense, and Ryan (above) readily responded with four 300-yard passing games.
Jagodzinski opened up the offense, and Ryan (above) readily responded with four 300-yard passing games.
Damian Strohmeyer/SI
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Even today, Bernie Ryan doesn't know what she should have said. It would have been easy to remind her 16-year-old son, Matt, that life isn't fair, but how could she do that when he'd just told her, with tears in his eyes, that he felt guilty about playing football? Football, of all things. What could she possibly say to that? The game that had given him nothing but joy since he'd started playing as a second-grader for the Downingtown Youth Whippets near his home in suburban Philadelphia -- the game that he'd practiced tirelessly in the front yard with his older brother, Michael, the boys taking turns throwing fade patterns to each other in a corner of the driveway, until darkness drove them inside -- was suddenly causing him pain. How could she provide absolution when there was no sin?

As it turned out, only Michael, who'd always been the one to set the example for his younger brother, could do that. He'd been in the car with Matt on May 19, 2001. Both brothers were quarterbacks, Matt a starter the previous season as a sophomore at Philly's William Penn Charter School, and Michael, older by three years, a freshman backup at Division III Widener. The day had begun as a birthday celebration for Matt; Michael was driving the two of them to a country club for a round of golf. That's when another car rear-ended Michael's Volkswagen Jetta and pushed it into the path of an oncoming military truck. Michael's right elbow was shattered, his football career over. Matt suffered a broken right ankle, an injury that would fully heal within a few months, and he couldn't stop asking himself, Why him and not me?

Some 3 1/2 months after the accident, Matt finally opened up to his mother while she was driving him to school on the morning of the first game of his junior year, bursting out with, "I feel so bad that I can keep playing and Mike can't." Bernie had never heard Matt even so much as mention the guilt he was feeling. Oh, she had sensed it, felt it all summer long, from the moment that, with Matt in the room and listening keenly, Michael regained consciousness at the hospital and promptly asked the doctors, "Will I play football again?" Says Bernie, "Matt comes across as a tough guy, but he's a softie."

So she was relieved when Michael, who had returned to Widener a few weeks before, surprised her by showing up on the sideline before Matt's opener. She watched as Matt went over to his brother during warmups, and she saw Michael look him in the eye and tell him that high school football was supposed to be the best time of his life. "And it was like a weight had been lifted off his shoulders," says Bernie. "Neither one of them mentioned it again."

Six years later, in his second full season as the starting quarterback at Boston College, Matt Ryan has matured into one of the best passers in the country. In the 12th-ranked Eagles' 37-17 victory over Army last Saturday, the strong-armed 6' 5", 220-pound senior threw for 356 yards and three touchdowns (though one of his two interceptions was returned for a score). In BC's 4-0 start he has completed 61.9% of his passes while throwing for 1,341 yards and 10 touchdowns. He has also engineered two big early-season triumphs. The first was a season-opening, come-from-behind 38-28 victory over defending ACC champion Wake Forest on Sept. 1, and the second was a 24-10 pounding of No. 15 Georgia Tech in Atlanta on Sept. 15, a game that saw him repeatedly pick apart the vaunted zone-blitz packages of defensive coordinator John Tenuta. In that game Ryan completed 30 of 44 passes for a career-high 435 yards, including a gorgeous 39-yard touchdown lob over the shoulder of wideout Brandon Robinson, a performance that vaulted him into the first rank of Heisman Trophy contenders.

As Ryan has raised his profile, the rest of the country has begun to take notice of Boston College, which began the season unranked despite returning 16 starters from a team that went 10-3 in 2006. "If we were Notre Dame, they would have ranked us third," grouses BC sports information director Chris Cameron. That's probably true, but what can you expect when you're part of a program that struggles for recognition in its own city? On its pregame show last Saturday, ESPN ran a lighthearted piece that showed several Bostonians struggling to identify Ryan. "This is a pro sports town," says first-year coach Jeff Jagodzinski. "There's so much going on. We're still flying under the radar."

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