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 light-hearted 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."
THAT MIGHT change soon, as Jagodzinski, the former Green Bay Packers offensive coordinator, has implemented a wide-open attack to complement his quarterback's considerable skills. BC is scoring 34 points and gaining 483.8 yards per game. Even more telling, Ryan is averaging 45.3 pass attempts, almost 10 more than he did last season. It's a marked contrast to the more conservative, disciplined style favored by Jagodzinski's predecessor, Tom O'Brien, who departed last December to take the job at N.C. State after 10 years in Chestnut Hill. By any measure, O'Brien built the BC program into something just short of a national power. In seven of the previous eight seasons, the Eagles won eight or more games, and they're riding a streak of seven straight bowl victories. But for all the success, they have never earned a BCS bid, something they feel is within their grasp this season. "It's like the best of both worlds," says backup quarterback Chris Crane. "The people who have been here for a few years know what it takes to win. And now they're actually allowed to fly a little bit more."
Ryan commands considerable respect within the BC program, and not just because of his ability to make every throw. As a sophomore against Clemson, in the second start of his career, he missed just one play after taking a hit that sent his helmet flying; the Eagles won in overtime 16--13. Later that season, against Wake Forest, he came on in relief of struggling starter Quinton Porter with less than four minutes left and turned a nine-point deficit into a 35--30 win. Ryan started six of the last seven games of his junior year with a broken metatarsal in his left foot, earned All-ACC honors and went 4--2. His career record as a starter is 18--4. "He's the type of guy Boston College has always gotten," says Jagodzinski, who was the offensive coordinator at BC in 1997 and '98. "He's smart and he's tough, and he sees the big picture."
But nothing Ryan has done has had more of an impact on his team than the work he put in during the off-season. Not only did he have a new offense to learn, but he also was under orders from the coaching staff to bulk up his lower body. So while the Eagles' offensive linemen were cutting weight and running sprints to be better prepared to implement Jagodzinski's zone-blocking scheme, Ryan was in the weight room doing squat presses and power cleans in order to add muscle. "It was just to be a little more durable," he says. "I put on about 10 pounds, and hopefully that can keep me healthy for the length of the season." But the regimen has had an additional dividend: According to his coaches, it has given Ryan more thrust and consistency on his deep passes.
RYAN DID so well picking up the retooled offense that Jagodzinski and new offensive coordinator Steve Logan began giving him much more authority at the line of scrimmage. Ryan is freer to audible in the new offense. He's as ready as any quarterback in the country to play on Sunday. "He's a sponge," says Logan. "I can't draw the plays up quick enough."