The phrase “you had to be there” is overused. But in the case of Matt Ryan changing my opinion from promising rookie to all time Falcon great, you had to be there. Anyone who has attended an NFL game knows that there is an emotional context that can be conveyed in a television broadcast. And in 11 game clock seconds, my view of Matt Ryan was altered forever.
Putting into context…
I must admit that I am lucky enough to have loyal season ticket holders around me. Many sections had tons of fan roll over after the Mike Vick debacle, but rows 1-5 of section 329 stood firm. Even though these rows have been consistent since 2001, there are pockets of seats often filled with enemy colors. With such a rich history, one would expect a lot of opposing fans when a team like the Chicago Bears rolled into town. On this day, there were five very quiet fans near me.
Entering the Georgia Dome before the game, Bears fans were quite verbose. But something magical happened in the first quarter. On the opening drive, the Falcons kicked a field goal to go ahead of the Bears 3-0. Just a field goal. But like a strange fairy book spell, all the bravado of those Bear fans within ear shot disappeared. And for the next 54 minutes of game play, those verbose fans were the most well behaved visitors to ever enter the Georgia Dome. Other than polite cheering when things went well for them, these monsters of the midway were silent.
Even while their team drove down the field with under two minutes to play, there were no taunts, no smack talk, no bragging like when they had arrived for the game. Then with 17 seconds on the game clock, Chicago quarterback Kyle Orton threw a 17 yard touchdown pass to tie the game. And those sleeping giants awoke. It began behind me. It started with a Simpsons-esque, “Ha Ha” from two rows behind me. Then all Hades broke loose as the portly pair of Chicago fans in front of me broke into the truffle shuffle. And after the presumed game winning extra point sailed through the uprights, salt was poured into the wound of my broken heart.
One of the Chicago fans in front of me hurried to the rail at the front of our section. He struck an age old Sears catalog pose complete with misty, wistful eyes and the searching hand over eyebrows. After posing in front of the scoreboard, he asked his friend thirty seven times, “Didja get it? Didja get it?”
Oh, he was about to get it.
11 seconds to glory
With only 11 seconds on the game clock, I literally was to depressed to stand as the Chicago Bears kicked off. It was a short kick of 36 yards, but WR Harry Douglas managed to shave off another 5 seconds while gaining only 10 yards. Six yards shy of midfield. With only six seconds on the clock. With a rookie quarterback making only his sixth start. This hopeless situation was highlighted by the heckles of these previously polite visitors. Then Matt Ryan confidently jogged on the field.
My heart began to rise as the Falcons offense huddled up. I tried to calm myself as the huddle broke and the Falcons lined up for the would be final play in a heartbreaking loss. As much of a fan I was of Matt Ryan, he was still a rookie. In this pressure packed final pass, I assumed he we do what rookies do: Hail Mary the ball three yards short of the end zone for an interception. We needed a miracle, and we had one… Made of ice.
In a flash, Matt Ryan dropped back. With a Chicago Bear defender in his face, he let the ball fly. But not towards the goal line. No, it was a perfect strike at the sideline 26 yards down field to Micheal Jenkins. Field goal range and the clock stopped. One glorious, joyful second on the clock. The Georgia Dome exploded. From a seated position, I leaped high enough in the air to have been drafted late in the third round. Leigh, my sister and never miss a game fellow season ticket holder, hugged me as we did this strange screaming pogo dance like we had just won the lottery. Not even beating Pittsburgh in ’06 in overtime compared to the joy we felt. (In 2006, visiting Pittsburgh Steeler fans literally out numbered Falcon fans making it feel like an away game.)
As kicker Jason Elam nailed the winning field goal, fans continued to celebrate. Before the ball was snapped, those wearing the blue jersey seemed to have vanished into thin air. It didn’t matter. We were too overjoyed to bother with gloating. Too thankful for the heart that the Falcons showed to be vindictive.
It is odd when a quarterback’s most memorable pass is not a touchdown. But the context of that pass makes it amazing. Under pressure, both physically and mentally, Matt Ryan made the only possible play that could win the game. More than his first professional pass being a touchdown, this singular moment would set the precedent for his future success and my ownership of his jersey.
I often quote the underrated football comedy “The Replacements” when speaking about Ryan, “Heart. Miles and miles of heart.” Matt Ryan has had many moments since then that prove he has given this team the heart it has lacked for years. From being spun in the air in Minnesota to the gutsy win against the Jets, Matt Ryan has led the Atlanta Falcons from laughingstock to back to back to back to back winning seasons. But this moment in time is where I knew that no matter where he went, no matter what he did in the future, Matt Ryan would always be one of my all time favorite Falcons.