Henfey Park is not where Ryan earned the nickname Matty Ice, a reference to a fearless, swashbuckling style that has led to memorable late-game rallies and victories. But it may be where he honed the kind of daring, yet unflappable, confidence that has served him well in nine N.F.L. seasons.
“Those games are the foundation for our toughness and competitiveness,” McGlinchey said Thursday. “We’ve had a few broken bones and trips to the hospital. But we learned a lot that was vital to our development.”
Among those presiding over those summer clashes was a family patriarch, Ryan’s grandfather Sam Loughery, a Pearl Harbor survivor who drilled into his offspring a mantra: “Games are played with a bat, glove or ball, but never your mouth.”
Everyone inside the North Wildwood beach house memorized the canon, including Ryan, which might explain why, despite his many football accomplishments, he remains one of the least publicized or celebrated quarterbacks in the N.F.L.
Sunday, Ryan’s Falcons face Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers with a Super Bowl berth and the N.F.C. championship on the line. Ryan may be the leading candidate to win the league’s Most Valuable Player Award next month, but in the buildup to Sunday’s game, he has spent more time being questioned about the ascending Rodgers, a two-time league M.V.P., than he has been asked about himself.
It is a situation Ryan has grown accustomed to, and it might be valuable experience. Should Atlanta defeat Green Bay, Ryan will probably also spend the following two weeks answering questions about the next opposing quarterback in his path — either New England’s Tom Brady or Pittsburgh’s Ben Roethlisberger, who have won six Super Bowls combined.
According to his family and mentors, the lack of attention does not rankle Ryan.
“Matt has always flown under the radar,” said Brian McCloskey, Ryan’s high school football coach at William Penn Charter School, a private Quaker institution in Philadelphia founded by William Penn in 1689.
“He’d rather it be that way,” McCloskey continued. “If you want to talk just about him, it’s going to be a short conversation.”
Mike Ryan, Matt’s father, said of his son: “Personal accolades have never been a goal. He’s always had that perspective.”
Ryan, for example, had a powerful, accurate throwing arm as a high schooler, but he spent most of his time at Penn Charter operating the run-based triple-option offense. Some teenage quarterback prospects in spread offensive systems might throw the football 45 times a game. Ryan had games where he threw fewer than 20 passes.
“Believe it or not, he ran the option really well,” McCloskey said. “It’s a joke between us now. I tell him I saved his arm from getting worn out at a young age.”
Ryan exhibited a savvy for the game, calling the plays for Penn Charter in the huddle early in his high school career — and then frequently switching them at the line of scrimmage via coded messages with teammates.
“He’s a smart, grounded kid,” said McCloskey, who was also Ryan’s precalculus teacher.
Ryan also had to weather frightening misfortune at a formative age.
Two days after Ryan’s 16th birthday, he and his older brother, Mike Jr., were driving to a nearby golf course when their Volkswagen Jetta was rear-ended and pushed into the path of an oncoming convoy of military trucks. Mike, whom the family calls Motts, sustained a fractured skull and was knocked unconscious. He had several broken bones and a shattered right elbow. Ryan broke his ankle.
The brothers recovered, but doctors could not restore the full range of motion to Mike’s right elbow despite several operations. He had been anticipating his second year as a quarterback at Widener University outside Philadelphia. Instead, his quarterbacking days were over.
“That was a tough time because it really hurt Matt that his older brother couldn’t keep doing what he loved when Matt could,” McCloskey said. “He wondered how that was fair.”
Mike Ryan Sr. recognized the trauma to his sons but saw both move on eventually, with Mike Jr. counseling his younger brother to put the accident behind him and chase his dreams.
“Matt realized that you can’t take anything for granted,” Mike Sr. said. “It became part of his development as a person.”
As a high school junior, Ryan blossomed to his current height, 6-4, and his game thrived. Still, he was not a major player in the nationwide college football recruiting market.
“He was a tall quarterback playing in a little, virtually unknown Philadelphia league,” Mike Ryan Sr. said. “But the colleges did find him — Iowa, Boston College, Georgia Tech were interested.”
Tom O’Brien, the Boston College coach at the time, knew that Ryan had not thrown the football much in high school.
“But when he did throw the ball, you saw excellent mechanics and precise accuracy,” O’Brien said. “More than anything, he had such obvious leadership qualities.”
Ryan was redshirted during his first year at Boston College and spent most of his time leading the scout team in practice against the Eagles’ starting defense.
“He frustrated the first-string defense because they knew what was coming on certain plays, and yet Matt was good enough to throw it in there and complete the pass anyway,” O’Brien said.
When Ryan became the starter, he led Boston College to victories in 25 of 32 starts, several with last-minute, come-from-behind drives. Ryan showed an uncommon coolness in the most tense situations, which revived his high school nickname: Matty Ice.
O’Brien came to understand what made Ryan so dependable under pressure.
“He’s a quiet, calm guy off the field, but when he’s competing, he’s a different person,” O’Brien said. “We were playing golf once, and we were teammates in a match. He’s got a 35-foot putt on the last hole, and he could take three putts to get it in the hole and we’d still win.
“So I said to him, ‘Just lag it up there.’ And he looks at me and says, ‘Listen, I’m going to make it.’ Matt doesn’t lag anything up. He didn’t make the 35-foot putt, but the ball lipped out of the cup and stopped two inches away. We won.”
Ryan went to the Falcons as the third overall pick of the 2008 draft. His first N.F.L. pass was a 62-yard touchdown, and when he led the once-downtrodden Falcons to the playoffs, he was named the offensive rookie of the year. But the season ended with a playoff defeat.
Such seasons — Ryan throwing for thousands of yards and Atlanta losing in the playoffs — became a trend. The Falcons, with Ryan at the helm, were defeated in the playoffs in four of Ryan’s first five seasons. And while he has also been to the Pro Bowl four times, the postseason disappointments have become a substantial part of his N.F.L. narrative.
It is not something he hides from.
“The greatest quarterbacks in N.F.L. history are often measured by championships, and that’s deserved; I understand it,” Ryan said Wednesday after a Falcons practice. “But I don’t think about it too much, and certainly not this week. That’s not how you accomplish something.”
But when reminded that, of the four starting quarterbacks left in this season’s playoffs, he is the only one who has yet to win a Super Bowl, Ryan quickly smiled and pointed.
“Yet,” he said.
In the meantime, along with his wife, Sarah, who was a point guard on Boston College’s women’s basketball team, Ryan goes about his off-the-field life uneventfully.
“I’m kind of boring,” Ryan often says in interviews.
For instance, what is his favorite pizza?
His favorite ice cream?
His father has heard the “boring” remark. He laughs.
“Matt went from having to call home for gas money to getting a contract worth $50 or $70 million,” he said. “The N.F.L. is a crazy business, and Matt is just laying low. It’s not that he’s boring — it’s peace and contentment in a world where other people’s heads are spinning.”
And every summer, Ryan still returns to the Jersey Shore and Henfey Park.
“The difference now,” his uncle John Loughery said, “is that people hear that Matt is down throwing by the beach, and sometimes a crowd comes out to watch.”
It is not a big crowd. Or as Ryan, still chasing his first Super Bowl championship, might say, it is not a big crowd — yet.