THIS STORY was going to be a quick feature on how some former Penn Charter quarterbacks are celebrating one of their own about to play in the Super Bowl.
But then, as the onion began to lose layers, a resounding theme kept recurring: how connected Matt Ryan remains to Penn Charter. Even though he's in his ninth season with the Falcons, it turns out that the touch Ryan can put on a perfectly thrown football is almost as profound as his connection with those still on his old high school's campus.
Take senior quarterback Mike Hnatkowsky, who led the Quakers to a 6-3 mark this past season. One highlight of his year came before the season even started when Ryan made a surprise visit to Penn Charter for a midsummer workout.
"He showed me how to train like a professional," said Hnatkowsky, who is headed to Muhlenberg. "Just the way that he carried himself. He wasn't throwing to Julio (Jones). He was throwing to high school kids. But he doesn't miss. Every pass was right on the money. He threw every football with purpose."
Chris Rahill is a childhood friend of the Ryan family. He's also the football team's offensive coordinator and another former PC quarterback ('99). Rahill helped arrange for Ryan to come in and take part in that surprise, simple workout with the boys.
But apparently, when you're Matt Ryan, there's no such thing as a simple workout.
"It was a full-on practice," explained Rahill, who also is PC's alumni director. "It was a lifetime memory for those kids."
That's no exaggeration.
While the workout featured mostly skill-position players, it was defensive tackle Ronnie Ross who ended it with a spectacular diving catch after running a deep out-and-up pattern against center Hayden Knighton, who also is a sophomore.
Now Ross knows how Julio Jones must feel.
"Oh, yeah. (Jones) knows the ball is going to be right there. All he has to do is do his job," said Ross (6-3, 270). "That catch will stick with me for a long time."
Brian McCloskey, another QB ('82), was Ryan's head coach at Penn Charter. They won the 2002 Inter-Ac title when Ryan was a senior with a run-based offense that relied heavily on Ryan making the correct presnap reads.
Ryan was a junior at Boston College in 2006 and his former coach needed a favor. The Quakers had a treacherous game against Chestnut Hill, which was returning to Inter-Ac play for the first time in 34 years. The game was at Chestnut Hill, which worried McCloskey to the point that he asked whether Ryan could help with some motivation.
Ryan sent McCloskey a stirring email which the coach read to the team before the game. Ryan, McCloskey said, told the kids to embrace the moment and savor the tradition of Penn Charter football, which dates back to the 19th century. "When I walk out of the tunnel at BC," Ryan wrote, "it's the same kind of feeling I had at PC."
The Quakers narrowly won that game and went undefeated in league play as McCloskey captured his seventh and final championship as Penn Charter's head coach. He stepped down the following year.
"It's emotional and exciting having known (Ryan) and coached him and seeing him reach the pinnacle of his profession," said McCloskey, who is a math teacher and now an assistant football coach. "When I see former students having success – whether they are doctors, lawyers, commercial fishermen, police officers or football players – it's very rewarding for all of us (teachers). It's why we got into the business."
When he was at the workout last summer, Ryan reiterated that nothing could compare to the high school experience. Fewer players will move up the competition chain; the chances of any of them playing in the NFL are infinitesimal.
"Everybody at school is raving right now," said Hnatkowsky. "Sure, you get dreams to one day do what he does. Not only is he a Philadelphia-area guy, but he went to our high school."
And how about that tremendous grab made by Ross, his 270-pound teammate last summer?
"Oh," Hnatkowsky chuckled, "he still tells people he catches passes from Matt Ryan."