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Grittiness at the helm

BC's Ryan goes to great pains to lead the Eagles by example

It was a clean break across the foot. And that, as it turned out, was the encouraging news.

"The gap [where it broke] wasn't going to get any bigger," explained Boston College quarterback Matt Ryan. "It wasn't going to get any worse. It was all just a matter of tolerating the pain."

The injury occurred during a 22-3 victory over Virginia Tech last October. Adrenaline got him through the game, but afterward, the pain was excruciating. Dr. Diane English took an X-ray, confirmed the break, and presented Ryan with two choices: immediate surgery that would likely end his season, or waiting a few days to decide whether he could play through the pain.

Neither option seemed fair. Ryan was a model student, a top football player, a poised kid with unfailing manners. He was the nicest kid on campus -- except when he jammed on his football helmet.

"He's the kind of guy who is joking around in the locker room, but the minute you step into the field, he's all business," said his childhood friend Tony McDevitt. "I can remember running out to practice many times with him, and the best way I could describe him would be 'tense.' "

"He's a different kid when he gets on the field," confirmed new BC coach Jeff Jagodzinski. "I noticed it early on in spring ball. We were in the middle of a drill and one of the guys jumped offsides. Matt was all over him.

"You feel a lot better when you see that. If you didn't, you'd have concerns. The quarterback is supposed to be the leader."

Take a seat? He'll pass
Matt Ryan has been a leader since he was a little boy keeping in step with his big brother Mike and his friends. Some younger siblings are content to tag along, but Matt had no interest in lingering a step behind. He wanted -- expected -- to be in concert with boys who were bigger, stronger, and three years older.

"Matt was my 'keep up' kid," said his mother, Bernie Ryan. "He learned not to say too much. If you were younger, you could play as long as you were good enough, and as long as you didn't complain."

Didn't his broken foot fit under the same heading? He saw the concern on his parents' faces when he shuffled over to the sideline, as was his custom, to meet them after the Virginia Tech game. His mother expressed concern about playing on a broken bone. Her son nodded dutifully, but he knew if he ended his season, BC's hopes of earning a Bowl Championship Series bid would be in immediate jeopardy. The quarterback opted to gut it out and postpone surgery for when the season wasn't on the line.

Even so, how effective could he possibly be? He left the stadium on crutches. On Monday, he still couldn't walk. By Tuesday, he could apply a little pressure to his foot, but he doubled over in agony to accomplish that. On Wednesday, he was fitted for an orthotic that helped alleviate the jarring pain that had nauseated him throughout the week, but he was still in a cast. On Thursday, he could barely hobble up the stairs, but, he discovered, he could throw.

And that's when those close to him knew how this story would end: If he could throw, he would play.

"I have to say, he truly amazed me," said his father, Mike Ryan. "If it was me, you would have had to dig a hole on the side of the road and roll me into it."

The numbers from last season were impressive. Ryan completed 61.6 percent of his passes for 2,942 yards and 15 touchdowns, earning him first-team All-Atlantic Coast Conference honors. But just imagine what he could have done had he been able to play on both feet. Nine days after his injury, he limped out to knock off Florida State, 24-19.

"The first couple of weeks was the most intense pain," Ryan said. "I couldn't practice. When you run the West Coast offense, so much of it relies on timing. I couldn't take drops at all. I had to adjust my mechanics. When one thing goes wrong, everything tends to go out of whack.

"My body was all over the place just to stay on my feet. But I learned from it. When you're not able to stand on your left foot, you learn how to keep your body quiet."

Always in the mix
There are four children in the Ryan family, all athletes, and Bernie has learned to accept injuries as part of the landscape. She still vividly recalls the evening she showed up a few minutes late to Matt's high school basketball game at Penn Charter School in Philadelphia, and discovered her husband waiting for her in the lobby.

"He told me, 'Now Matt has some gauze and some tubing around his head, but we had to stop the bleeding so he could play,' " Bernie Ryan said. "Then he said, 'He'll need a few stitches afterward.' "

The "few" stitches amounted to 30. Ryan, who had absorbed an errant elbow to his face, stayed in, dropped in 15 points, and helped lead Penn Charter to victory.

"Matt was always in the mix of things," said high school basketball coach Jim Phillips. "He was the guy who got all the big rebounds. He was always defending, always willing to take a charge, always diving for the loose ball. He's one of the toughest competitors I've ever had."

His ability to knock down clutch 3-pointers, hit game-winning doubles, and throw the perfect spiral at the perfect moment earned him the nickname "Matty Ice."

Yet it was other intangibles that endeared him to his peers. McDevitt, who captained the football team at Penn Charter alongside Ryan, recalls the summer practices they arranged for teammates before the season.

"Our coaches weren't allowed to be involved, so it was up to us," McDevitt said. "We worked those kids hard. I remember one day in particular I was so wiped out. But Matt picked me up. He bonded us all together. He set the tone for our season."

Sealing a reputation
Nobody in Philly was surprised to see Ryan play with a broken foot. They are still talking at Penn Charter about the bone-crushing blow he absorbed against Clemson that knocked his helmet clear off his head. Naturally, Ryan returned to action.

McDevitt had already seen Matt Ryan recover in record time from an offseason car accident before his junior season of high school. Matt and Mike were coming home from a golf outing. Matt broke his leg, and Mike severely injured his shoulder.

Matt was projected to miss all of preseason and perhaps a chunk of the regular season. McDevitt marveled as his friend put himself through a grueling conditioning program to ensure he would take the first snap of the first game.

"I just so admired the way he prepared himself," said McDevitt, who has gone on to Duke and will serve as lacrosse captain next spring.

"Honestly," Ryan's high school football coach, Brian McCloskey, added, "he didn't miss a beat."

Ice sealed his reputation in the first game of his senior season against a strong Mainland (N.J.) team when he deked one defender, spun past another, then tucked the ball and ran 60 yards for a touchdown. It was a triumphant moment for Ryan, who absorbed incessant ribbing for his lack of mobility.

But by the time Ryan turned to celebrate with his teammates, the officials were whistling it back on a holding call.

"He came back to the huddle, and he was really tired," said McDevitt. "He was really ticked off, too. His face was beet red when he called the play. I had a feeling it was going to be a good one."

It was a passing play to receiver Sean Singletary, and Ryan wasn't looking for a first down. He was looking for his touchdown back. He threw a 60-yard bomb down the field and Singletary hauled it in for the score.

"I can't remember for sure, but it's quite possible Matt made that call himself," said McCloskey. "He had such a good command of our offense he often checked off at the line of scrimmage."

McCloskey remembers one Ryan audible in particular during a critical third-and-7 situation against rival Malvern Prep, where Matt's older brother had starred at quarterback.

McCloskey sent in a pass play, but as Ryan stepped to the line, he surveyed the field and called for a fullback dive.

"I'm on the sidelines screaming, 'What is he doing?' " McCloskey said. "But doesn't our fullback run for 15 yards."

Jagodzinski has already announced his new offense will present Ryan with more opportunities to check off at the line, as well as throw the long ball.

"He has excellent vision," Jagodzinski said. "He can see the whole field. In my first meeting with him, he reminded me so much of Matt Hasselbeck. Here was this bright-eyed, smart, personable guy. But he also reminds me of [Houston Texans quarterback] Matt Schaub. He carries himself the same way.

"He's calm, very workmanlike. He knows where to go with the ball. And he's accountable."

Competitive fire
The nicest kid on campus is tired of losing that one key game that would vault BC into a BCS bowl. He wants his final year at The Heights to be different.

"People want more," Ryan said. "There's nothing wrong with that. It's a nice, healthy thing."

Matt Ryan is healthy, too. His foot was surgically repaired in January, a relief after trudging through nearly an entire season in which his status was hazy.

"We actually got a kick out of it," said Mike Ryan. "All week before the games they would say Matt was a question mark. Well, I can tell you in his mind there never was any question."

If there's any doubt how Matty Ice is doing, be advised he accompanied Mike and his friends to a summer basketball game in Philly last month. The league was a competitive one, laced with former college players. The team the Ryan brothers played for scored 65 points -- and Matt had 57 of them.

Jagodzinski spent last season as the offensive coordinator for a quarterback named Brett Favre. He knows better than to ask Ryan to measure up to a surefire NFL Hall of Famer.

"But I tell you one thing," Jagodzinski said. "He might be just as tough."

Jackie MacMullan can be reached at macmullan@globe.com.

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