It’s exactly one week from the 51st Super Bowl and I’m sitting in a little bar on the edge of Matt Ryan’s hometown of Exton, Pennsylvania. I stopped to check it out because the bar – located in the parking lot of an abandoned bowling alley – advertises draft beers for two bucks a pop. If anybody is going to have opinions on the hometown boy making it to the biggest football game of them all, I figure it will be the patrons of this place. Places like this always have good football talk.
“He’s from around here? I had no idea,” a guy in a heavy Carhartt jacket caked in all kinds of dust says with a smile that makes me think he could be joking when asked his thoughts. Then he swivels around and goes back to watching the Villanova basketball game.
When the fact that Ryan went to school and played football for Penn Charter, a Quaker private school located about 30 minutes to an hour away (depending on traffic) in Philadelphia, the guy in the Carhartt jacket responds during a break in the basketball game’s play: “Huh. That’s probably it. He didn’t play around here.” Then he gets up and leaves the bar, ending the conversation.
The locals in Exton – not a town, in fact, but a quiet, small census-designated place that is composed of two malls, a few small businesses and a bunch of humble houses – appear ambivalent about Ryan playing in the Super Bowl for the Atlanta Falcons. No Ryan jerseys to be seen, no black-and-red “Go Matt” signs in the windows of local businesses, nada. No noticeable hometown love for Matt Ryan can be found.
Other than the fact that Matt Ryan is from Pennsylvania and he’s playing in Super Bowl 51, one might expect some enthusiasm from the folks here since Ryan will join other Keystone State-born Hall of Famers the likes of Johnny Unitas, Jim Kelly, Joe Namath, Dan Marino and Joe Montana. Whether he’ll get to raise the Lombardi Trophy like a few of those legends – or join Marino and Kelly and walk away empty-handed – remains to be seen this Sunday. Like those other QBs, however, Ryan doesn’t play for a team based in the state. Yet the most discernible difference is the fondness locals tend to have when you find yourself around the part of the state where those other players hail. Sure, Ryan is maybe a win away from eternal greatness, but that doesn’t seem to have much impact on people around Exton.
“It takes a little bit for people to come around if you aren’t wearing our jersey,” remarks another guy at the bar who’s been listening in. By “our team,” I assume he’s talking about the Eagles since he’s wearing that team’s hat, an older looking one that would probably fetch some cash on eBay. Ryan, who has been in the league nearly a decade now, was a great football player at his Quaker high school, routinely making honors like All-East and All-League, then deciding to go east and play for Boston College. He’s from Pennsylvania and did some great things there as a kid, but he’s not one of those scrappy guys from some steel mill town. He doesn’t fit the mold of what people from outside of PA. think about when they hear a player is from the Mid-Atlantic state. But if his team wins this Sunday, he’ll join an elite group of quarterbacks from Pennsylvania with Super Bowl rings.
All great narratives start somewhere. Where you come from in the NFL says so much and, in football, there are a number of familiar ones: the speedy guy from some tiny Southern town; the kid of Samoan descent who grew up in California; the Texan who was a high school sensation and then went to UT; the rich prep school standout. You could be from any one of those places, and go as far as your legs take you in the sport, but your past is never far behind whether you’re riding the bench or accepting an award. Whoever you are, at some point the announcer will bring up your biography. It’s how we connect to men whose faces we can’t see and whose bank accounts we can’t match.
To break it down, football is something like 50 percent commercials, 20 percent actual game play and the rest, maybe the most important part, is narrative. Each game, no matter how meaningless, has to have some mixture of memoir and myth. The teams, players, coaches and even the fan base must have stories attached to the city, the faces behind the masks or whatever drives a man to want to lead a group of other larger men onto a field each week to have their bodies battered around. That’s why people tune in – the stories. They care about who wins and loses, but also about the rivalries and what coach is playing for his job that week. That’s why the announcer always mentions a young player is a “scrappy kid from Pennsylvania” – because, when we hear that state, we immediately think we know exactly the kind of background the guy comes from. Marino is the product of Polish and Italian immigrants; the son of a newspaper deliveryman. Namath was the grandson of Hungarian immigrants; the son of a steelworker. Fixed into our imagination, there’s something almost downright Springsteenian about the quarterback from Pennsylvania, the kid who got away from his small town and never really looked back. He traded in the coal dust and sparks from the steel mill and went to New York, Miami or San Francisco. That’s how fans connect.
It would be easy to lump Ryan into the narrative that he’s part of some lineage with Marino, Montana and those other guys since, yes, he’s from the same state. The truth is that it’s not as simple as you might think. Despite growing up with “PA” at the end of his address, Ryan is part of a different narrative. Sure, there’s something about the words “Pennsylvanian-born quarterback” that has had an extra ring of success all those other regional football ties can’t match. The quarterback is, well, the quarterback. He’s the player you most likely want to be because he’s usually good looking, he’s the center of attention and he’s the leader of the offense. Yet Ryan’s from the Philly part of the state, those other guys, mostly, are from the Pittsburgh part. Same state, different narratives. And you can tell by visiting both sides, going into bars and restaurants around Steel City where you can still find Namath and Kelly jerseys hanging up even though they played for AFC teams that weren’t the beloved Steelers, and hearing stories of seeing Marino, a local god with his head of curly hair, who was also drafted in the fourth round by the Kansas City Royals in the 1979 amateur draft, play as a teenager. You get the sense that it doesn’t matter who they played for in the NFL; you sense that they’re our guys.
Maybe that will change if Ryan and the Falcons win a Super Bowl. Maybe the quarterback who is listed alongside Kerr Smith, who played Jack McPhee on Dawson’s Creek, as one of the two notable residents from the town will get a street named after him, maybe Ryan’s own family will start rooting for the Falcons when they play the Eagles.
Those are all big maybes, of course. The one glaring difference besides location and accomplishments that separates Ryan and those greats is that shared experience. Maybe none of those other guys stayed local since, much like families, you can’t really choose who you end up playing for. But in the end, no matter how rich or famous Montana got, or how good Marino’s tan from the Florida sun looks, or how many fur coats Namath owns, there’s something about their stories, their narratives, that makes them always seem like they could just show up to some bar in Pittsburgh and fit right in.
But maybe, just maybe, “Matty Ice” is the missing link for true Pennsylvanian football greatness. Sure, we’re all familiar with the idea that Texas, with its Friday Night Lights, college rivalries and Cowboys legends is the capitol of American football. From high school to the Hall of Fame, from dusty small towns to “Jerry World” in Dallas, yeah, football in Texas is great. Sure, football fans from any corner of Pennsylvania will tell you it’s a football state, but it’s hard to argue that it’s been largely concentrated closer to one part: Pittsburgh’s side. All of those quarterbacks and so many of the other football legends enshrined in Canton – like George Blanda and Mike Ditka – all sort of tip the scales in the favor of the west. That, and you have the Steelers and all of their Super Bowl titles. While the Eagles might finally be a team on the rise, as well as franchise that boasts one of the most passionate fan bases in the sports world, maybe, just maybe, it’s a quarterback from the eastern part of the state winning a Super Bowl, albeit for a team from Atlanta, that helps change the narrative a little.
The idea of regionalism has taken a hit in the last decade or so. What makes one state or city great or different from the next one, accents – food, music and even sports – has sort of blurred together. While the area around Pittsburgh has been the center of football for one of the greatest football states in America, Matt Ryan’s big season shows us once again that great quarterbacks come out of Pennsylvania. It doesn’t matter if it’s the east or west anymore. The narrative might be different, but the state is the same. That, ultimately, will be part of Ryan’s legacy if he wins a Super Bowl title on Sunday. Sure, it wouldn’t be the Eagles finally winning the big game, but it would hammer home once and for all the fact that few places do football the way they do in the State of Pennsylvania, and maybe, just maybe, Ryan’s Falcons jersey would get to go up on the wall of the little bar on the outskirts of Exton.