From the years John Loughery spent as Boston College’s pre-Doug Flutie quarterback, he knew the program would be the perfect fit for his nephew, Matt Ryan.
Loughery and Ryan had been close since Ryan could barely hold a football. Loughery was the one who taught him how. When Ryan was young, Loughery was his coach. Ryan followed in his uncle’s footsteps, playing quarterback at William Penn Charter School in Philadelphia. When recruiters started knocking, Loughery helped guide him.
“I was pushing real hard for BC,” said Loughery, the Eagles’ starter in 1979 and ’80 before Flutie took over at quarterback the following year. “I was pushing for a lot of reasons. Boston College is an unbelievable school. It has a great alumni, great network and I thought, you know what, if football doesn’t work out, it could end up being a great steppingstone for him in the future.”
Loughery’s nudges were just gentle enough to keep the thought in the back of Ryan’s mind.
“He loved it here and had told me that and put the right pressure on,” Ryan said. “Like, ‘It’s a great place. You’ll really enjoy it if you do want to do that.’ ’’
But Ryan believed it when he saw BC for himself.
“It came down to this place felt right for me, too,” Ryan said. “I obviously had known a little bit about it, but when I came up here and visited and met with the coaches and met the guys, it fit who I was. It fit my personality, it fit who I was as a player, who I was as a student. It just fit really well.”
Loughery never imagined just how well football and Boston College would work out for his nephew. Neither did Ryan. In five years at the Heights, Ryan carved out a legacy as one of the most accomplished quarterbacks in program history. In a storybook 2007 season, Ryan set the school record for single-season passing yards, guided the Eagles as high as No. 2 in the country, pushed them to their first ACC championship game, and won ACC player of the year.
That season was Ryan’s springboard to being drafted by the Atlanta Falcons with the third overall pick in 2008. In nine seasons since, he’s rewritten the franchise record book. Right now, he has one of the hottest hands in the NFL. His 3,247 passing yards and 24 touchdowns are second only to the Saints’ Drew Brees.
On Saturday, during halftime of BC’s game against Connecticut, the Eagles will honor Ryan by retiring his jersey. His No. 12 will be immortalized with 11 other school legends, including Flutie and Luke Kuechly, who had his number retired last month.
During the dog days of summer workouts at BC or in the middle of a practice during the season, Ryan would see the numbers hanging on the facade in the corner of the end zone.
“In the left corner, you would see those names and jerseys retired up top and you always hoped that you played well enough that it could happen,” Ryan said. “But I’d never really sat there and thought about, I need to have my name on there. For me, it was more about early on just trying to start, you know, get on the field and get the starting job. And after that, it was just about how can I improve and help our team win games.”
Loughery still remembers one of the first times Ryan took the field for BC. It happened to be in game in his hometown against Temple with tons of family in the stands.
“I saw him get on the field and all I could do was cry,” Loughery said.
Loughery said he never imagined that Ryan’s jersey number would be on the wall, but he always thought he would be a very special player at Boston College.
“On the field and off the field, he’s a very smart guy,” Loughery said. “He’s a very hard worker. So, he was going to outwork you. The other thing that people probably saw here is he’s a fiery competitor, and he wanted to be the best that he could be.”
Ryan’s equal mix of toughness and composure came to define him. When he took the Eagles into Death Valley, S.C., and Tallahassee, Fla., as a junior in 2006 and walked out with wins over Clemson and Florida State, people in the program and around the conference started to take notice.
But when the Eagles started the 2007 season with seven straight wins and shot to No. 2 in the polls, Ryan and the Eagles had the college football nation’s undivided attention.
“It was a lot of fun to be a part of that team,” Ryan said. “We had some great players, great wins. The vibe in the locker room was what you would expect. We were tight. We had a tight-knit group of guys.”
“We had guys who had been around each other for a long time and who had put in a lot of hard work together and kind of saw it come to life on the field. So it was awesome. Some of my best football memories are from that season, from that team.”
Loughery remembered it fondly as well.
“It’s something that BC had never experienced before and it made all of us very, very proud,” he said.
“Not just family members who were very proud of Matt, but all BC alumni football players. It was something that we always strived to do. It’s a very hard place to recruit to because academics are very important here. And to have that mix, it was like lightning in a bottle. There was Matt as their leader and they had a lot of great talent around them.”
The Eagles hadn’t seen that kind of success since 1984 when they finished the season ranked fifth in the country. The Eagles haven’t been ranked since 2008, but Ryan believes winning is still very much possible at BC.
“I think that when you have the right players, when you have the right people and you’re able to develop them for the amount of time that you need to do it, I think you can compete, for sure,” he said. “I think back to the teams that I was on. Even when I was younger, not playing, we had a lot of older guys, a lot of upperclassmen playing. I think when Boston College is at their best, it’s that kind of way.
“It’s maybe different from a place like Florida State where you take a freshman and he’s going to come in and change the program. There are a few guys that have done it here, but that’s typically not how it goes. So you can definitely win here, for sure, and I believe they will.”
On Saturday, Ryan will soak in the success he was able to bring the program nearly a decade ago, looking at the facade that commemorates all the BC immortals and realizing he will now be among them.
“I think looking back now, it’s surreal to think that tomorrow it’ll go up there,” he said. “Hopefully, I’ll be able to bring back family members for a long time and let them know that at one point I was pretty good here.’’