Nick Nugent was pushing down the highway to make the 6 o’clock business class he taught at Boston College, but the more afternoon traffic crawled, the more it became obvious that he wasn’t going to beat the clock.
So he pulled off the road, found a McDonald’s, and fired off an e-mail to his class Listserv and hoped one of his 40 students would see it.
“I think I’m going to be a little bit late,” he wrote. “If there’s anyone on campus that can get up there, would you mind running up to the classroom and putting a little note on the board that I might be a little late.”
Within about two minutes, he got a reply.
“Yes, I’ll be happy to do that.”
The e-mail happened to come from the one student who was in the thick of the Heisman Trophy race and had created a nationwide buzz about BC’s football team.
When Nugent finally made it to Fulton Hall, he had a class there waiting on him and the note was on the board.
How Matt Ryan, of all people, would be the first person to respond to his e-mail still baffles Nugent to this day.
“It was interesting at the time because Matt was the star quarterback, he was the Heisman candidate, the media was all over him at the time,” Nugent said. “But he was considerate enough to offer to run up to — was on lower campus at the time — run up to middle campus to Fulton Hall and put a note on the board that the professor might be 10 or 15 minutes late. And I thought that was incredibly considerate given who he was.
“The class was 6 o’clock at night, which is even more interesting because it was after football practice. So he’s just finished football practice and he’s probably trying to get something to eat and he gets an e-mail from his professor and he offers to put a note up on the board.”
Looking back 10 years later, with Ryan set to start for the Falcons next Sunday in Super Bowl LI against the Patriots, that’s the Matt Ryan that Nugent will always remember.
He aced the class, “which isn’t an easy chore,” Nugent said, but he was conscientious and considerate and had an attention for detail that carried far beyond the football field.
“He even turned in a paper early one time because the football team would be traveling and he said he wouldn’t have a chance to do it over the weekend,” Nugent said.
Ryan became a phenomenon at BC. He led the Eagles to the No. 2 ranking in the country in 2007 (the highest the school has ever reached), he rewrote the school’s record books, surpassing legendary quarterback Doug Flutie for touchdowns in a season, and he collected more awards than his arms could hold.
But while he was at the Heights, he left an indelible impression on almost everyone he came in contact with, and he did it in the littlest ways.
Andrea DeFusco was assistant dean of the College of Arts and Sciences while Ryan was there and she still remembers his lanky 6-foot-4-inch frame folding into the same seat in the back row of the class — dead center.
One day, the class was having a discussion about arguments — “in the rhetorical sense,” she said. The crux was ethos against pathos and arguing effectively, and the pitfalls of relying too much on pathos.
It wasn’t easy for students to wrap their minds around.
“The class was having a hard time with it because it’s something you either have a feel for or you don’t,” DeFusco said. “It’s something hard to put into words.”
She kept digging into the idea of pathos, leaning too heavily on emotion and not enough substance.
She looked to the class for feedback and Ryan raised his hand.
“He said, ‘Well, what about ethos?’ ” DeFusco recalled. “He was explaining about the idea of being an authority in the field and he said, ‘Well, one component is integrity.’ I said, ‘Well, how? In what way would that matter?’ And he said, and I’ll remember this until the day I die, ‘In every way.’ ”
The whole class laughed, DeFusco said, because the moment was funny.
But Ryan meant it sincerely.
“That’s what I remember about that kid,” DeFusco said. “He walked the walk. He talked the talk. Heisman candidate, it didn’t matter. His feet were on the ground. He really believed that, and I’ll bet you, dollars to donuts, he believes that to this day. ‘Integrity’s not just one thing, it’s everything, and I’m going to keep that with me forever.’ ”
From trainers to teammates, professors to coaches, classmates to roommates, Ryan treated everyone as if it was a gift to be in their presence.
Robert D’Amelio has served as BC’s head chef since 1989. He’s also been a Patriots season ticket-holder since 1994.
When he saw Ryan, he thought the same thing as everyone else.
“Wow, this kid is skinny. Can he throw the ball?’’ D’Amelio said. “Then when I saw him in practice, I was like, ‘Wow, he can really throw.’ ”
But two things were especially intriguing to D’Amelio: They shared the same birthday (May 17), and Ryan wore the same number as Patriots quarterback Tom Brady.
“I said I had to meet this guy,” D’Amelio said.
One day in the dining hall, D’Amelio couldn’t help but mention it.
“You wear No. 12, too,” he said.
Ryan asked him, “What do you mean?”
D’Amelio said, “Patriots.”
Ryan put it all together. “Oh, you must be a Pats fan.”
D’Amelio said, “Might be? I am.”
Ryan almost never missed a meal — breakfast, lunch, dinner, and snack.
He devoured the chicken. He paid close attention to his diet, and over time D’Amelio watched it pay off.
“He took care of his body, even when he was younger,” D’Amelio said.
But Ryan’s attitude never changed.
“He never had a bad day,” D’Amelio said.
Ryan returned to campus in November for a ceremony to retire his jersey. He stopped in Walsh Hall to grab a bite. When he saw D’Amelio, it was like traveling into the past.
“He came right over, stuck his hand out, and gave me a hug,” D’Amelio said.
Father Tony Penna, a chaplain at BC for the past 25 years, still remembers one particularly tough day when he was set to give a lecture but arrived to an empty room.
“The camera’s there, and I’m looking,” Penna said. “No. One. Has. Come. To. The. Talk. That’s unusual.”
Just as he started to pull his microphone off and tell the cameraman to pack up, Ryan walked in.
“I said, ‘What are you doing?’ ” Penna said. “He said, ‘Isn’t there a talk tonight?’ I said, ‘Yeah, but nobody came.’ I said, ‘You don’t think I’m going to give you the talk?’ He comes down and he says, ‘Just give me an outline. Give me a summary of it.’
“I thought about it, after I got to know him, that he has that ability to draw out of you — and I wanted to go home, right? — to draw out of you your best or draw out of you more than you think you have at that moment. He did it with a little way with me that night, made me do the summary. I didn’t come out for nothing, you know?”
Ryan and Penna struck up a relationship that lasted through Ryan’s time at BC. When the team held Mass, Ryan served as Penna’s assistant, helping him give out Communion when some people might shy away.
“He wasn’t embarrassed to do that,” Penna said. “Maybe in his own mind he says there are some things even more important than football and that is staying true to your value, your faith.”
After Ryan got married in 2011, he came back to Boston to hold another ceremony at the Liberty Hotel to celebrate with friends who couldn’t make it to the wedding. Penna handled the services.
“As a first-year right through, he didn’t change,” Penna said. “He got more mature, but that niceness, when you’re in front of him, you were a present to him — and that’s not me because I had a position but everyone he met — but that consistency of being a present to someone was just humbling.”
Julian Benbow can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @julianbenbow.