Matt Ryan remembers receiving one of his favorite Christmas presents when he was in junior high.
It was a natural progression for the veteran Falcons quarterback to pay that forward Monday with the DICK’s Sporting Goods Sports Matter Truck. Ryan interacted virtually with athletes at the Atlanta Youth Tennis and Education Foundations on TV screens mounted to the truck while those athletes received gifts of their own.
“I remember in eighth grade I got an official college Nike football, and that for me was like the best gift I could ever get,” Ryan told Sporting News. “You never know how one of these gifts is going to connect to with these kids. I’ve been (with the Falcons) 13 years and it never gets old. Each experience with kids is different. It’s unique, and it’s a first time for them, too.”
It’s been a unique and challenging season for the veteran quarterback for the same reasons with the backdrop of the COVID-19 pandemic. Atlanta started 0-5 this season and coach Dan Quinn was fired.
The Falcons have lost eight one-score games in 2020 — and Ryan said the early-season losses were tough to overcome in a strange season. He recalled how strange it was to play in the home opener at Mercedes-Benz Stadium without fans, but that wasn’t the hardest part.
“I think the biggest difficulty, at least in my opinion, is to meet in person as much as you would like,” Ryan said. “A lot of growth with young players is in the meeting rooms, in practices and meeting face to face and watching together.”
Ryan, however, is optimistic heading into 2021. Interim coach Raheem Morris is 4-5 and has emerged as a possible candidate for the full-time job. Morris had been an assistant coach with the Falcons since 2015, and Ryan remains impressed with the 44-year-old coach.
“I think for sure he’s a head coach in this league and he will be whether it’s here or somewhere else,” Ryan said. “I certainly believe he’s going to be one, and he’ll be a very good one
“I also think he relate to guys well,” he said. “For us, he’s a guy who has coached on both sides of the ball for us. He’s been here six years and coached on the offensive and defensive side of the ball. He’s very well versed in that. We’ve all loved playing for him and what he’s brought to that table.”
Ryan’s production is still there. He’s put up 4,016 yards, 22 touchdowns and 11 interceptions in 2020. Atlanta will also have a new general manager in 2021, and Ryan’s contract runs through the 2023 season.
Atlanta closes the 2020 season with tough games against Kansas City — the defending Super Bowl champions — and Tampa Bay, which rallied for a 31-27 victory against the Falcons in Week 15. Ryan said those games can be a springboard for next season, even if there are sure to be changes in the offseason.
“I think there is, like most people, there is optimism for 2021 and a return to some normalcy, hopefully,” he said. “It would be great to have people back in the stadiums and to have normal meetings and normal training camp and all those things. It is exciting to think there is going to be a fresh start. Hopefully we come together and be more productive than we have the last few years.”
The DICK’S Foundation’s Sports Matter program donated more than $145 million to help with youth athletes in under-resourced communities. “I think 2020 has definitely taught us we all need to be flexible and to find different ways to communicate, and I think everyone has become experts at Zoom in the last year,” Ryan said. “I thought it would be a unique way to surprise some kids.”