Many high school and college seniors were robbed of their final athletic seasons and graduation ceremonies due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Not much can be said to comfort these young student-athletes, but Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan took a whack at it.
Never before in our lifetimes have such sweeping cancellations of group activities taken place. One of those canceled events was the inaugural USA TODAY High School Sports Awards in Atlanta. Two other events celebrating top high school athletes also were scheduled to be held in Dallas and Los Angeles.
Instead, those events now will be held online June 18. Although there no longer will be a red carpet involved, the online version of the USA TODAY High School Sports Awards still will recognize high school athletes, including graduating seniors, for their individual and team accomplishments during the 2019-20 academic year.
Ryan was scheduled to speak at the in-person event in Atlanta until the move to an online ceremony was announced.
In a recent interview with USA TODAY, Ryan offered encouragement in the midst of overwhelming disappointment for seniors who are missing out on cherished rites of passage.
“First, I’m sorry. That part of it is tough. It’s an exciting time in your life at the end of high school, your last year, your last time. Maybe for a lot of the student-athletes, it’s their last time ever playing,” Ryan said. “Some of them might not play (in college), and it breaks your heart as somebody who has gone through and had these kinds of experiences that they might not have.
"That’s a huge lesson, too, in life. There are a lot of things that are going to come up at different times that really show you that things can change in a heartbeat. It gives you perspective to be able to enjoy things when they’re good and to take advantage of that.”
Despite the cancellation of the in-person event, Ryan encouraged student-athletes to do their best to turn the disappointment into a learning opportunity.
“I think the message would be: Life is going to throw a lot of different things at you, and this virus is one of them," Ryan said. "I think the biggest thing that you want to build as you’re going through high school or college or early adulthood is the ability to be able to handle these types of situations and have the strength inside to persevere and to move through, to have the strength of character to be able to do that, and I think you develop that through relationships. So my advice would be to create strong relationships as you move forward, and lean on people in times when you need to."
Ryan, who will turn 35 on May 17, has been starting quarterback for the Falcons since being drafted No. 3 overall out of Boston College in 2008. Over 12 seasons, Ryan has earned four Pro Bowl nominations. He led Atlanta to Super Bowl LI and won the NFL MVP award in the 2016 season. He ranks among the top 10 quarterbacks in NFL history in many categories, including career passing yards, completions and completion percentage.
Even after achieving success at the professional level, the Boston College alum knows high school sports makes a special, lasting influence on student-athletes. Ryan fondly remembers how sports figures such as former Temple University basketball coach John Chaney and former Philadelphia Phillies third baseman Scott Rolen motivated him at high school sports awards ceremonies when he was a standout at William Penn Charter School in Philadelphia in the early 2000s.
“It was about teamwork and the effort that you put into it with your friends, your best friends, the guys you grew up with,” Ryan said. “We worked so hard together during the summers to get ourselves ready to play, and when you see those things come to fruition, it makes you value hard work and discipline. Those are things I learned at that age that have never gone away.”
Not to make Ryan feel old, but he’s been a Falcon as long as most high school student-athletes can remember. When young athletes look at sports heroes, they see more than the wins and losses, contract details and Xs and Os. The lessons that athletes impart have impact far beyond the playing field, and Ryan feels the weight of that responsibility as a role model.
“There’s a part of you that wants to be a positive influence for them -- and to know the impact you can have on people is significant, so I try to live my life in a way that when and if these guys have a chance to meet me, they would hopefully be not let down, for sure,” Ryan said. “They would enjoy that meeting and come away from it feeling really good about it.”
Ryan still remembers when he met his childhood hero, Brett Favre, who provided that same inspiration for him as a young student-athlete. The Falcons quarterback laughed as he recalled the first time Favre spoke to him.
“The first time, it was over the phone,” Ryan said. “He left me a message when I was a senior in college, and I called him back. He was playing for the Packers at the time. He was just talking about his agent and a recommendation for his agent, but I’ll never forget listening to that voicemail and hearing his voice on the other side of it. I couldn’t dial that number back fast enough.”
Although Ryan won’t have the opportunity to inspire Atlanta-area athletes the same way this year, USA TODAY Sports has created a star-studded online event with award presentations by many celebrity athletes, including New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees. The event will be held June 18 at 6 p.m. ET and available on demand afterward.
More information can be found on the USA TODAY Sports High School Sports Awards website.