It may come as a text message this week, a conversation on the field at Hard Rock Stadium before the Atlanta Falcons and Miami Dolphins play on Sunday or, more than likely, a brief chat after. But at some point, the interaction and latest reunion will come.
Matt Ryan and Dolphins coach Brian Flores have known each other for almost 20 years, well before Ryan became an NFL MVP in Atlanta and Flores rose through the New England Patriots coaching system to land the head job in Miami. Nah, this goes back, coincidentally, to Boston. But not to the Patriots.
Instead, to Boston College. To the year 2003, when Flores was a fifth-year senior linebacker considered one of the leaders of the Eagles defense. One of the men preparing him daily to play on Saturdays was the freshman quarterback who ran the scout team — Ryan.
How those practices went depends on whom you ask.
Flores: “He was carving us up as a scout-team player and we wanted him out of there. That’s the true story.”
Ryan: “I just remember getting my ass kicked most days. Those are one of the years you want to, like, delete from your memory. Scout team getting pushed around, 18-year-old kid, probably 190 pounds getting pushed around. [Flores] was just tough, a tough football player.”
The truth, as it always tends to be, likely resided somewhere in the middle. Flores was a pain to block, then-freshman running back Jo-Lonn Dunbar said, because he always — always — was in the right spot, creating pressure when he needed to. Ryan was the player who fit in with the upperclassmen early, occasionally being invited along to outside-of-football events with a tight-knit group of players including Flores and offensive lineman Augie Hoffman.
“You could tell the kid was going to be different,” Hoffman said. “He was just a different type of kid, you know what I mean, in terms of his play.”
But he wasn’t yet Matt Ryan, the leader of the 2007 Boston College team that went 11-3, or Matt Ryan, Heisman Trophy candidate. The Ryan that Flores and his peers faced was a player with clear talent still learning everything, not quite the quarterback who would become one of the best players in BC history.
Boston College would become Ryan’s team. In 2003, it belonged to Flores and the upperclassmen.
The relationship between Flores and Ryan likely bloomed later because the reality of college football teams is that not everyone knows each other very well. It’s next-to-impossible with almost 100 players on the roster, as there were during the 2003 Boston College season, and the difference between someone who is 22 or 23 years old and an 18-year-old is massive, even with someone as mature as Ryan.
But the two had similarities — even if it didn’t show when they played together. Both were dependable. Both could command the attention of their peers. Both could inspire, and each wanted to make sure he was getting the best out of his teammates. They learned in the ways of Tom O’Brien, the then-Boston College head coach known for a disciplined, tough style from his time at Navy and in the Marines.
Flores, a quiet leader, embodied what they were looking for. He wouldn’t say much but made sure everyone was involved.
When Flores suffered a right quadriceps injury the week of practice leading up to the team’s bowl game against Colorado State — ending his career — it altered his team. The Eagles won their bowl game, 35-21, to finish the season 8-5, but there was a piece missing: Flores.
“‘Damn, that’s our guy,'” Hoffman said. “We want him to experience this last game with us. Not having the ability to do that, that was the hard part.
“And I can’t speak to how he felt about it, but I knew how we felt about it and that was tough.”
It wasn’t a win-one-for-Flores thing, but he had meant so much that his on-field absence was noticeable. The spark he played with, the power he hit with. Ryan Mattison, a defensive back in 2003 who is now the offensive coordinator at Brown, called Flores “a glue-type guy.” That went for on the field and off it. And for the entire roster.
Boston College had a new quarterback that year — not just Ryan, but BC’s starter, Paul Peterson. Peterson was different than many of his teammates: a junior college transfer and the only married player on the team at the time.
“[Flores is] really one of the only guys to reach out early on when I was there to be included and involved,” said Peterson, now the head coach at Dixie State. “I still remember after a summer workout he invited me along when they were going to a lake or something like that, and that meant a lot. He is a good person that way.”
In Dunbar, Flores found a player who listened to everything he said. Early in 2003, Boston College’s coaches approached Dunbar and asked him to consider moving from running back to linebacker. One of the first people Dunbar spoke to was Flores.
Flores offered to help with the adjustment. Even if he hadn’t, Dunbar said he would have tried to emulate him anyway. Instead, Flores became an extension of the coaches to Dunbar and another redshirting linebacker, Tyronne Pruitt.
Dunbar and Pruitt followed Flores everywhere. Watched tape with him. Worked out with him. Even after Flores finished his career and went to the Patriots, he continued mentoring Dunbar and Pruitt from down the road.
“We learned literally everything we can about football from Flo,” Dunbar said.
Some of those lessons manifested in 2007, when Dunbar and Ryan were captains of the Eagles. By then, it had become Ryan’s team. He had matured from when he first got on campus — as every player does — and blossomed into one of college football’s top players.
That he was a good quarterback surprised no one. That he went from being who he was on the scout team in 2003 to the No. 3 overall pick in the 2008 NFL draft did take some of his 2003 teammates by surprise.
Peterson, who saw how competitive Ryan was in the position room and when he became Peterson’s backup in 2004, still thought of him as the skinny kid who showed up on campus in 2003.
“When Tom Brady came out and he has that picture from the combine and he’s in those gray shorts, that’s what Matt looked like at that time,” Peterson said. “So just skinny, underdeveloped, but had a ton of potential. You knew that.”
In training camp and as his redshirt season went on, Ryan’s personality and future leadership started peeking through.
He was still deferential to the older players even as he was trying to make plays on them in practice. But when he received chances to run the third team, the fiery, super competitive side of Ryan showed up.
“He’s running with it and he’s talking crap and that’s what you want,” Dunbar said. “As a player, that’s what you want out of your leader. That’s what you want out of your quarterback, especially if he’s going to do the right thing and make the right plays and you can trust him.
“You want that kind of stuff you can get your hands dirty with.”
It’s the type of player Ryan has always been, from when he became the starting quarterback at Boston College to his senior year, when Dunbar said the defense believed if it got three stops in any game they’d win because Ryan was that good and efficient on offense. Then through Ryan’s 14 seasons as the Falcons’ starting quarterback. It’s the player Flores will know all too well on the opposing sideline Sunday. Flores was the same way when he played. Same way now as a coach.
But they both did something else. As hard as they might go after you in a practice or a game, once it ended, it ended. Dunbar remembered hitting Ryan once as he slid — not purposely — during a Saints-Falcons game. Ryan cursed at Dunbar. Dunbar cursed back. After the game, they caught up as old friends.
So don’t be surprised if that happens again Sunday. Flores and Ryan are going to do everything they can to beat each other. And after, they might just go and hug it out as the old friends they’ll be for many more Sundays to come.