On May 13, 2017, 105 seniors at Pace Academy in Atlanta gathered for their graduation ceremony. They knew there was a guest speaker, but didn't know who it was other than it'd be a surprise.
So when the guest speaker was revealed, and the reigning NFL MVP strolled to the microphone, a bunch of those graduates were so awestruck they couldn't even process what Matt Ryan was saying.
One of those 105 seniors in the crowd was Deon Jackson.
Who's now teammates with Ryan in Indianapolis.
"Pretty much everyone was like, oh, shoot, it's Matt Ryan," Jackson said. "Honestly, I can't even remember what he said."
(The message Ryan gave in his commencement speech was about resiliency, by the way.)
Think about how incredible it would've been if Peyton Manning spoke at your high school graduation. That was the experience Jackson and his classmates at Pace Academy had – Matty Ice, the MVP quarterback of our team, was speaking at our graduation.
"That's somebody we looked up to, somebody we aspired to be like," Jackson, the second-year Colts running back, said. "It's kind of crazy that everything comes full circle."
Jelani Woods was one of thousands of kids in the Atlanta metro area over the last decade and a half who'd put in their No. 2 Falcons jersey, go in their backyard or to a park with a football and pretend they were Ryan slinging passes around the Georgia Dome.
"Everybody did that," Woods said. "Especially me."
Especially Woods, since he grew up playing quarterback in the Atlanta area. Some of his earliest football memories were watching Ryan light up defenses throwing to Roddy White and Julio Jones, or handing off to Michael Turner, or finding Tony Gonzalez in the end zone.
As the starting quarterback at Cedar Grove High School, Woods won a Georgia state title as a senior, beating Greater Atlanta Christian (quarterbacked by current Houston Texans starting QB Davis Mills) at the Georgia Dome. Ryan came up to Woods at breakfast during training camp and told him he remembered that game.
Woods, now a tight end, was drafted in the third round to catch touchdowns from Ryan, just like Gonzalez did a decade ago. All of a sudden, the guy he grew up idolizing became the guy who'll throw him the ball as a pro.
"He'll go down in history in Atlanta as being one of Atlanta's top quarterbacks they've had, and the role model he was to the city," Woods said. "A lot of people hated it that he left but I'm glad he's here in Indy. I feel like he can do the same thing here as well."
Colts cornerback Brandon Facyson grew up in Newnan, Ga., about 40 miles outside Atlanta. It's still considered part of the sprawling metro Atlanta area. And in Newnan, Facyson remembers: "Everyone was wearing Matt Ryan jerseys."
"He definitely impacted that surrounding area 10-fold," Facyson added.
And Rodrigo Blankenship, the third-year Colts kicker, watched Ryan and those electric Falcons teams every Sunday with his dad in Marietta, Ga.
"I always kind of remember him being someone that not just the Atlanta metro area, but the whole state of Georgia gravitated toward," Blankenship said. "He's just a really incredible person besides being an incredible quarterback, and I think that everybody could see that and could tell that, and just knowing he has really great character and integrity is something that made a lot of people gravitate toward him and want to root for him."
Those four Atlanta-area natives on the Colts all have fond memories of watching Ryan as kids and teenagers. But he's not their idol anymore – he's their teammate, their peer, their starting quarterback.
"It turned from idolizing to learning from him, being able to pick his brain every day," Woods said. "And then pretty much doing whatever he asks because he's been through it, he knows it pretty well. It's been great, it's been tremendous."
For Woods and Jackson, having Ryan's knowledge and football IQ at their disposal has helped get them up to speed quickly in the Colts' offense.
"He's very vocal," Jackson said. "You see that from Day 1, we were here running routes of Phase 1 of OTAs, he's very vocal. He pays attention to the little details, the small things like if you have a hitch in your step, he's pointing that out because of timing and preaching the importance of the little things and how it adds to the whole scheme of the play."
For Facyson, the open line of communication he and defensive teammates have with Ryan has been important in avoiding tendencies or tells that might give away what the defense's playcall is.
"I feel like that's how it's supposed to be," Facyson said. "(Ryan) sees something, show me what I did or show me what you saw so I might not repeat the same mistake in the game."
And from Blankenship's perspective, watching how Ryan goes about his business every minute he's in the Colts' facility has been eye-opening.
"He definitely is a pro in every sense of the word," Blankenship said. "He's all about the team in everything that he does. He's in there doing all of our workouts with us — it's not like he goes off and does his own thing, he wants to show that he's working and grinding with us every single step of the way. I think that's something that I can really appreciate about what he does and how he carries himself, where he is literally all about the team all the time."
Ryan kept in contact with Pace Academy's Head of School, Fred Assaf, after giving giving the commencement address in 2017. So when he arrived in Indianapolis for the start of the offseason program, he knew there was a Pace Academy alum in the Colts' locker room, and he sought out Jackson to chat with him in April.
Four months later, Ryan threw a screen pass to Jackson in the Colts' final preseason game, with the running back dashing 26 yards after the catch. Back home in Atlanta, "some people kind of went crazy over it," Jackson said.
The last few months have truly been a full circle moment for Jackson, who grew up idolizing Matt Ryan – and now belongs on the field with him.
"Having Matt Ryan, somebody I looked up to, somebody I watched on TV since I was literally a little kid, he came and spoke," Jackson said, "and then now I'm in the locker room with him. It's crazy."