Meet the Matthew Stafford known only by his inner circle

Editor's note: This piece originally ran Dec. 26, 2016.

ALLEN PARK, Mich. -- Matthew Stafford is curious. He’ll hear about a topic, it’ll intrigue him and soon enough, he’s down a wormhole of Internet interest. He’ll search out articles written about it. He’ll start reading books on the subject.

It’s his quest to learn. He is mostly “a read for entertainment person,” but it goes deeper than that. Stafford will read just about anything, from the latest John Grisham thriller to books explaining the complexities of one of his greatest fascinations: space. He reads books on different religions, just to expand his point of view. When he reads one he likes, he’ll recommend it to his close friends, recently suggesting David Baldacci novels to college buddy Kris Durham.

When he meets someone in the finance or real-estate worlds, he’ll start asking detailed questions about their jobs to pick up knowledge on something he doesn’t know as much about. Stafford wants to gather as many viewpoints as possible, part of how the Detroit Lions quarterback shapes his worldview.

“I think a lot of people in this world live in like a vacuum. They believe one thing and then only listen to only that one thing and don’t listen to anything else,” Stafford told ESPN.com recently. “You know, it’s as evident as anything in politics these days. Every Republican listens to Fox News, and every Democrat listens to CNN -- and probably deletes the channel off DirecTV of the other one. They just live in a vacuum and say, ‘Here’s what I believe and I’m just going to listen to that all day and I’m going to hear it and I’m going to go, yes, yes, yes, I’m right, I’m right, I’m right.’

“Well, I like to kind of go the opposite route of that and say, ‘I may believe something or think something, but I know there’s people out there that believe and think the opposite, so might as well hear them out.’”

Almost 30 seconds later, Stafford admitted, “I don’t even like that I just told you that.”

Stafford is an intensely private person. He doesn’t have an Instagram account. He deleted his Twitter account. And long ago, he ditched Facebook. As his fame increased, Stafford eschewed social media. He doesn’t want it. He doesn’t need it. In his world, it would be “just phone calls and text messages, and that’s about it.” His wife, Kelly, is very active on some of the platforms, particularly Instagram, but that’s the extent of his involvement.

Stafford has been in the public spotlight since his sophomore year at Highland Park High in Dallas. And it’s been a part of his life ever since, as one of the nation’s top high school recruits, a three-year starting quarterback at football-mad Georgia, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2009 NFL draft, the starting quarterback of the Lions for the past eight seasons and in the conversation for the NFL’s Most Valuable Player award this season.

His privacy hasn’t been so private for a long time now. Yet it’s something he strives for, to live as much of his life in semi-anonymity as he can, even as millions watch him each Sunday.

“I like having privacy,” Stafford said. “I like having a personal life.”

He deflects most questions about his off-field life. When people see him in public, he’s cordial. He’ll take a picture, have a small conversation. But the limelight is never something he seeks. It’s just part of the gig.

There’s a different side, one seen by only his family and a close circle of friends, mostly from his middle school days in Texas and college at Georgia. Occasionally, he’ll provide glimpses of it in public, but he’ll never share too much about himself.

“He’s not going to be out there in your face,” said Pan Lucas, one of Stafford’s closest friends. “He’s the same guy that just wants to throw the baseball in his yard. He just has a bigger house now.”

'Our friend Matthew'

To them, he’s just “Matthew.” They look at his job as a quarterback in the NFL as a profession, nothing more. It’s because their friendships -- for the most part -- date back to days before Stafford’s fame. They remember the biggest kid on the basketball court getting frustrated with his smaller friends when they would dribble past him to the hoop. They remember the college student pumped up by reaching free-burrito status on his Chipotle punch card.

Sports, as so often happens, connected Stafford with the majority of his close friends. He met his high school friends as kids on baseball, basketball and football teams. His close college friends were recruited with him to Georgia.

And they all say the same thing: Stafford is just a normal dude. He likes watching the History Channel. He’d prefer to stay home than go out.

"He does what every other human does. He goes to work. He comes home. He deals with a nagging wife. He deals with family and he gets up and does it all over again," Kelly said. "But he doesn’t consider himself special in any regards, which he’s not.

"He knows that he throws a football well and that’s a God-given talent, and he’s brilliant and that’s God-given too, and luckily for him it has just worked out in his favor."

The intelligence does help in an area he uses often with his friends: sarcastic humor. Say a word wrong and Stafford will pounce with a one-liner. When asked about it, he half-smiles and quickly shoots out: “Don’t mess up.”

"He's the wittiest person I know," Kelly said. "Which is part of the reason I fell in love with him because he's just so smart."

They’ll fire back at him, too. Last season, friends teased him about an unruly beard that began to resemble a nest on Stafford's face as the year went on. Looking back now, Kelly even wondered what her husband was thinking -- and what she was doing encouraging him, because "it was bad."

No one is above the ribbing among his family and friends, although Kelly and Durham are his most frequent targets. Kelly admits she's an easy mark, but he'll typically make his small jabs in such a way that it comes off as either flirtatious or friendly. Stafford is comfortable here, around this group. They are protective of him and he, in turn, is fiercely loyal to them.

His friends typically introduce him to others as Matthew, their friend, not Matthew Stafford, quarterback. When Stafford’s friends paid for the entirety of his bachelor party -- something important to them because of his generosity -- Lucas said, “he was very thankful on that.” His friends rarely bring up football. They allow him to just be a normal guy with normal friends in a pretty abnormal situation.

“They get it because everybody’s around and has known him for like 15 years,” Lucas said. “He’s a normal dude. ... We’re not hanging around him and being extra nice to him because he plays pro football.

“He’s our friend Matthew, like all of our other friends.”

Stafford relishes these moments, as infrequent as they are. They allow him to blend in, which is all he has ever really wanted. He doesn’t seek the spotlight, and this group allows him to just be one of the guys.

“It’s important. I have a great group of friends that have known me from way back and got all the dirt on me in the world,” Stafford said. “So they bring me right back down to earth if I’d ever go anywhere else. They are great.

“And for me, that’s just how I view myself. I don’t view myself as a celebrity. Some of these guys who play quarterback are celebrities and all that kind of stuff. I play quarterback because I love playing quarterback and I’m lucky to do it. I don’t do it for fame or attention or any of that stuff.”

Competitive, confident from start

As Randy Allen moved into his rented house in the Highland Park neighborhood of Dallas, he watched as a neighbor’s son was throwing a football next door. Then he saw the son’s friend: an eighth-grader named Matthew Stafford. At the time, Stafford’s friends already knew the precocious nature of the young quarterback. They watched him throw a ball 50 yards in elementary school.

Allen didn’t know that, but the new Highland Park football coach was about to learn. His neighbor was Lucas, and Lucas’ dad came up to Allen and told him the boy throwing with his son was going to be his quarterback.

“I became very interested in watching him, and he could throw a ball in the eighth grade about 80 yards,” Allen said. “It’s not -- you don’t see many eighth-grade boys throw that far, and then he had receivers that could catch it.”

After the season ended, Allen went down to the middle school. He pulled Stafford out of class and brought him into the locker room and had a conversation that helped shape Stafford’s future.

Allen told Stafford he could be a starting quarterback by his sophomore year in high school. But he wanted to know Stafford’s thoughts. Stafford said he wanted to win a state championship. It showed Allen the kid with all the talent had a bunch of confidence, too.

“I was a young kid and had big aspirations and all that kind of stuff, but for him to come and pull me out of class was pretty cool and was totally unexpected,” Stafford said of Allen. “Pretty cool motivational tool by him to see where my head’s at, No. 1, and No. 2, kind of get me going.”

Stafford was a natural athlete. He was gifted at most sports. It’s why he and another childhood friend, Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Clayton Kershaw, were never allowed to be on the same team during pickup games. They were just so much better than everyone else.

And as competitive as the two were, they wanted things to be fair.

“With Matthew and Clayton on the same team, it’s not going to be competitive,” said John Dickenson, another childhood friend of Stafford and Kershaw. “They wanted to go out and compete. Matthew would compete against Clayton.

“It’s how they helped each other.”

If not football, then what?

Stafford’s friends like to play a what-if game. If Stafford weren’t playing football, what would he be doing?

Football was his obvious destination for so long, they didn’t know the answer.

“He could be a detective or a lawyer or something,” friend Shaun Chapas said. “You know what, he might be a good detective. He’s good at putting clues together, figuring out puzzles or something. He’s got a pretty sharp mind.”

Stafford liked Chapas’ answer, but he really isn’t sure. He thinks detectives are “gutsy dudes,” and he enjoys using facts to solve questions. But Stafford never really thought about what he would do if not for football and never had to in a practical sense.

“Probably riding a bus in the minor leagues, trying to play baseball somewhere,” Stafford said. “I have no idea. Football is a big part of my life, but I don’t know if I could coach. Just I see the hours those guys put in and it’s pretty incredible.

“I don’t know if I could do that, honestly. There’s a lot of, like, random stuff that interests me.”

That mind helped him become a good quarterback. In meeting rooms, he’s able to dissect a play, dart into another meeting room, throw a play out and ask receivers or tight ends to review it. It’s displayed in the notes he takes and uses for preparation.

It’s verbalized in Wednesday planning meetings, when he typically comes in with notes for offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter and quarterbacks coach Brian Callahan. Stafford is more laid back about it than the other quarterback Cooter and Callahan have worked with, Peyton Manning, but Stafford can be direct when he believes a play will succeed.

“He understands that we don’t need to do a bunch of -- we kind of do what we do and we don’t need a bunch of new things,” Callahan said. “But he’ll have, every week -- in every area of the field, in terms of third down, red zone, kind of our base stuff -- he’ll have a couple ideas. Some he’ll be like, ‘Hey, what do you think about this?’ Kind of more curious to see if it works or it doesn’t.

“Or he’ll have a couple of things that he’ll be like, ‘I really like this this week.’ He’s open and we’re open for hearing it from him.”

The coordinator and quarterbacks coach had similar thoughts: If Stafford is gung-ho about a play, it’s much more likely to work.

They've got his back

It’s July, just before the start of training camp. The Staffords have people visiting their home in Michigan to celebrate Kelly’s birthday a bit early. Her actual birthday falls during training camp, when Matthew can’t get away.

Friends come in from all over. It's a group of about 14 people who date back at least to their early days at Georgia. This is where Stafford is most comfortable, surrounded by the people who matter to him. These are the people he trusts because they knew him before he was rich and famous. And in those instances, he’ll fire up his Big Green Egg and get to work. A towel over his shoulder, this is relaxation for Stafford. It is an every-man thing: cooking food on the grill.

Grilling -- and cooking in general -- has become a passion for Stafford. Much like on a football field, it’s where he can run things with calmness and efficiency in a half-second if he needs to.

“I like trying out different stuff,” Stafford said. “And being creative.”

He’s talking about cooking, but it could easily be a description of how he plays quarterback. Stafford doesn’t follow recipes in the kitchen, choosing instead to go off feel. On the field, he has been known for his improvisation, turning a broken play into a positive gain.

Cooking, Stafford said, is something he can control. It’s kind of like how he runs the Lions' offense during a fourth-quarter comeback. He wants the ball then, because he’ll have a say in the outcome. In the kitchen, he’s in charge of the prep -- sometimes, he gets so detailed he'll stand behind Kelly while she's slicing onions -- and what food goes into his body.

“He’s kind of a health nut,” Durham said. “He watches what he eats. Like non-gluten, all that stuff. He’s extremely healthy. And every time ... he’s cooked a lot of different stuff. He’ll marinate stuff, pops up the vegetables.

“He does everything. He’ll get up and do smoked brisket, all that stuff on the Green Egg.”

He shared his passion with teammates in 2014, when he bought his offensive linemen and quarterbacks Big Green Egg grills for the holidays.

On this July day, the people Stafford is grilling for are some of his biggest supporters. He’s surrounded by that inner circle, the ones who defended him during the early years of his career, when he faced criticism that he mostly shook off. Those closest to him couldn’t do that as easily. Unlike Stafford, they had social media. They read and listened to what was said.

Stafford wouldn’t say it himself -- that’s never been Stafford’s way, other than an offhand comment here or there -- but the people closest to him couldn’t help themselves. Teammates Sam Martin and Dan Orlovsky have defended Stafford on Twitter. Kelly has been a frequent public defender of her husband, sometimes facing backlash of her own.

“It bothered me more than it bothers him,” Durham said of Stafford's critics. “I’m being serious. He focuses on the things he can control, and he doesn’t try to pay attention to outside of the locker room. I don’t think that he really pays attention much to what’s being said.”

It’s a way some of the people close to Stafford, particularly Kelly, show their loyalty to someone they love and care about. After meeting at Georgia in 2007 through a mutual friend, Fred Munzenmaier, Matthew and Kelly started as friends, began to date and progressed into a relationship, engagement and eventually marriage in 2015.

In many ways, Matthew and Kelly are opposites. Kelly is fiery. Matthew can be nonchalant about a lot of things unrelated to his job. She exudes the energy of the cheerleader she was at Georgia. He’s pretty much calm in every situation.

She’ll often voice her opinion publicly, including criticizing media and fans when they speak negatively about her husband and his team. Her husband hardly ever will say anything about it. When Kelly brings it up, Stafford simply will say, "Stop reading what you're reading." To which Kelly typically responds, "OK, you're right, fine."

She’ll share on social media some of the good deeds she and her husband do, including buying a bunch of Christmas gifts each year for families in need. Stafford does a lot of other charity work that rarely is publicized. When it does get out, it’s usually because of the organization he’s helping or his wife posting on Instagram about the experiences.

Their being opposites has helped Stafford. He and Kelly have known each other so long that it’s hard for him to know whether it actually changed him, but she has challenged him. And it’s made him better.

“She’s awesome,” Stafford said. “We kind of oppose each other in a lot of things, and it’s fun. It’s part of life and part of what makes relationships good. She’s great.”

Kelly is a big part of his inner circle and has been for years. She’s the one who arranged for Durham, Lucas and others to come up this month, when the Lions hosted the Chicago Bears, because he hadn’t seen them for a while and they both know change is coming.

Stafford could be in for a big offseason. It’s unlikely a lucrative contract extension -- one that could make him the highest-paid player in the NFL -- will alter him much since he already has made tens of millions of dollars. Something else might. Kelly is pregnant and they are expecting twin girls, Chandler and Sawyer, in the spring. That, he said, is going to be different.

Kelly said she has already seen a shift. When they found out she was pregnant but before they knew the gender of their children, Kelly hoped for boys. Stafford wanted girls.

"He’s turning into a little bit of a softy when it comes to the home life these days," Kelly said. "You know, if I push on my belly too much, he’s like, ‘Stop. Stop.’ I’m like, ‘It’s OK, they’re fine. I’m just trying to move them around in there a little bit.’

"I think it’ll definitely change him. I think it’ll change anyone. I’m excited to see him as a dad. I know he’s going to be awesome."

One thing can be sure. No matter how much he might change, he’s still likely to hold on tightly to his privacy. It’s the way he likes it. The way he wants it. And it’s the way Matthew Stafford is able to keep being himself.