How 34-year-old Matt Ryan stays young and connects with the kids

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- Wide receiver Russell Gage didn’t even try to dance around the harsh reality: Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan kicks his butt all the time.

No, we aren't talking about physical confrontations. This has to do with what happens when each player steps in front of the 2.7-by-1.5 meter rectangle situated inside the locker room.

"Pingpong? Oh, man, I’m getting better at that, but he normally wins," Gage admitted. "I’ve won a couple games, but he basically wins every series. He has this mean serve, bruh, that he’s really worked on and perfected where he just drops it over the net. The only way to get it back is to pop it up in the air, but then you know he’s going to spike it."

Gage, entering his second year, has grown accustomed to walking toward his locker and hearing Ryan yell, "Come on, Gage, let’s go!" with paddle in hand. Sometimes Gage summons safety Keanu Neal for a doubles clash against Ryan and receiver Julio Jones.

Not a wise playcall against that sort of two-man look.

"Julio’s pretty good, too," Ryan said. "In doubles, Julio and I have never been beat in the locker room, and we have Keanu Neal and Russ Gage trying every day. In doubles, we’re unstoppable."

Making connections

Ryan, 34, is the third-oldest player on the team behind kicker Matt Bryant (44) and fellow quarterback Matt Schaub (38). He has 28 teammates age 26 or younger on the 53-man roster. Nine of his offensive mates have yet to start an NFL game, while Ryan has started all 174 career games and has played 10,985 offensive snaps.

Challenging the guys at pingpong is one way Ryan keeps himself connected to his 20-something teammates heading into Sunday’s official start of his 12th season against the Minnesota Vikings. He’s always up for friendly intrasquad competition, even if he can’t keep up with the ensuing trash talk.

"For one thing, they get to see my personality away from the meeting room or the field," Ryan said. "A lot of times, I’m ripping these guys’ asses, and that’s just what you have to do as part of this position. There’s a demand that you need these guys to be in the right place at the right time and to do their job.

"But I try to make a good effort to get to know these guys, personally, and for them to get to know me personally, too. I’m pretty chill when it comes to doing other things. I think they see that, and there’s a respect level that when we do lock in, it’s time to lock in and go to work."

Ryan is focused on what the Falcons are trying to accomplish on the field: their first Super Bowl title. He has reinforced it by paying for teammates to travel to places such as south Florida and Southern California for added offseason work. Simple interactions away from football strengthen the trust the Falcons have in their leader.

"Even though everyone looks at him like he makes so much more money than us and he lives in a nicer house, he does a good job, when he’s in the building, of sitting with people at lunch and talking with them about normal life stuff ..." said Kurt Benkert, the team’s injured developmental quarterback. "He’s just someone you can relate to."

Fourth-year tight end Austin Hooper credited Ryan for being one of the "top three" shooters on the team in basketball. Hooper referred to the hoop set up in the team meeting room and how bathroom breaks turn into impromptu shootouts, usually with Ryan and Schaub leading the way.

Ryan, a three-sport athlete coming out of high school, didn’t disagree with Hooper’s assessment of his skills.

"I’ve taken a little bit of money," Ryan boasted. "Schaubby can shoot, too. Must be something with those quarterbacks; the hand-eye is pretty good."

Ryan uses the same form to conquer the Pop-A-Shot game sitting in the hallway leading off the playing field. Oh, and he has collected a few bucks via card games as well.

"When I was young, we would play cards in the locker room -- and we still play -- or we had a domino table," Ryan said. "Now you have guys playing dominoes on their phones against each other in the locker room. It’s an interesting time, to kind of see things transition."

Ryan has adapted to changing times without being inauthentic. You won’t catch him strolling around in skinny jeans or Yeezys while humming Lil Nas X lyrics. He's still more Banana Republic than anything.

“I always think this: If you are yourself in the locker room and you are who you are, other people can appreciate that," Ryan said. "Sometimes when you’re trying a little bit too hard ... I just think the best way to relate to anybody is just being yourself. ... And I think that kind of helps cross generations."

Changing times for rookies

When Ryan entered the league in 2008 at age 23, he was nudged by 35-year-old safety Lawyer Milloy about the locker room stereo being ancient. So, Ryan -- fresh off signing a six-year, $72 million rookie contract -- purchased a new one.

"I forgot how much it was," Ryan said, "but it was not cheap."

Don’t expect Ryan to prod current rookie first-round offensive linemen Chris Lindstrom and Kaleb McGary to decorate the office in a similar fashion. Heck, Ryan won’t even hit them up for a meal.

"When I was a rookie, it was kind of the culture of the NFL to do rookie dinners," Ryan said. "Contracts were also different at the time, too. The way the CBA was set up, some of the higher-drafted guys came into a little bit more money than the guys are coming into now. It was just a culture to pick up dinners. That’s changed.

"Now, it’s more inclusive, honestly. It saves money for those young guys. And I remember, too, as an older guy, it’s an uncomfortable feeling having to do that stuff. I don’t want to put those guys in that situation."

The whole concept of "hazing" has toned down for the Falcons under coach Dan Quinn. The most you might see, at least publicly, is a few guys toting around helmets or carrying pads. But when Ryan was a rookie, he was thrust onto the meeting-room stage one evening and required to dance to the sounds of a DJ brought in by former Falcons coach Mike Smith.

"That’s the most embarrassed I ever was," Ryan said. "I had to dance for the entirety of the song, whatever song it was. And no, I’m not a good dancer. But I remember [then-offensive coordinator] Mike Mularkey had to get up there, too. And Mike hit 'The Sprinkler' across the stage. It was actually pretty good."

Games and tunes

These days, Ryan just sits back and enjoys when guys such as Gage and receiver Christian Blake have their locker room dance-offs. He wouldn’t dare attempt Gage’s Louisiana "Billy Bounce," a move that has become a staple in the popular online game Fortnite.

Speaking of Fortnite, Ryan has tried that, too. Last season, he was curious about receiver Calvin Ridley's celebration after a 75-yard score against New Orleans. Ridley told Ryan he copied it off Fortnite, so Ryan dug a little deeper into the game. It also helped to pick the brain of Benkert, an avid gamer who competed in a national Fortnite pro-am.

"I try to make a good effort to get to know these guys, personally, and for them to get to know me personally, too." Falcons QB Matt Ryan

"I played just one time, and I had no idea what I was doing," Ryan said. "My reaction was like, 'What the heck are these guys into?'

"When I was really big into playing video games, it was 007 on Nintendo 64 or Mario Kart. Dude, the stuff now is so confusing to me. You can’t really see who you are playing against. That’s why I feel so old."

At least having diverse musical tastes makes Ryan feel a little younger at heart. Teammate Mohamed Sanu disclosed Ryan’s affinity for Jay-Z, but the quarterback revealed there's another rapper at the top of his playlist.

"Where guys laugh at me is that I like more mainstream, so I like Drake," Ryan said. "And the guys are like, 'Come on, man.' I mean, a lot of the stuff they play, I can’t find it anywhere.

"Heck, I never listened to country music before I came here, and [former Falcons quarterback] John Parker Wilson introduced me to it. Now, Mo Sanu is the guy who keeps me the most current, and Mo is not that young."

Matty Fire and Ice

There is one other off-field, team-unifying activity Ryan has been glad to be a part of: keeping up with the television series "Game of Thrones."

"Oh my god, who wasn’t watching it?" Ryan said. "Everybody, honestly. You’d come in on Monday morning during the offseason and we would have breakfast before workouts and if somebody hadn’t watched it yet, you’re like, 'Get out. Go into the locker room.'

"I remember one year when it was still on during training camp, DQ [Quinn] moved back bed check and had it set up in the amenities building where everybody had the different televisions on. They were like 30, 40 people down in there watching it. That was like a big thing."

Catching up on shows, shooting hoops, talking music, gaming. Taken individually, each of those activities might seem insignificant, but combined, they help build the "brotherhood" concept the Falcon preach and firmly believe in. When incoming 22- or 23-year-olds see that one-time MVP Ryan is fully invested, it only fortifies the team.

"He’s real genuine, man," Gage said of Ryan. "He treats everybody like they’re on the same level. If you didn’t know him, you would never know he’s a $100-150 million guy. He’s just really, really cool."

And unbeatable in pingpong, too.