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‘Take care of school first’
Quarterback pitches value of reading
Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan answers questions from the audience as girlfriend Sarah Marshall stands in the background. - photo by Jared Putnam
When inclement weather sacked Matt Ryan’s plans for Read Across America Day, the Atlanta Falcons quarterback simply called an audible.

Ryan and his girlfriend, Sarah Marshall, came to Haw Creek Elementary School on Monday to promote the annual reading celebration.

The Falcons quarterback rescheduled after snow forced local schools to close early March 2.

“Reading is such an important part of the students’ world at this age,” said Melissa Johnston, library media specialist. “To have [Matt Ryan] come out ... [the students] have been excited for a week.”

Although Ryan has completed just two seasons in the NFL, the community service opportunities he participates in through the Falcons organization have made him something of a veteran at reading to children.

This time out, however, the superstar handed off the reading duties to Marshall, while he spent time fielding questions from students and visiting with faculty during two separate morning assemblies.

“I didn’t have to read today, Sarah did a great job of it,” Ryan said. “But just answering questions and helping out in the school districts means a lot.

“Any time you can get back into the schools, it’s a great opportunity. Promoting reading ... what better [cause] is there?”

Marshall, who like Ryan sports an impressive resume of academic and athletic achievements, read two books to each group of students, including one of her own childhood favorites, “Where the Wild Things Are.”

“Matt and I were happy to be able to do it,” Marshall said. “Matt does this often. This was my first time being with the kids, but I think it’s always great to have someone older and someone that they recognize come in and promote the same things they hear from their teachers.”

It didn’t take long for Ryan to connect with the young audiences that covered the majority of the floor space in the gymnasium.

Students sat attentively, some wearing Ryan’s trademark No. 2 Atlanta Falcons jersey, and seemed eager to learn new things about him.

The questions from students and faculty alike touched on Ryan’s feelings about the rival New Orleans Saints and his thoughts on the indecisiveness of fellow NFL quarterback Brett Favre.

He also was asked, among other queries, whether he was really born in Pennsylvania.

The students cheered in agreement when the signal-caller talked about his everyday life, including his love of pizza and the TV show “American Idol.”

The only time Ryan seemed in danger of losing his largely star-struck young audience came when he was asked about his college football loyalties.

After explaining that he wasn’t particularly a fan of the University of Georgia, the Boston College alumnus was showered with boos.

“I have some teammates on the Falcons who played for Georgia, so I like a lot of the guys that I know from Georgia,” said Ryan after the noise died down, seizing the moment for a bit of damage control. “I pull for them when they’re not playing BC.”

But while Ryan’s time with the students included plenty of light-hearted material, he also brought a more serious message about the importance of education.

And as an NFL quarterback, arguably the most cerebral position in all of professional sports, Ryan speaks with a certain amount of authority on the subject.

“A lot of being able to be successful in sports comes from skills you learn in school, being able to study well, being able to manage your time and be efficient with what you do,” Ryan said. “In order to do the things you love, you have to take care of school first.”

As students left the gym after each assembly, some got the opportunity to pose for photos with Ryan. Most, however, seemed content to slap the outstretched right hand of the 6-foot-4 athlete towering over them.

“Not so hard,” PTA President Diana O’Sullivan said with a laugh, as the sound of a particularly hard slap rang out across the gym. “That’s his throwing arm.”