If you saw any of the eight games Matthew Stafford played for the Detroit Lions during the 2019 season, you would have noticed a light blue bracelet on his right wrist. The bracelet, made by Matt and Sarah Ryan, was given to the Lions quarterback to support his wife, Kelly Stafford, after finding out she had a brain tumor.
Matthew wore the bracelet, which read "Stafford Strong," in each of the games he appeared.
While the Ryans and Staffords will compete against each other Sunday, they're on the same team every other day of the year.
How it all began
Matt Ryan had one of his best seasons in 2014 and was later named to the 2015 Pro Bowl in Glendale, Ariz. He was one of three quarterbacks on "Team Irvin." Matthew Stafford joined Ryan on the team as a late addition since he was an alternate on the roster.
Ryan and the Staffords arrived on the same day, and through various activities planned, got to know one another quickly. Matt's wife, Sarah Ryan, hadn't arrived yet and when she did, Matt told her she was going to really like meeting the Staffords. As Matt was telling Sarah that, the Staffords were having a similar conversation. Kelly went to sleep early and left Matt and Matthew to themselves and when she woke up and asked how the night was, Matthew said, "That dude is awesome."
After Sarah arrived, she hit it off right away with Kelly. While the quarterbacks went to practice, the girls hung out by the pool. They bonded over many things, mainly their understanding of what it's like to be married to a starting quarterback in the NFL. Sarah and Kelly are all too familiar with the many hours of the day devoted to film study, practice, workouts and how their husbands are obsessed with finding whatever edge they can find to help their teams win. There's also the other stuff, like ticket requests from family members and friends, visitors from out of town, etc. It can add up to be a lot and only few can relate to being in that position, one that both Kelly and Sarah are truly grateful for.
As their friendship continued to grow, Kelly and Sarah have become each other's rocks as they navigate life together.
"She is the most genuine, thoughtful and kind person," Kelly said of Sarah. "I fell in love with her immediately. Obviously, in this world, there are 32 of them. To find someone who you really enjoy who gets it, it's so nice. I know the guys love it because they can vent and talk football to each other all day long. But Sarah and I on the other hand are in this interesting predicament as well to where we have to deal with certain things and just be able to talk to each other about it. I've learned a lot from Sarah, I just look up to her, she's pretty incredible. She handles things so well, it's amazing."
While the couples got to know one another at the 2015 Pro Bowl, they realized they lived only two blocks from one another in Buckhead at the time. Kelly and Matthew have strong ties to the state of Georgia as they both attended the University of Georgia and live in Atlanta during the offseason. The Ryans obviously knew of the Staffords but hadn't crossed paths. Now, both couples joke about how they had to fly to Arizona to meet someone who was practically their neighbors.
From that weekend on, the Ryans and Staffords, without kids at the time, became each other's favorite vacation partners. From the Bahamas to Cabo, they enjoyed some of their favorite trips together and a strong foundation was built.
"The timing in life was perfect for us to meet each other," Matt said. "It's been incredible to see how both of our families have grown and how intertwined we are in each other's lives."
Then came the kids and the tough times
Since becoming friends in 2015, life has changed significantly for this foursome. And through every moment - good or bad - they've been there for each other. Sarah and Kelly both went through in vitro fertilization at the same time. The Staffords had twin girls and a year later, the Ryans had twin boys. Both Sarah and Kelly also underwent a major health scare and they've relied on each other to get through every challenge life has thrown their way.
Towards the end of Sarah's pregnancy, she started to deal with some complications as the Falcons were starting the playoffs in January of 2017. She was put on bed rest for six weeks and one of her most frequent visitors was Kelly. Because Sarah couldn't leave the hospital, Kelly brought her dinners to eat together and activities to entertain themselves.
Sarah wasn't responding to Kelly's text messages one day and she immediately knew something was up. Sarah went into labor and Kelly texted Sarah's sister, Maggie, to find out what was going on. Maggie delivered the news and while giving birth to Johnny and Marshall, Kelly was in the waiting room with balloons. In addition to Matt and her mom, Susie, Kelly was the only other person Sarah saw right away.
"She and Matthew went above and beyond and I'll never forget it," Sarah said. "It was so incredible the way they went out of their way. She's so thoughtful, she's so selfless. She would go above and beyond for anyone that she cares about and she's done that for me the whole time I've known her. I hope I'm half the friend she is because she's incredible."
Unfortunately for these friends, this wouldn't be the only hardship they would have to deal with. Kelly got pregnant with her third child, Hunter, in August of 2018. With three girls all under the age of two, the Staffords certainly had their hands full. And little did they know they were about to be given some news that would change their lives.
Both families were spending part of the offseason in Southern California in April of 2019. When they were having dinner one night, the Staffords informed the Ryans that Kelly had just been diagnosed with a brain tumor and would need to have surgery to remove it.
"I remember sitting at the dinner when they let us know the news and I remember saying, 'If this was me, I would be a wreck,'" Sarah said. "Kelly and Matthew were so strong literally from the jump of the diagnosis. She handled it like I couldn't imagine. She was incredibly tough. I think she is the toughest person I know for how she handled that."
When Kelly was recovering from surgery, the Ryans were there for her every step of the way like she was for them. The bracelets the Ryans made was just one of the small ways they showed their support.
Kelly and Matthew now have four girls: Chandler and Sawyer, both 3, Hunter, 2, and Tyler, who was born in June. So, when the Staffords and Ryans get together now, it's a party of 10. Sarah and Matt are Hunter's godparents and Kelly and Matthew are Johnny's. For both families, those were "no-brainer" decisions to make.
It's bigger than the game
While the outcome of Sunday's game between the Detroit Lions (2-3) and the Atlanta Falcons (1-5) is important to both families, it is meaningful on another level because of the bond they share. Sarah hopes the Falcons win, Kelly hopes the Lions win and although they won't be able to watch the game together in person, they'll still be talking to each other and hoping for the best for one another. This isn't the first time Sarah and Kelly have had to deal with the emotions that come with this matchup. The two quarterbacks squared off in 2017 in Detroit when the Falcons won in the final seconds.
"You just hope they both go out and play great games," Sarah said. "I hope Matthew plays a great game; I hope Matt plays a great game and then chips fall where they may. I hope the Falcons win, it's a strange dynamic when the two of them go up against one another. I'm glad we're not in the same division."
Often you hear about how sports have the power to bring people together and it couldn't be truer for the Stafford and Ryan families. They couldn't be more grateful for what the game of football has provided, including this longstanding friendship that began at the Pro Bowl.
"We've gone through so much as a foursome to know that this is a big part of life but [football's] definitely not the most important," Kelly said. "I think we all four kind of know that. God does things for a reason and I really think that Pro Bowl was meant [for that]. We got in last minute and we decided to go, and I think that's why God did it so we could meet them, and they could be in our lives."
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