FLOWERY BRANCH, GA —The Falcons welcomed a new coach into the flock Wednesday, and he came a long way to be there.
Matthew Higgins, a 16-year-old Palmdale, Calif., resident, was the Falcons' assistant quarterbacks coach for Wednesday's walkthrough practice. Higgins landed his new role with the team through the Make-A-Wish Foundation, an organization devoted to granting the wishes of children with life-threatening medical conditions.
Head coach Mike Smith found room on his staff for Higgins and thought his stable of quarterbacks responded well Wednesday. In addition to his coaching assignment, Higgins broke the team down in the huddle following practice.
"He was our guest coach today and I thought the quarterbacks played very well under his tutelage today," Smith said after practice.
An ardent football fan, Higgins journeyed a long way from his home 40 miles north of Los Angeles to join the Falcons on the football field.
About four years ago he was diagnosed with leukemia and he battled through three-and-a-half years of treatment. Now, with that behind him and only regular blood tests to face, he's doing well.
When Make-A-Wish approached the Higgins family about thinking of a wish, it didn't take Matthew long to decide what he wanted.
Despite being completely across the country, he has been a rabid Falcons fan for about six years. All he needed to do was look up at all the Falcons gear plastered on his walls and around his bedroom to know where he wanted his wish to take place.
After boarding a 4 a.m. flight to Atlanta on Tuesday, Higgins and his family were on the field with the Falcons on Wednesday and his mother, Lisa, knew he'd picked the perfect wish.
"I could just tell he was in his element out there, being with all the guys," she said. "He loves football. He's always loved football."
Matthew was turned on to the Falcons by a friend of his and over the years he's enjoyed watching how Atlanta teams came to play. He relies on NFL Sunday Ticket for game day and has watched every snap of his new favorite Falcon, Matt Ryan, in his two-year career.
Sitting at a table in the cafeteria, waiting for lunch with Ryan, Falcons players came and went, signing footballs for Higgins and stopping to chat for a few minutes.
Smith agreed with the teenager's assessment of the team's franchise quarterback.
"He's a pretty special quarterback, isn't he?" Smith asked.
Even though he knows these Falcons inside and out, he was still intimidated meeting them for the first time.
"I was pretty nervous. I didn't know what to expect," Higgins said of meeting players he defines as "stars."
Add to that that guys like tackle Tyson Clabo and tight end Tony Gonzalez are really, really big and it can be intimidating, but the youngster handled it all in stride, conjuring up thoughts of the "Ice" nickname his beloved quarterback carries for his calm and collected on-field demeanor.
His family is a football one, passionate about the closest thing to an NFL team that Los Angeles has, the USC Trojans — "Our NFL team," his mother said.
Matthew's father may have been the most excited when one former Trojan came through. Left tackle Sam Baker posed with the entire family for a photo that will surely find its way to the living room wall.
Fellow Los Angeles native Christopher Owens talked with Higgins about the differences in weather from California to Georgia before taking a photo with the family, as well.
Higgins and his family will return to California on Friday, but not before attending Thursday night's game against the New England Patriots and taking a trip to the Georgia Aquarium during the day. Smith promised Matthew a game of catch on the sidelines with the future the Hall of Famer Gonzalez.
Despite the circumstances that landed him in Flowery Branch, it's not a bad way to spend your first day of school. Higgins' high school year began Wednesday, but even his mother and father agreed that this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity trumps even that, at least once.
Higgins earned the right to skip school this time. After a four-year fight that showed his toughness, he also earned the right to be an honorary member of the Atlanta Falcons.
In the words of Higgins' mother, it's exactly what he needed.
"Today meeting Matt Ryan, it was the greatest ever," she said. "It's the best medicine ever."