The top one percent

IT WAS SMOKY. Streaks of fire shot into the domed air like champagne as each player from the hometown Falcons was introduced, none louder than the 10th to be called. Quarterback ... from Boston College ... No. 2 ... Matt Ryan! This was last January during the playoffs, minutes after the Georgia Dome crowd waved red flags and booed the visiting Packers and their quarterback, Aaron Rodgers. This game seemed to have an evolutionary quality, the beginning of a new chapter. Each decade has its quarterback rivalries, and now, for the first time, the league's two premier young passers were to meet in the postseason.

Both Ryan and Rodgers had become starters in 2008 -- Ryan the hotshot rookie, Rodgers the forgotten benchwarmer -- and until this evening, Ryan seemed to have more upside. He was AP Offensive Rookie of the Year in 2008, NEXT in 2009 and Matty Ice throughout, a 6'4", 217-pound, ever-smiling Irish Catholic cleansing of the Michael Vick era. In 2010, Ryan led the Falcons to a 13-3 record, with 28 touchdowns and nine interceptions. Days before the playoffs, Ryan, not Rodgers, was named to the Pro Bowl.

And it was on: Ryan passed the Falcons down the field for a 7-0 lead, then Rodgers answered with a score. The teams went back and forth until Atlanta took over with 42 seconds left in the first half, down 21-14. Ryan moved the Falcons into field goal range with 10 seconds remaining. Looking for another five yards, he called one more play. Ryan rolled left, hesitated for a beat, recocked and forced a late pass to Roddy White, a throw he immediately regretted. Packers corner Tramon Williams intercepted the ball and ran
70 yards for a touchdown, changing the trajectory of not only the game but the perceptions of the two quarterbacks.

Rodgers went on to throw for 366 yards and three touchdowns in a 48-21 blowout. He's never looked back. Meanwhile, when the smoke finally cleared that night, Ryan, dazed behind his eyeblack, seemed as small as his end of the scoreboard as a peer passed him by.

EACH YEAR, this magazine anoints athletes we think will not only become stars but also transcend sports. Most of the picks -- think Maria Sharapova, Larry Fitzgerald, Carlos Beltran -- become stars. But few actually do transcend, and the reason is simple: It's really hard. So hard, in fact, that only a few from each era -- think LeBron, A-Rod, Yao Ming -- achieve it. And it's even harder for NFL quarterbacks. Our past NEXT QB picks range from Jared Lorenzen to Donovan McNabb to Ben Roethlisberger, with only Big Ben possibly destined for Canton. For as gorgeous as a perfect pass looks, the path to greatness isn't so pretty up close. All quarterbacks, especially great ones, volley between huge ego trips and driving insecurity. Doubt gnaws at them, no matter how many Super Bowls they've won. Some channel those nerves into a Hall of Fame career. Rodgers is on his way. Ryan is desperate to join him.