That was confirmed when he met childhood hero Troy Aikman recently in the upscale Dallas restaurant Mi Cocino.
“I walked up to him in a restaurant we always go to,” Stafford said. “I said, ‘Hey, I’m Matthew Stafford.’ He said, ‘The Matthew Stafford?’ I said, ‘Yeah, how are you doing Mr. Aikman?’”
The Matthew Stafford? This from the man who earned three Super Bowl rings with the Dallas Cowboys and provided the template for a young Stafford’s football aspirations.
“He said he was a fan,” Stafford said. “I said, ‘You’re crazy telling me you’re a fan of me, man. I grew up wearing the No. 8 jersey around in the back yard.’”
Aikman, like most football fans in the Dallas area, became of aware Stafford near the end of Stafford’s decorated career at Highland Park High School and wrote Stafford an encouraging letter when Stafford left high school to play at Georgia. The pair played golf together when Stafford was home in May, and Aikman introduced Stafford to current Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo, who had dinner with Stafford and Aikman.
The quarterbacks didn’t talk shop much, Stafford said, “we just kind of hung out.”
Stafford may be a celebrity of sorts in Dallas, but he’s still a second-class citizen in the Southeastern Conference, where Florida quarterback Tim Tebow and his national championship ring and Heisman Trophy get all the attention.
Asked this summer who, including himself, is the best quarterback in the conference, Stafford paused.
“I don’t know, I’m trying to think….;” he said. “I mean, the guy who won the freaking Heisman. How do you debate against that?”
Stafford’s career numbers don’t argue his case very well. He has thrown for 4,272 yards, 26 touchdowns and 23 interceptions and has completed 54.5 percent of his passes in two years. Tebow has thrown for 3,644 yards, 37 touchdowns and seven interceptions while completing 66.8 percent of his passes. He also has rushed for 31 touchdowns, despite starting eight fewer games than Stafford.
“People do want so see more numbers to justify whether a guy has a certain amount of talent or not,” Georgia head coach Mark Richt said.
Tebow was voted the preseason All-SEC quarterback by all but one of the leagues’ coaches.
“I haven’t really done a whole lot,” he said. “I mean, I’ve won some games, but as far as me doing anything personally, I haven’t done a lot to open anybody’s eyes.”
He hopes to change that this year. He wrote down his personal goals during summer workouts, and they are not conservative.
“I want 35 (touchdowns) and anywhere from 3,700 to 4,000 yards, about 64 percent completion percentage,” he said.
Stafford’s coaches and teammates have no question he’s capable of those numbers. Richt points out that he his quarterback has had to deal with less-than-ideal circumstances. Two years ago, Stafford started as a true freshman. Last year, he started behind three freshman offensive linemen.
“There were some things that needed to be done to manage (last year’s) situation and one of them wasn’t dropping back and patting the ball three times and throwing to whoever was open,” Richt said. “Now, hopefully, we’re mature enough all the way around where I think we will see a more productive year as numbers go,” Richt said. “There is no doubt in my mind that he’s an extremely talented guy.”
Stafford has made so many eye-popping plays at Georgia that his receivers no longer get excited about them, senior Mohamed Massaquoi said.
“There’s really not even a wow factor,” Massaquoi. “It’s expected now. When he does things, it’s not out of the norm.”
Nationally, there is a sense that Stafford may be special but also a belief he has much to prove, said ESPN analyst and former Florida quarterback Jesse Palmer.
“I think one of the reasons why a lot of people think they are the best team in the country right now is Matthew Stafford,” Palmer said. “It’s imperative he has a big year this year.”
Stafford doesn’t worry about that pressure or the pressure put on his team by its No. 1 ranking in the coaches’ preseason poll. He was insulated from it for the most part this summer, he said. It came up at the Elite 11 quarterback camp, where he worked as a coach/counselor, but only in a we-understand-your-pain kind of way with colleagues like Southern Cal quarterback Mark Sanchez and Missouri quarterback Chase Daniel.
“Everybody is like, ‘Are y’all going to do it this year?’” Stafford said. “They know the preseason doesn’t mean a whole lot. They’re like, ‘Your schedule is crazy.’”
It could be the last college schedule Stafford plays. Multiple mock drafts have suggested Stafford could be picked anywhere from No. 1 to No. 5 in next year’s NFL Draft if he decides to forgo his senior season.
“It’s weird to think about, but there is a whole lot of time between now and then,” Stafford said.
Stafford’s talent warrants that kind of talk, his head coach said.
“I’m sure Matthew is going to have to make a tough decision when the season is over, but I know he came to win a lot of games,” Richt said. “I know he doesn’t feel like he’s reached his full potential as a college player.
“I hope he is the first pick of the draft … two years from now."