For high school quarterbacks of a certain pedigree, toughness can be theoretical. As a senior at Highland Park High School in 2005, Matthew Stafford had plenty of brawn to him—anyone could see that. His size and strength had college recruiters making repeat trips to Dallas and NFL scouts reserving draft slots: six foot two and 210 pounds, with an arm that fired ballistic spirals. His face ended in a big slab of chin, and his legs, when a defender tried to tackle him, seemed reinforced with rebar. He was the rare prep athlete whose football pads didn’t make him all that much larger than he already was.

Still, even though he looked tough, the game came so naturally to him that he rarely needed to prove it. The Scots lost only two regular-season games in Stafford’s three seasons as their starting quarterback; he went long stretches arcing deep shots or bull’s-eyeing crossing routes before defenders could get within arm’s reach of him. “They were usually winning by a lot,” is what Stafford’s mother, Margaret, mostly remembers about her son’s high school days.

One afternoon at practice, during a drill designed to overload the offensive line and let Stafford work out of danger, a stray cleat landed on his foot. The fear of a broken bone soon passed, but Stafford had already undergone an operation on his knee over the summer, and Randy Allen, Highland Park’s coach, reckoned there was no sense in putting the country’s top high school prospect in harm’s way, so he shelved the drill. A couple weeks later, after a pair of lackluster outings, the player walked up to the coach.

“I’ve got to do that drill again,” Stafford said. “I’ve got to feel pressure.”

Careful what you wish for. On Sunday, the now-34-year-old Stafford will lead the Los Angeles Rams in the Super Bowl against the Cincinnati Bengals, a reward for a decade spent facing every sort of hardship pro football has to offer: seasons ending with double-digit losses or in last-second heartbreak, a separated shoulder, a broken back. Over twelve years with the Detroit Lions, the franchise that selected him out of the University of Georgia as the first pick in the 2009 NFL Draft, Stafford played through injuries to put up sublime numbers for a cursed club. (He completed a league-best 435 passes for nearly five thousand yards in 2012, for example—as the Lions finished 4–12 and last in their division.) 

Even though Stafford is finally enjoying the perks of a championship-worthy roster, thanks to an off-season trade that sent him to L.A., it hasn’t been a smooth ride. The Rams’ divisional-round win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers required him to go toe-to-toe with Tom Brady in the last pivotal moments; in the NFC title game against the San Francisco 49ers, he spearheaded the Rams’ comeback from a ten-point deficit in the fourth quarter.

Stafford’s taking the long way to the sport’s peak is fitting. He is the golden-armed wunderkind turned underdog, the prodigiously gifted grinder. Former teammates and coaches who have known him all his life note two essential qualities in the quarterback: he makes it look easy, and he knows it has to be hard.

One of Stafford’s oldest friends, Pan Lucas, grew up on a long, straight street, in a house next door to Allen’s. It was here that Allen saw his future quarterback, then twelve or thirteen years old, throw for the first time. Playing catch, Stafford sent his friend down the block 70 yards, by Allen’s estimate, and hit Lucas in mid-stride. (The longest NFL completion this season, by air yardage, traveled 66.) “That’s pretty impressive for an eighth grader,” Allen says, chuckling the way one might when calling a thunderstorm a drizzle.

Stafford’s childhood was a montage: he starred in soccer, basketball, baseball, and football, flashing in those last two sports the sort of throwing ability Texans credit to something in the state’s soil. His time competing alongside Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw has been documented ad nauseam. (The popular telling is that Kershaw was Stafford’s center and Stafford Kershaw’s catcher, but Margaret says her son more often played shortstop behind his now fellow L.A. icon. “I’m out there bored to death, because nothing gets hit to me,” she says he told her when he set baseball aside early in high school.) “He was just this humble kid with a great arm,” Lucas recalls. “I thought it was normal to have friends like that. Sixth, seventh grade, we’re throwing fifty-yard bombs down the sideline, and that’s when I started to realize other teams weren’t doing that.”

His instincts might have been even rarer. Stafford’s father, John, remembers a middle-school game in which his son strayed from the coach’s play call, instead flipping a quick pass out to a receiver who made a cut and scampered to the end zone. The coach asked Stafford what he’d seen. “The cornerback’s feet were pointed inside,” a twelve-year-old Stafford replied. “There was no way he was gonna stop him.”

By the time Stafford settled in as a starter at Highland Park in his sophomore year, he and Allen had set a ritual. They’d meet during free periods and Allen would lay out checkers: eleven red ones for the offense, on Stafford’s side, and eleven black for the defense, on his own. Allen moved his pieces quickly, miming all-out blitzes or intricate combination coverages, trying to outmaneuver his quarterback. When he took his fingers off the plastic, Stafford had already mapped out the needed adjustments, a tight end dispatched to shore up protection or a receiver shuttled into an open zone.

Stafford piled up stats over runs of blowout wins, tallying 38 touchdowns and more than 4,100 yards over fifteen games as a senior. But he savored the rare close calls. Early in his last playoff run, Stafford threw for 411 yards and four scores to bring the Scots back from a seventeen-point deficit against Texarkana, the team that had eliminated them the previous year. In the state semifinal a few weeks later, Highland Park trailed Stephenville by four points with a minute and a half left, and Stafford marched his offense the length of the field.

“We were in no-huddle; he’d run us back to the line, get the calls out there,” remembers Reid Prince, Highland Park’s left tackle. “It was just a smooth-running machine.” Stafford’s last pass of the day was a game-winning touchdown drilled past tight coverage into the chest of receiver Holt Martin. What stands out in the video of the play is the comfort with which Stafford pulls it off: a turn of the helmet, a flick of the wrist. A checker sliding across a desk. Highland Park beat Marshall 59–0 the next week for the state championship.

Ahead of the 2009 draft, some analysts speculated that Stafford might—or argued that he should—try to maneuver away from Detroit, which held the top pick. (John Elway and Eli Manning are among the big-name passers who pulled off similar power moves in the past.) The Lions were fresh off a winless season; ninety-plus years into their existence, Detroit’s NFL franchise remains best known for squandering the transcendent talent of running back Barry Sanders. At a predraft dinner, Troy Aikman asked Stafford whether he’d prefer to drop in the draft, whether it mattered to him to go number one. John Stafford recalls his son’s response: “Yes, it does,” Matthew told Aikman. “I want to go with whoever wants me.”

By the standards of franchise quarterbacks, Stafford’s stretch in Detroit was an unsuccessful one. The Lions racked up ten or more losses six times and made the playoffs only three times during his twelve seasons at the helm, losing on each occasion in the first round. From another vantage, though, those years were a study in resilience. In one game during his rookie season, Stafford threw five touchdowns in a 38–37 win, the last of those coming after he separated his shoulder and doctors cautioned against his returning to the field. Stafford missed the last few games of that year with a knee injury and much of the next year with shoulder troubles, but then made 136 consecutive starts before missing time again in 2019 with a fractured back. The dearth of talent around him, save for the now–Hall of Fame receiver Calvin Johnson, had the effect of isolating certain core characteristics. The Lions won 74 games with Stafford under center; in 31 of those, Stafford led fourth-quarter comebacks.

Stafford’s trade to Los Angeles last January—one mutually and cordially pursued by the Lions and Stafford himself, once both parties agreed on the need for a fresh start—has let other traits shine through. For stretches of this season, he looked like an MVP candidate, opening the schedule with nine touchdowns and just one interception over three wins. Despite some later turbulence, such as a three-game skid at the turn of the year in which he threw seven picks, Stafford has been just what the savvy and star-studded Rams were looking for: a quarterback who can execute head coach Sean McVay’s elaborate passing offense and, at key moments, expand upon it. Stafford tallied 4,886 yards and 41 touchdowns during the regular season, the third- and second-highest totals in the NFL. His teammate Cooper Kupp, a fine receiver who before 2021 had never made a Pro Bowl, set an all-time NFL record for yardage.

“We went out and got him because we thought it was a chance to be able to get a great player of his magnitude,” McVay said after the Rams knocked off the Niners. “He’s elevated everybody around him. He’s made me a better coach. He’s made his teammates better. He’s such a great person. . . . Love Matthew Stafford.”

Stafford’s playoff run has had the feel of a fable with a none-too-subtle moral: hardship is a gift. In the divisional round against Tampa Bay, Los Angeles built a 27–3 lead, but, Margaret says, “Against Brady, we weren’t letting ourselves get too confident.” A run of fumbles and some Brady theatrics produced a tie game late, and the Rams had the ball with 42 seconds left. It was the kind of circumstance Stafford had asked for in practices a decade and a half ago, the conditions he had thrived under in the Texas state tournament, the last-minute magic he had mastered while dragging Detroit to more wins than they deserved. “There’s nothing Matthew likes better than having the ball in his hands with a chance to win the game,” Margaret says.

Stafford connected with Kupp on a 20-yard breaking route and, on the next snap, saw his favorite target slip past the deepest defender. He lofted the ball and let Kupp run under it: 44 more yards. A field goal later, McVay was smacking Stafford’s helmet in celebration.

Stafford’s old teammate Prince was watching at home, as he did the next week when the Rams came back against San Francisco. During both games, he felt the same way he had in those 2005 Highland Park huddles: calm. “I kind of thought he’d have two or three rings by now,” Prince says. “But he’s doing what we always thought. If they leave too much time, he has the skills; he has the weapons. And he’s the comeback king.”