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Projected No. 1 pick in NFL draft Matthew Stafford has childhood ties to St. Petersburg

ST. PETERSBURG — The No. 1 pick in today’s NFL draft grew up in Dallas and lived a real-life Friday Night Lights dream, leading his high school team to the 2005 Texas state title.

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The past three years, he wore the red and black of the University of Georgia as the Bulldogs’ star quarterback, And late Friday night, he made an early leap into the land of silver and blue, agreeing to a six-year deal with the Detroit Lions that will pay $41.7 million in guarantees and as much as $78 million.

But for Matthew Stafford, a quiet, brick street in northeast St. Petersburg still feels very much like home. This is a most familiar place for the poised 21-year-old with the All-American looks, a constant in his whirlwind life filled with vivid memories from his childhood and teenage years.

Just ask him.

Better yet, ask his grandma.

•••

She has always been one of his most devoted fans.

Now 84, Mary Christian lives in an elegant, half-century-old Snell Isle house that features a shrine to her grandson; from the "Top Dawg" sign presiding on a door to the many photos and news accounts of his football glory days. One signed picture from Stafford's MVP effort in the 2006 Chick-Fil-A Bowl, when he directed Georgia's 31-24 comeback win over Virginia Tech, reads: "To Mema, Your Lil Darlin' "

"That's what I call him," she said with a smile, hazel eyes sparkling. "I'm just so proud of him."

Stafford spent countless family vacations and woke up every Christmas morning of his life here until his college career began. He played touch football and catch across the street in a grassy, triangular field known as "Pete's Park," dedicated with a plaque in 1997 to his late grandfather, Pete Christian — a four-time national AAU javelin champion in the 1930s and '40s, whose arm-strength gene was evidently passed on to young Matthew.

The fact is, Stafford's roots run deep enough to qualify him for adopted favorite son status.

His mother, Margaret Stafford, grandmother Mary and great-grandma Bessie Lee Baynard all attended St. Petersburg High School. And his great-great grandfather, W.C. Henry, has his name etched on a plaque in Pioneer Park by the St. Petersburg waterfront, dedicated to those "whose vision and leadership helped create St. Petersburg, Florida." His contributions included building Mirror Lake Library and a number of stately old Northeast homes, and paving downtown Central Avenue at the turn of the 20th century.

Stafford's ties to the area even span the bay. He was born in Tampa and lived the first year of his life on Davis Island, before the family moved briefly to Atlanta and then relocated to Dallas when he was about 3.

"I have a lot of great memories from all the time I spent at my grandparents' house, playing football in that little park, hanging out at the beach by the Don CeSar," Stafford said this week from Dallas, where he was keeping a low, pre-draft profile. "St. Pete's like my second home."

Who knew?

•••

The American public is getting to know Stafford now.

Last week, he was a guest on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, and the host planned a little stunt for the 6-foot-3, 228-pounder who announced in January that he would skip his senior year and enter the draft.

Fallon tossed plates up in the air at one end of the stage, while Stafford drilled passes like a skeet-shooter at the other end. He smashed three of four. (Watch the video here).

"They told me I was going to do it, but I didn't get to practice," he said. "It was pretty tough, but it was fun." His mom, Margaret, was watching from Dallas. "I was so nervous," she said, "but it was a riot." His grandma, who taught drama in the 1970s and '80s at Shorecrest Preparatory School, couldn't stay up to watch. But she heard all about it the next day, not surprised in the least her grandson had fared so well under pressure.

"He's always been confident, even when he was a little boy," she said. "He could dribble a basketball when he was just 2. It's a God-given talent that he couldn't ignore. All he ever wanted for Christmas was a ball."

Stafford's athletic prowess come from his grandpa; his father, John Stafford, was a standout swimmer at Florida State and later served as men's swimming coach there. John and Margaret met at FSU, and not surprisingly their children, Matthew and sister Page (a year older), grew up as Seminole fans.

Mary Christian, meanwhile, became an avid supporter of upscale Highland Park High when her grandson became a sophomore starter, leading the Class 4A Division I team to a mark of 13-2 in 2003. She would travel frequently to Dallas to scream and cheer for the team's new star, who capped his senior year in 2005 with a 10-0 regular-season and the school's first state championship in 48 years.

"What I used to love was those two-minute winners," she said. "We'd be down, but then we'd get the ball and I'd say, 'Margaret, there's time.' And Matthew would hoist a long one to a guy in the end zone and hallelujah. The game is over."

Stafford, a Parade All-American and EA Sports National Player of the Year, was deluged with offers, especially from Texas, FSU, Michigan and Georgia. In the end, he was drawn to the Southeastern Conference and Bulldogs coach Mark Richt, having admired the job Richt had done as FSU's offensive coordinator. What's more, Stafford's dad had obtained his master's at Georgia and Page was a freshman there.

His grandma, a William & Mary alum, wasn't able to make it to Georgia games due to tricky travel logistics. But she decked out her Snell Isle front porch with red and black balloons on game day and watched on TV. "I was always calling Bright House to see what channel Georgia was on," she said. "One time, Margaret and I watched a whole Georgia game on her computer in Dallas. Can you imagine that?"

"That's my grandmother — she's awesome," Stafford said.

Christian did make it to her grandson's final collegiate game, the Capital One Bowl in Orlando, when he earned his third post-season MVP award in three years with a 24-12 win over Michigan State. The moment is captured in a photo on the wall, with No. 7 looking up in the end zone stands to his grandma. "He yelled to me, 'Did you have fun?' and I yelled back, 'I had so much fun, I wish I'd come to every single game!' "

•••

The crowning moment for Stafford will take place shortly after 4 today when the draft officially gets underway in Manhattan’s Radio City Music Hall.

The Lions, who earned the right to select first based on their 0-16 record last year, were determined to land Stafford as a player to help engineer a franchise turnaround. The deal they agreed upon represents the largest rookie contract in NFL history. For the record, when he is introduced, he will become the 80th overall No. 1 pick in NFL draft history.

“It’s definitely exciting to be in the position I am,” Stafford said. “It’s a blessing.”

His parents — divorced but on good terms — have been invited to watch the proceedings in the Hall’s Green Room with Page, high school coach Randy Allen, some close friends, and one more special guest: His No. 1 fan from a shaded street in St. Pete.

“Are you kidding?” proclaimed the proud grandma. “I wouldn’t miss it for the world.”

Projected No. 1 pick in NFL draft Matthew Stafford has childhood ties to St. Petersburg 04/24/09 [Last modified: Saturday, April 25, 2009 12:22am]

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