George Leonard roots for Notre Dame, as did his father, as do many residents of the state of Indiana. Yet, his two teenaged sons are not interested in Fighting Irish gear. They’ve been clamoring for Peyton Ramsey Northwestern jerseys all season long.
Leonard is a social studies teacher at Bloomington North High School, where Ramsey did his student-teaching semester in the spring of 2020, necessary for him to earn his secondary degree in education from Indiana University.
Even after he graduated and transferred to Northwestern this offseason, Ramsey stayed in continual contact with Leonard and his sons. The younger son was treated to a FaceTime with Ramsey as a surprise birthday gift, while the older got a follow on Instagram and weekly messages from NU’s new quarterback, who asked for updates on his first season of high school football.
Such compassion and devotion might seem surprising on surface, but according to Leonard, the more you get to know Northwestern’s starting quarterback, the less surprising his kind acts become.
“Peyton is a better man than he is a football player, and he is one heck of a football player,” said Leonard.
One might think it would be hard for Ramsey to blend in as a high school social studies teacher in the city home to the very university for which he played. However, Ramsey isn’t your average football star.
A few weeks into his student-teaching, a student approached him after class and asked, “Hey Mr. Ramsey, the guy who plays quarterback for Indiana has the same name as you do, are you related to him?”
While several had figured it out, a good portion of Peyton’s students had yet to learn they were talking to the Big Ten’s active leader in 200-yard passing games. He didn’t introduce himself that way, nor would he use it as means to impress others.
“He doesn’t expect people to treat him differently just because he’s done something impressive,” said his father Doug, who was also Peyton’s head coach at Elder high school in Cincinnati, Ohio.
Even outside of a teaching atmosphere, Peyton is a low-key guy. He never wore Indiana football gear around campus, save for the occasional backpack, according to former teammate and current IU receiver Nick Westbrook.
“A lot of guys can be flashy and want attention as the QB, so it was cool to see a guy that didn’t follow that stereotype,” he said.
Ramsey’s humble, reserved nature is contrary to the vocal and visible confidence most associate with a star quarterback. Those who don’t conform to the prototypical definition can be derided as improper leaders, as was the case for former Oregon quarterback Justin Herbert in the pre-draft process.
The Cincinnati native leads through the more subtle avenues, such as reaching out to his Wildcat teammates in the offseason to begin their work and preparation.
“I haven’t done anything differently than I did at IU. I’ve never been a rah, rah pump you up kind of guy, always laid back,” responded Ramsey back in September when asked about how he builds relationships with teammates. “I’ll pick you up and lead you and insert myself when I need to, and I think the guys respect that piece of authenticity I bring.”
His favorite target this season — senior wide receiver Ramaud Chiaokhiao-Bowman — further confirmed Ramsey’s low profile leadership following the team’s 27-20 win over Purdue this past Saturday.
“Peyton, since day one, has taken initiative,” said Chiaokhiao-Bowman. “Whether it be meetings, film, extra throwing sessions, food, he’s always taking lead. He’s taking care of business and making sure that everybody else is taken care of.”
Just as the grad transfer’s lack of braggadocios swagger strikes others as unusual for a leader, his devotion to school surprised his professor. Alexander Cuenca is an assistant professor at the IU School of Education, and he was worried when he first saw a football player had enrolled in his education class. He taught at the University of Miami in the early 2000s, and based on his previous interactions with football players, he feared Ramsey might give him some problems. He was happily proved wrong.
His willingness to communicate and cooperate with others has translated to the classroom, and by the end of course, Ramsey had emerged as a leader once again, according to Cuenca.
“He was always engaging with others, assessing the strengths of those around him in the classroom in order to help them the best he could,” said Cuenca. “You want to follow someone humble, someone who wants to serve.”
“He never tried to be above the class, never tried to take advantage of being the quarterback. He wanted to do good social studies work and took everything very seriously.”
Cuenca compared Ramsey to Jonathan Vilma, former Pro Bowl linebacker and current FOX NFL analyst whom he once taught at Miami. Vilma impressed Cuenca with his focus and determination, always wanting to get the most out of his classes. Ramsey similarly strives to eke out every ounce of production he can in all walks of life, and through that, he’s won the effort of his teammates.
“He never lost a sprint. Never,” said Matthew Eisele, the defensive line coach at Elder and Ramsey’s high school teacher, “100s, gassers, two-mile — you name it, he won it.”
HIs unrelenting work ethic carried over to Indiana and again won him the respect of his teammates. Westbrook recalled going into the facility to watch game film week after week, always finding Ramsey there too watching film in an adjacent room before he had arrived. By the time Westbrook left each night, Ramsey would still be in that same room watching his tape, learning how he could improve.
But all that work in the film room doesn’t mean squat if you don’t demonstrate the same mentality on the field. Fortunately for the Hoosiers, Ramsey again led by example.
Coming into its mid-October match with Maryland, Indiana (1-2) could ill afford to lose another conference game. Peyton started the game on the bench, but as often was the case in 2019, he was forced into action with 12 minutes remaining in the first half following an injury to starter Michael Penix Jr.
With the score tied at 14, Ramsey stepped in and led the offense to consecutive scoring drives to end the half, giving IU a 24-21 lead. His play was up and down throughout the fourth quarter, and with just over 10 minutes left in the contest, the Hoosiers faced a 3rd and long in their own territory. A punt here seemed detrimental, as the Terrapins had scored a touchdown on their previous drive, and a punt here would give them the ball in good field position with a chance to take the lead.
The called passing play didn’t produce any open receivers, so Ramsey took to the ground. He had covered roughly eight of the 11 needed yards when a defender approached him, and ever the self-sacrificial player, he eschewed the typical quarterback slide in favor of putting his head down, taking the hit and getting the first down.
IU wouldn’t score on that drive but held the ball for an additional three minutes and put Maryland in worse field position in order to force a punt. The Hoosiers won 34-28.
Listen to Northwestern head coach Pat Fitzgerald talk about his new quarterback, and it’s clear Ramsey’s leadership qualities have made the trip up I-65.
“This guy is awesome,” said Fitzgerald. “He’s a fun guy to be around every day. He’s got a great demeanor. He’s a terrific leader, and he is who he is all the time.”
It didn’t matter if he was coming off a loss, or even dealing the quarterback controversy between him and Penix at the start of the 2019 season, Ramsey came in to the classroom eager to work and interact with other, Cuenca said.
“You could never tell if he was having a good day or a bad day,” said Ramsey’s older sister Carly. “No matter what, he always had a smile on his face.”
Ramsey originally enrolled in the business program at Indiana as a freshman but soon changed to pursue an education degree. It wasn’t a shocking turn of events given that Carly is an early education major at Ohio University, his uncle is an educator and his father Doug teaches social studies at Elder.
Many who have come in contact with Peyton believe he could follow a similar path to his father as a high school teacher and football coach.
“Being a teacher is a different kind of lifestyle from being a football coach, but it’s still the same kind of work,” said Doug. “In both walks, you’re working with younger people and trying to make them better.”
The student teaching program at Bloomington North requires a lot of work both in and out of the classroom, as IU students face the standard burden of grading papers and designing lesson plans for their pupils. Taking on the task is difficult on its face for any collegian, and even more so for a quarterback who puts in countless hours of work on the gridiron.
Yet Ramsey never wavered. He showed up to his classroom on time everyday, fully prepared, with a masterful ability to transition between the nuts and bolts of social studies to casual talk with his students, according to Leonard. He controlled the classroom much like a quarterback controls the huddle.
In Leonard’s 22 years of teaching at Bloomington North, very few IU athletes have participated in the student-teaching program. However, he could tell right away during Ramsey’s application interview that the signal caller was committed, wanting to be the best teacher could be as bad as he wanted to be the best football player he could be.
“He teaches like he quarterbacks,” said Leonard. “He has the will to win, and he has the will to educate.”
Ramsey’s unflappable demeanor and his ability to focus on the task at hand, no matter the obstacles placed in front of him, speaks better to his leadership than any proclamation he could ever make to the public. He has confidence, the only difference that he presents it in a quieter fashion. He knows what he needs to do, which is comforting to those around him.
“Whenever I would be dog-tired during a game, I’d just look over at Peyton and trust that everything was under control,” said Westbrook.
Everything was definitely under control last Saturday, as Ramsey finished with 212 passing yards and three touchdowns in the ‘Cats’ 27-20 win over Purdue. So naturally, facing an onslaught of compliments from the media for his performance, the senior quarterback immediately deflected the post game praise toward his teammates.
“We have so many talented guys on our offense that as long as we get the ball in their hands we’re going to be alright,” he said.
Ramsey’s talent alone could have won the respect of those around him at prior stops. In two-and-a-half years as the starting quarterback at Elder, he threw for 6,708 yards and 49 touchdowns, while also compiling 2,692 yards and 32 touchdowns on the ground. But according to his dad, talent and football ability can only get you so far without the right mindset to go along with it.
“People have always gravitated toward him [Peyton] because he was talented, but some kids who are talented turn people off with their attitudes,” said Doug. “But because he was talented and humble, people still wanted to follow him.”
Compliment him in a non-football setting, and he’ll have a similar reaction. The Bloomington North social studies department dubbed him “Captain America” due to his approachable nature and a constant do-good attitude. Ramsey was unsurprisingly not a fan of the moniker, said Leonard.
His humble leadership is useful to him on the gridiron, and should he continue on his current track, will help him be an ever better teacher. More important than either of those goal-oriented facets, Ramsey’s humility makes him a man other people aspire to be like.
The compliments will keep coming so long as Ramey keeps performing. He isn’t winning the Heisman. A first-team all-conference selection seems out of reach. Most NFL mock drafts don’t see him as a selection, and his season stat line of six touchdowns, four interceptions and 723 passing yards through four games is hardly world-breaking.
Yet his team keeps on winning. While not the full-year starter, Ramsey appeared in 11 games and stared in six for Indiana during what was then its best season since 1987. Northwestern, coming off arguably its worst season in two decades, added Ramsey to the equation and is back challenging for its second West division title in three years.
His legacy won’t demand the building of statues or tales of superhuman athletic feats. Rather, in what may be his last year of college football, he leaves a less glamorous though successful footprint, leading two of the Big Ten’s historically more beleaguered programs to numerous wins and memorable seasons. It’s a quiet legacy, and probably the one he prefers.
Rather than inspire YouTube highlight reels, he inspires people, first in Bloomington and now in Evanston.
“Whenever I have a kid, whenever I have a son, I’m going tell him stories about Peyton Ramsey,” said Westbrook. “I’d just want my son to be like him.”
Leonard went even further than Westbrook, saying if either of his sons could grow up to be half as good of guys as Ramsey is, he’d be a very proud father.
Wherever Ramsey’s road takes him, it’s clear he’s going to put in the work and help a lot of people for the better along the way. There are certainly a lot of people rooting for him right now. Even the sons of a Notre Dame fan.