By Cade Hamner / Special Contributor
As Matthew Stafford evolved into a superstar NFL quarterback and Super Bowl hero, he never forgot about his roots.
That’s why Stafford, less than 24 hours after playing in the season opener for the Los Angeles Rams, returned to Highlander Stadium on Friday for an honor as significant as almost anything in his 14 seasons in the pros.
During a halftime ceremony culminating in the retiring of his No. 7 high school jersey, Stafford was escorted by his family — including his wife, Kelly, and their four daughters, plus his parents and sister.
With a full moon rising over the east endzone, Stafford waved to the adulating hometown crowd as he was presented with a commemorative bronze plaque that will be hung at the stadium entrance alongside similar those recognized other HP legends like Doak Walker and Bobby Layne.
“It’s just really special,” he said of the honor, which shows how popular he remains in the Park Cities, even 16 years after he graduated from Highland Park High School. “Having my family and friends with me as I reached the pinnacle of the sport last year really meant a lot. I hope they know that each one of them has a part of what’s happening here tonight.”
Prior to the ceremony, Stafford mingled with friends, family, and teammates from the Class 4A Division I state championship team from 2005. He remains close with many of them.
“The great thing about football is it’s the ultimate team game, and to be able to get the team back together is really cool and it means a lot to me,” Stafford said. “Obviously, last year as we made our run to the Super Bowl, the support that they showed and the people of this community showed was unbelievable.”
HP head coach Randy Allen, who coached Stafford during his HP career, participated in the ceremony by unveiling a framed No. 7 jersey encased in glass.
“We spent four years together in an office studying offense and defense,” Allen said. “I’m just really proud of him and the way he represents our program. For him to take time out of his busy schedule, that says a lot about how he feels about Highland Park.”
HP’s 52-21 win over Lake Highlands on Friday provided Allen with his 427th career victory, which gives him the second highest total of any coach in state history. He has been at HP for 24 seasons.
“More than the wins, he’s just such a special person. He’s an unbelievable football coach. What he’s been able to bring to this school and this program is incredible, and what all these kids turn out to be is a testament to his success,” Stafford said. “As a coach he challenged me to set goals, but it’s easy to look at him and just try to be like him, knowing that you’ll be a good player and an even better person.”
Under Allen’s tutelage, Stafford threw for more than 9,000 yards and 94 touchdowns for the Scots, including that undefeated campaign in 2005. He went on to a standout career at the University of Georgia before being drafted first overall by the Detroit Lions in 2009.
After 12 seasons with the Lions, Stafford signed with the Rams in 2021, leading his new team to a historic Super Bowl victory on its home field.
Although he wears No. 9 these days, it all started with No. 7 for Stafford — something that will now be recognized forever.
“I just want to say thank you,” Stafford told the crowd at halftime. “It’s fun to be back, and the magic is still here.”