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How did Ravens third-string QB Trace McSorley become a TikTok sensation? ‘I can’t explain it.’

Ravens quarterback Trace McSorley warms up before a game against Washington in Landover on Sunday.
Ravens quarterback Trace McSorley warms up before a game against Washington in Landover on Sunday. (Daniel Kucin Jr./AP)

Before Trace McSorley became a social media sensation without ever throwing an NFL pass, before a song heralding his greatness was replayed millions of times on one of the world’s most popular social media platforms, he was just another quarterback in the “Madden” video game, waiting for David James to make him a star.

The Pennsylvania high school student had long been a fan of McSorley’s. When Penn State football returned to national prominence a few years ago, the undersized, overlooked quarterback became James' favorite player. On Wednesday, James was playing with McSorley on his Pittsburgh Steelers “Madden” team; previous starter Marcus Mariota just wasn’t cutting it. Then inspiration struck.

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There was only one way James knew to express the grandeur inspired by McSorley’s digital avatar: by splicing together the soaring, atmospheric instrumentals of Coolio’s “Gangsta Paradise” with the catchy hook to “Trace McSorley,” a rap song popularized in State College by a former Penn State student. And there was only one “Madden” montage James deemed it worthy of: play after play of McSorley and the Steelers lighting up the Ravens defense.

James needed only an hour to finish the project. When he shared the video Wednesday afternoon on his TikTok account (appropriately named @sorley_yt), James figured it might do well. He already had a decent audience, with well over 20,000 followers accustomed to NFL and “Madden” memes. An hour later, James checked on the video-sharing app. He had 1,000 new followers. The McSorley video already had 100,000 views.

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“I felt like I had something pretty cool,” he said Monday. “But I never thought it would be this big.”

As Lamar Jackson led the Ravens to an easy win Sunday over the Washington Football Team, McSorley was going viral. James' tribute had spread like wildfire, reaching even the NFL’s official social media channels. On Saturday night, the league’s TikTok account shared its own riff, sampling James' remixed audio in a video that explained that, no, Kansas City Chiefs superstar Patrick Mahomes was not the game’s most popular quarterback; in fact, it was McSorley. Generation Z had found its MVP.

@nfl

my boss doesn’t believe me, like to prove her wrong 👊 ##nfl ##football ##tracemcsorley

♬ Trace McSorely spittin - Sub 2 Sorley on YT

The looping clip reached critical mass. As of Monday night, it had been viewed over 2.6 million times, more than any other NFL video in the past week. James' original video has surpassed 2 million views, and his original sound has been used for nearly 5,000 videos, almost all of them as weirdly reverential. The YouTube audience for “Trace McSorley,” now easily the most popular song in lapsed rapper Matty Fresh’s small catalog, has more than tripled since the video’s release.

Even the song’s inspiration himself has seen it. On Sunday, McSorley retweeted the Penn State football team’s shout-out to its former star quarterback. “Trace McSorley blowing up on TikTok??” @PennStateFball wrote in a message that included the NFL’s TikTok video. “Nbd.” No big deal.

To Matt Freiler, aka Matty Fresh, it was actually a huge deal. The last time he’d thought much about the song he now can’t escape was almost two years ago. A 2019 graduate of Penn State, he’d recorded the song about McSorley in August 2018, when the Nittany Lions were a preseason top-15 team and their All-Big Ten Conference quarterback was a dark-horse Heisman Trophy contender.

Freiler’s hope was that “Trace McSorley” could become an anthem of sorts for the Penn State community, as “Saquon Barkley,” another ode to a Penn State star he’d written, had been the year before. The song, with its easy flow and playful lyrics, was easy to latch on to: “They can’t touch my deep ball / Every game I’m scoring / I’m your favorite quarterback / They call me Trace McSorley.”

Nittany Lions players told Freiler, who covered the team as a student broadcaster, that they liked it. ESPN’s social media team used the song in a Penn State post. There was enough of an audience locally for “Trace McSorley” that Freiler performed the song at a student concert before a November 2018 game against Ohio State, the Nittany Lions' biggest of the year.

But with his senior year winding down, Freiler mostly forgot about the song. Views of the “Trace McSorley” music video on his YouTube channel slowed to a few hundred per week. McSorley was still Freiler’s favorite quarterback, but life had changed, the two of them having pivoted to their post-college careers.

Then, on Thursday, a friend sent Freiler a video — James' new video, with his old lyrics. Freiler didn’t know what to make of the clip. He wasn’t on TikTok. It just looked like a video of McSorley in “Madden,” and that was kind of funny.

Over the next two days, more and more people sent Freiler videos featuring his lyrics. The premises were getting more and more extreme: Ravens coach John Harbaugh benching Jackson for McSorley. Fantasy football team owners starting McSorley over the Buffalo Bills’ Josh Allen. McSorley being considered for U.S. president.

“I think it took off a lot because it’s just so weird,” Ben Houselog, who has over 2 million followers on TikTok and one of the more popular McSorley videos, said Monday. "Like, if you hear a song about someone, you think that it’s going to be about someone like Lamar or Patrick Mahomes or Saquon Barkley. You don’t really expect it for a third-string quarterback for the Baltimore Ravens.

“So I think that everyone saw that and they thought it was funny, and then you just see a few videos go off like that, and they’re like, ‘Hey, it’s Trace McSorley.’ No one knows much about him, so let’s just make a lot of videos about him and confuse everybody.”

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On Sunday, Freiler awoke to even more disbelieving texts from friends. The audio had reached the big leagues: the NFL’s TikTok account, with its 4.7 million followers. Viewers were tracking him down on Twitter. Thousands were flocking to his YouTube account every hour to watch the 2-year-old video for “Trace McSorley.” (The top comment has a laughing-face emoji and reads: “We all here from TikTok.”)

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The more Freiler tried to wrap his arms around the ever-expanding phenomenon, the less sense it made.

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“It’s just such a random idea for someone to do, and I still don’t understand to this day what’s been going on for the last three days,” he said Sunday. "I guess it’s that balance between how we kind of viewed Trace at Penn State — he’s a hero, he’s a legend — versus how the rest of the world views him as: just that third-string guy who doesn’t ever get any kind of press.

“I kind of get it. But then also, I can’t explain it, because I don’t know. I don’t know what happened.”

Freiler knows it won’t last for long. The wildfire will burn out at some point. He’s looked into ways he can monetize his song, but he doesn’t plan on signing up for TikTok anytime soon.

James, meanwhile, continues to pump out videos on the site, where his follower count has tripled to 67,000-plus. McSorley, whom he’s never met or even watched play in person, continues to feature prominently.

Houselog has maybe the biggest hopes for McSorley’s moment. He’s hoping it becomes a movement. Not long after his video went viral, Houselog purchased a Ravens jersey with McSorley’s name and number. He dropped New York Giants starter Daniel Jones on his fantasy team for McSorley, who’s never attempted an NFL pass. He plans to make even more McSorley-centric content.

Houselog has spent enough time on TikTok to know that every template, every meme, has a shelf life. McSorley’s is no different, he said. If it hasn’t started to peter out already, it will soon.

“But when it’s time to start voting for the Pro Bowl,” he said, only half-kiddingly, “it’s going to come right back.”

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