Faith Helped Reshape Wrestling Coach After Tragedy
By Patrick Maks
COLUMBUS, Ohio — For Tom Ryan, the purpose of life began with death.
Photo by Jim Davidson
Ask Ohio State’s wrestling coach what that feels like and he’ll say he would need to scour through a dictionary to find the right word; a word that justifies the heartache he and his wife, Lynnette, suffered more than eight years ago.
“I think (of) absolute despair. You know, deep hurt that a human being can’t fathom until you’re there,” said Ryan, the 2009 National Coach of the Year.
“You can talk to kids and say ‘I want you to think about losing. I want you to amount to the thing that is the most important to you in your life, and then, in an instant, it’s gone. How do you think that would make you feel?’”
It was February 2004, the middle of Ryan’s 10th season as the head coach at Hofstra University, located just outside of New York City.
A two-time NCAA Division I All-American and Big Ten champion at Iowa in the early 1990s, Ryan was practically born into wrestling. It’s in his blood. His was introduced to the sport thanks to his older brother, who implored Ryan to join him in wrestling after being cut from the junior high basketball team.
From grappling with other wrestlers for championships, to making a living coaching kids to them on the opposite side of the mat, Ryan has the unique position of having seen it all as both an athlete and a coach in the sport.
Like father, like son. Ryan’s 5 year-old, Teague, seemed intended to perhaps, someday, follow in his Dad’s path.
“He loved wrestling. He loved coaching with me. He was always in the corner with me whether it was giving a guy a drink of water,” Ryan said.
“He loved to workout. He was like a physical specimen for a 5-year-old. He could do ten pull-ups. What 5-year-old could even hold on to the bar? It was an important part of his life.”
Despite Teague’s apparent vim and vigor on the outside, his heart’s myocardium — or heart muscle — was ravaged with an infection stemming from a recent illness called the Coxsakie virus. It initially affected his throat before settling in his heart.
On Feb. 16, 2004, the perfect storm finally struck.
“He was with me the entire day at Hofstra playing in the wrestling room,” Ryan said.
“The heart was weakening, which we didn’t know because he was in such good shape.”
During dinner, Teague was running around the house before Ryan’s wife startled their son in the same microscopic moment Teague’s heart was re-polarizing and readying itself to beat again. The combination sent Teague’s weakened heart racing into fibrillation.
Without a defibrillator, Ryan lacked the equipment to revive his son from a massive heart attack.
“Unless you’ve lost a child suddenly and loved them the way I loved him, there’s no way to put the loss into words,” Ryan said. “It’s something that is unexplainable.”
Ryan had lost grandparents and friends. He had lost wrestling matches that were considered the pinnacle of his sport; but those, he said, don’t compare to losing Teague. Nothing does.
In the moment his son’s heart stopped, Ryan’s own heart changed.
“When my son died at the dinner table of a massive heart attack, I said it’s time to explore why we’re here or where we’re going,” he said.
“Teague Ryan was the catalyst for the purpose of life.”
Eight years later, Ryan considers himself to be “in a relationship with Christ,” and it has helped to shape the way the OSU coach — who has crafted the Buckeyes into an annual contender in an ultra-competitive Big Ten — approaches the sport Teague loved so much.
“You pray before every situation that you’re going into this scenario with God and you’re holding his hand,” he said.
“How do you manage a kid that was downtown and got in trouble with the law? How do you manage a kid that may test positive for an illegal substance? How do you manage a kid that just can’t get to class? There are a lot of situations in this position.”
Ryan, who led Ohio State to a top-five finish at the NCAA Wrestling Championships and its first win against Iowa since 1966 this past season, said his faith helps him see things through a different lens.
“You just see people in a different way,” he said.
“Imagine seeing everyone you look at as perhaps the product of evolution versus the product of a loving God. You treat people as though you’re connected.”
That doesn’t mean Ryan isn’t careful about the line between his personal beliefs and his duties as the coach at public university like Ohio State.
“I don’t go around preaching to people about Christ. I’m at a public institution, that’s not what we do,” he said. “But hopefully they see by the fairness and the way you treat them that they want a look as well.”
Ryan knows it’s impossible to force anyone to do something they don’t want to do. He can only hope he makes an impact, but wants his wrestlers to know that they are a piece of a “massively incredible puzzle.” The same puzzle that took Teague away from Ryan and his family
“The human side of me says how fair is it that a 5-year-old dies in his father’s arms when he was healthy,” he said. “I mean, how fair is that?”
But Ryan said he doesn’t think God intervenes — whether it’s saving his son’s life or Logan Stieber winning a national championship for the Buckeyes. Nor does Ryan believe his faith is a coping mechanism in light of the tragedy he suffered eight years ago.
“I think that maybe some would say ‘Well, he lost his son, he’s in despair,’ ” Ryan said.
“ ‘It has to end this way for him. Right? If he doesn’t think that, he’ll never see his son again.’ ”
Nothing happens by chance, Ryan believes.
“The kid died the most peaceful way a human being can die,” he said.
“We were there. We both saw it happen. Paint the scenario where I’m not home, and he dies. I don’t believe in chance.
“As much as I want him with me now, I go to bed at night and, heck, it’s where I’m going. I always say I’m 43 — awesome. I’m one year closer to paradise.”
And one year closer to Teague.
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