‘He Was A Tough Sonofagun’
The drive from Orchard Park, N.Y., to Lawrenceburg, Ky., takes about eight hours. Rex Ryan’s current NFL home, to his father’s final resting place.
Rex received the phone call in the pre-dawn hours Tuesday morning that Buddy Ryan, defensive mastermind, architect of the 46 defense and dad to the NFL’s most conspicuous twins, passed away. The way Buddy was as a football coach was the way he faced each new health issue that attacked his body over the past several years. Finally, at age 85, the same year as his most legendary defense, his body gave out.
“It was a surprise in the fact that we thought he was doing a lot better,” Rex said Tuesday evening, while he and his wife, Micki, were driving to Kentucky. “But he had faced everything. He had just been diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease; all those bouts of cancer he has had; numerous strokes; congestive heart failure. He actually beat encephalitis before. He eventually just couldn’t take it—I guess, with all that stuff piling up, it just got him. And you know what, the one thing that is amazing is, he couldn’t hear, he could barely talk at the end, his teeth were falling out from all the radiation, he broke his back like three different times—and he never complained one time. Not one time. He was one tough sonofagun.”
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Buddy leaves behind a legacy in the game of football that is three decades of defensive innovation, starting with the Super Bowl III Jets and peaking with the ’85 Bears. And, of course, his sons, Rex and Rob, who are reunited on Rex’s Bills staff for the first time since they both worked for Buddy on the ’94 and ’95 Arizona Cardinals. There are no stories Rex loves telling more than the ones involving his dad. The night of Buddy’s passing, that was more true than ever.
The only trouble Rex had was picking where to start. So he chose what his dad always called his best coaching job: The time he took 25 men into the jungle, and brought them back safely. That didn’t happen on any football field; it happened in the Korean War, where Buddy worked his way up to master sergeant before going to college. He’d enlisted in the National Guard in his hometown of Frederick, Okla., as a teen, to make some extra spending money. His younger brother, Pat, lied about his age to enlist, too. When they were sent on hikes, Buddy would carry not only his pack, but Pat’s pack too. (If you’re wondering why Rob is the assistant head coach of defense on Rex’s Buffalo staff, it’s for this same reason: Brothers always take care of brothers.)
Buddy was working a highway road crew job, when his National Guard unit was mobilized. He was picked up on the side of the road and deployed for combat. Years later, one of the men who served under Buddy in Korea told Rex he had no idea his dad had been so young at the time. They used to ask for volunteers to go on a night patrol. No one would want to go, unless Buddy was leading the group. Then, every hand would go up.
“There was something about dad that, even back then, men were drawn to,” Rex says.
That’s been a common theme of Buddy’s football career. After Buddy returned from war, he played at Oklahoma A&M (now Oklahoma State) and got into coaching. His first NFL job came upon the recommendation of Gerry Philbin, the great AFL pass rusher whom Buddy helped develop as an assistant coach at the University of Buffalo. Weeb Ewbank, the Jets head coach, agreed to hire Buddy in 1968, but only on a one-year contract. He needed to prove he could make a difference.
Buddy made it his mission to devise creative ways to torture passers. Or, as he once bluntly phrased it, “quarterbacks are overrated, pompous bastards and must be punished.”
“They win Super Bowl III, are No. 1 in the league in defense, so I guess he made a difference,” Rex says. “And that started his professional coaching career. I remember Weeb telling Rob and me and [our older brother] Jim that story with a smile on his face.”
That was where, seeing the emphasis Ewbank put on protecting Jets quarterback Joe Namath, Buddy made it his career mission to devise creative ways to torture opposing passers. Or, as he once bluntly phrased it, “quarterbacks are overrated, pompous bastards and must be punished.” When Buddy was teaching the family business to Rex and Rob, he told them about a conversation he once had with Y.A. Tittle, the former Colts, 49ers and Giants quarterback. You can drop as many guys back there as you want, Tittle had said, but eventually I can find someone to throw it to. What gets me is when you bring that pressure.
One of Rex’s favorite blitzes invented by his dad was the Cheeseburger Blitz, mainly because of the story behind it. In 1979, when Buddy was the defensive coordinator for the Bears, they drafted in the first round Al Harris, a defensive end who’d been nicknamed “The Destroyer” at Arizona State. (Five picks earlier, the Bears also grabbed Dan Hampton). Buddy grew to love Harris, who later also played for him in Philly, but he was notoriously tough on rookies. “The only thing I’ve seen him destroy is a cheeseburger,” Buddy snarled. And thus the blitz was named.
Buddy made sure that his sons loved the blitz as much as he did—on any down, any distance, any situation and in any frequency. His standards became the family standards. In 2006, Rex was feeling pretty good about his top-ranked Ravens defense, which allowed just 12.6 points per game and amassed 60 sacks.
“You know, the record is 72 sacks,” Buddy informed him.
Rex chalked it up to the ’85 Bears, widely considered the greatest defense of all-time.
“No, that was the ’84 Bears,” Buddy corrected.
Buddy Ryan was the one man who could always humble Rex.
Buddy was rough, he was proud, he feuded with Mike Ditka and legendarily punched fellow coach Kevin Gilbride on the Oilers sideline in 1993. But there was the soft side, the one that compelled his ’85 Bears to carry him off the field after Super Bowl XX; the one that put him in the stands for every one of Rex and Rob’s baseball games through high school, long after it was clear neither was very good. When Rex’s older son, Payton, had a nasty virus as a baby, Buddy was the only one who could comfort him. “He was throwing up all over him, and he didn’t give a shit, because that was his grandbaby,” Rex recalls. Last September, even as his health was failing, Buddy traveled to watch the Clemson Tigers and Rex’s younger son, Seth, play at Louisville. Buddy sat next to Muhammad Ali.
Even when Buddy was no longer able to speak advice to his sons, Rex executed his dad’s vision. In this year’s draft, the Bills needed a linebacker, and Rex lobbied internally for the kind of linebacker that would have played on the ’85 Bears. There were other top-ranked players they could have taken, like Darron Lee, the hybrid safety-linebacker the Jets drafted one spot behind the Bills in the first round. But Rex wanted Alabama’s Reggie Ragland, because he was a physical player, “a Ryan defensive player, going back to the days of our dad.” Buffalo took Ragland in the second round.
“When dad looked at football players, he would take them in his own image,” Rex says. “That’s what he grew up around; that’s what he was when he was a master sergeant in the Korean War. That’s what I took, and that’s what I want on my football team.” In other words, tough sonofaguns.
Tomorrow, they’ll celebrate one of football’s all-time toughest sonofaguns at a church in Kentucky that Buddy donated money to help build. He and his second wife, Joanie, had settled on a horse farm in Lawrenceburg after he retired from coaching. She later developed Alzheimer’s and needed to live in an assisted-care home, but Buddy would take her to this church every Sunday until she died in September 2013. He’ll be buried at the cemetery there, next to Joanie. His defense, meanwhile, will play on.
“This season means a hell of a lot to us. Our name, our legacy, means a hell of a lot,” Rex says. “Our dad is recognized as being one of the great defensive coaches, probably arguably the best, in the history of the game. You can’t say he’s not in the top five, certainly. And we’ve been pretty successful through the years ourselves, but nothing like we want to be. We have won five Super Bowls as a family, but we want to win our sixth at some point. And I want to win it as a head coach, because that has never been done in our family. Obviously, it’s not like these teams are going to roll down for us. We have to earn everything we get, and we’re a long-ass way away from it. It’s going to take a ton of work. But I really like my team.”
Rex was somewhere on the highway between Orchard Park and Kentucky as he said this. Buddy drew up the road map; now it’s up to Rex and Rob to finish the journey.
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