In 1965, Mickey Herskowitz of the Houston Post asked Frank Ryan
if Ryan could provide a layman's description of his doctoral
thesis in mathematics, a 17-page monograph whose title, A
Characterization of the Set of Asymptotic Values of a Function
Holomorphic in the Unit Disc, was indecipherable to Herskowitz.
Never one to shy from imparting his thoughts on geometric
function theory, Ryan jotted down an explanation intended to
shed light on the subject.
"It concerns a set of complex numbers," Ryan wrote, "which
arises as limit values of a certain type of holomorphic function
defined in the unit disc when the independent variable is
restricted to an arc which tends to the boundary." Herskowitz
stared hard at the note. "Thanks a lot," he said before walking
away meekly. "That certainly is simple enough."
Such was often the case with Ryan, a man described in 1965 by SI
as being "caught between the complexities of his own thinking
and the intellectual insufficiencies of his listeners." He
entered the NFL in '58 with a bachelor's degree in physics from
Rice and during his 13 seasons with the Los Angeles Rams,
Cleveland Browns and Washington Redskins earned his master's and
Ph.D. from that school. "Football was tough for me," says Ryan,
63. "There is so much extemporaneous development to it. Figuring
out how to react extemporaneously is the key to success."
During his first four NFL seasons Ryan looked as flummoxed as a
poet at a physics seminar. His fortunes changed when the Rams
dealt him to the Browns in 1962. Two years later he threw three
touchdown passes in a 27-0 upset of the Baltimore Colts in the
league championship game. Six months after that Ryan received
his doctorate. "I didn't turn mathematics off during the season,
but I tuned it down," says Ryan. "I remember [Browns coach] Paul
Brown saying once, 'Ryan, you sure better sharpen your pencil in
After retiring in 1970, Ryan spent six years as the director of
information systems for the House of Representatives. He then
served as Yale's athletic director for a decade before returning
to Rice to work in academic administration and to lecture in
mathematics. Today, he and his wife, Joan, reside on 78 acres of
heavily forested land in Grafton, Vt. Although he says he's
"semiretired," Ryan still explores one of his favorite
conundrums: the mysterious distribution of prime numbers. "It's
an activity thousands of mathematicians are engaged in," he
says. "All I need is to look into my mind to do the research."
extemporaneously is the key to success."