When I finished listening to former Buckeye footballers Matt Finkes and William White at the Jan. 16 presentation “Becoming a Character Champion for Life” in Lima, I felt a bit sorry for the keynote speaker, Ohio State head wrestling coach Tom Ryan. Given the excellent presentations by the Piqua native Finkes, a two-time All-American on Buckeye teams of the mid-1990’s, and Lima’s own former Spartan, Buckeye and NFL great, how was Ryan going to follow that?
Ryan, a nationally renowned two-time NCAA Coach of the Year, made the mid-week drive to Lima despite being an in-season coach of a nationally ranked Buckeye squad with an upcoming rivalry match with the Michigan Wolverines just days away. He almost seemed to acknowledge the power of White’s presentation to the several hundred in attendance, many of whom were young people, the targeted demographic for the evening’s program when he took the mic and opened by saying, “God bless, William White. I should be introducing him rather than the other way around.”
However, once the passionate and intense former NCAA national runner-up undergraduate who was mentored by legendary University of Iowa coach Dan Gable before his climb through the coaching ranks, first at Hofstra before assuming the Ohio State job in 2006, it was evident he would take a backseat to no one in his messaging to the youth.
Among many youth-centric topics upon which he touched, Ryan spoke of the ultimate cowardly act of cyber-bullying and the need for kids to do all they could to eradicate it. He also had the audience pair off in an exercise he said he does with his wrestlers to ask each other three questions, the most important of which was, “What is your priceless?”
What Ryan wanted to get young people to probe was what mattered beyond all else in their lives. After a period of time when Ryan gave the pairs opportunities to discuss his questions, White moved from section to section of the expansive west-end bleachers with a second mic in hand so that young people could share their responses.
Then it was time for Coach Ryan to share his own story about what was once his priceless and how tragic circumstances changed it. The exact date, Ryan recalled, was Presidents’ Day of 2004. Then 36 years old and highly successful as Hofstra’s head coach and living in New York in a nice home with two cars in the driveway, a loving wife, Lynette, and four terrific stair-step children, Ryan felt his life just couldn’t get much better.
At that time, Ryan’s priceless was the engine that he felt propelled him to such a good life, wrestling. Then it was through what Ryan termed “unchosen suffering” that his new priceless emerged after suddenly and without a minute’s worth of warning suffered the ultimate parental tragedy when his 5-year-old son, Teague, succumbed, victimized by an undetected infection that had spread to his heart.
After the period of time it took for him to crawl out from a very dark place where profound grief resides, Ryan took his suffering, placed it before the God in whom he’d always believed but may not have been fully committed, and crafted a new priceless in the form of a dual commitment to parent Teague’s siblings at the highest possible level without allowing his grief to compromise his parental role and also to commit to serving God with maximum efficiency by intensifying his efforts to mentor as many young people as he could.
Following Ryan’s presentation, one which had a standing ovation as its end punctuation, I approached and asked him if he ever suffered a momentary crisis of faith following what is the single most profoundly sad event that could ever impact a parent.
Ryan told me that he never blamed God for Teague’s death. While He allowed it, for reasons he said were known only to Him, he said after a period of time when he questioned whether he would ever be truly happy again, he strengthened his commitment to God and credited Him for giving him the strength to weather his unchosen sufferings. At that moment, he committed from that point on to mentor as many young people as he could, especially those bearing their own unchosen sufferings, many of which resulted from compromised home environments.
Said Ryan, “I made a commitment to God that any chance I got, no matter when, where I have an opportunity to demonstrate my faith and commitment to helping young people, I am going to make the time.”
And, that is why, on a cold and dark mid-week evening, he turned practice in Columbus over to his assistant coaches, put his thoughts of designing ways to beat that School Up North on the shelf and came to speak to Lima’s youth in a program brought to Lima by 1966 Lima Senior graduate John Bean, the founder of the non-profit “Commitment to Kids,” which focuses on mentoring young people.
While I’ve never been a real strong collegiate wrestling fan, I’ll be keeping an eye on those Buckeye grapplers mentored by Tom Ryan, who somehow found a way to use his ultimate heartbreak to reconfigure his priceless.
John Grindrod is a regular columnist for The Lima News, a freelance writer and editor and the author of two books. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.