Like dad, he sticks it to offenses

Ryan Curtis: Virginia's top defenseman plays lacrosse with the same intensity his father, Mike, displayed as a star linebacker for the Baltimore Colts in the 1960s and '70s.

May 20, 1999|By Paul McMullen | Paul McMullen,SUN STAFF

Ryan Curtis menaces attackmen like his father did quarterbacks.

Mike Curtis was at the core of the only Baltimore football team to win a Super Bowl, a middle linebacker so nasty he would actually tackle John Unitas in practice. Ryan Curtis might be the best defenseman in college lacrosse, and his coach at Virginia said he's one of the "most ferocious competitors" he's ever seen.

Mike, a Colt from 1965 to 1975, could make Dick Butkus appear rational. Ryan has nearly twice as many penalties as any other Cavalier, and talks about the rage he carries into a game. Mike played one year with a hand cast, and Ryan was a second-team All-American last season on one good leg.

Growing up in Montgomery County, Mike Curtis never had the chance to play lacrosse, but he has gained plenty of pleasure from it, watching his son Ryan progress from a take-away specialist into a stabilizing leader who has been one of the keys in the Cavaliers' climb to the Atlantic Coast Conference title and a No. 3 ranking.

The junior has shut down many of the game's premier goal-scorers, and in the NCAA quarterfinals Sunday, he'll draw Delaware's John Grant, the nation's top point-getter. If Virginia is going to make its first Final Four since 1996, it will need another big effort from Curtis.

"We're playing a freshman goalkeeper who doesn't have a great save percentage, but we're third in the nation in scoring defense," Virginia coach Dom Starsia said. "We're only going to go as far as our best guy takes us. Ryan gets credit for what we've done defensively, but he just wasn't ready for that kind of responsibility last year."

It seems that Ryan Curtis became more effective after he toned down the machismo. He made the U.S. under-19 team as a prep star, but found his approach lacking once he got to college.

"When I started playing, I had the advantage of athleticism," said Curtis, 5 feet 10, 180 pounds. "I had to learn how to play smart, not be overly aggressive. Every time my guy got the ball, I would try to make something happen, but you can get burned doing that.

"The biggest improvement I've made is that I don't feel I have to take away the ball every time. Playing against people at this level, you just can't do that."

Starsia remembers Curtis doing it his way for Landon School, the suburban D.C. power that is on par with Baltimore's best prep teams.

"I remember watching Ryan in high school, and telling the guy next to me that he was going to have trouble in college," Starsia said. "He was so confident, he tended to create problems for himself. He saw himself as this ferocious Lone Ranger, but he had to learn how to be effective when his guy didn't have the ball in his stick.

"Now, Ryan no longer just wants to track down his guy and destroy him. He went from being obsessed with knocking the ball to the ground to accepting that we'll only be as good as our team concepts."

That hasn't stopped Curtis from stopping the likes of Syracuse's Ryan Powell, Princeton's Lorne Smith and Johns Hopkins' Dan Denihan.

There is another reason Curtis has improved. He sustained severe damage to his left knee in the 1998 opener against Syracuse, and played the rest of the season with a floating bone chip and other damage. Last June, Curtis finally went to Union Memorial Hospital for much-needed surgery.

"It was a severe injury, and I remember being amazed that he finished a remarkably good season with it," said Les Matthews, the orthopedic surgeon who did the procedure. "You can see that Curtis toughness in Ryan."

Ryan was in trusted hands, because Matthews had done repair jobs on Mike's knee, shoulder and foot. Matthews was a goalkeeping great for Johns Hopkins, class of 1973, and he has known the Curtis family for decades. Rusty Bergan, a mutual friend, is godfather to Curtis' oldest son, Clay.

Clay played midfield for Duke. Kaitlin, the third Curtis sibling, is a sophomore at Bullis Prep and a highly regarded soccer player.

Ryan said that his father, whose 14-year NFL career ended in 1978, doesn't bring up football unless asked, and he's more interested in the pursuits of his children. Mike Curtis has seen his sons play hundreds of lacrosse games. Would he have tried the sport if it had been part of the Montgomery County landscape when he was raised there?

"Yeah, I've felt that way, more and more, from watching my boys," Curtis, 56, said from his home in Potomac. "Over here, 35 years ago, the 35 miles [from Baltimore] might as well have been like crossing the Atlantic. I enjoy lacrosse. People ask if I watch pro and college football, but the only sports I watch are lacrosse and soccer."

Mike Curtis would prefer to discuss France's World Cup champions instead of John Elway's retirement, and Ryan is also something of an iconoclast. The rugged, hard-hitting lacrosse defenseman is majoring in religious studies.

NCAA lacrosse

Division I quarterfinals

Saturday's games

At Hempstead, N.Y.

Johns Hopkins (10-2) vs.

Hofstra (14-2), noon

Georgetown (12-2) vs.

Duke (13-2), 3 p.m.

Sunday's games

At Princeton, N.J.

Loyola (12-0) vs.

Syracuse (10-4), 1 p.m.

Virginia (10-3) vs.

Delaware (14-2), 4 p.m.

Pub Date: 5/20/99

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