Ravens defensive coordinator Rex Ryan and his family cope with a tough realization

When Mom isn't Mom

May 13, 2007|By RICK MAESE

This isn't the typical Mother's Day story, but that's OK because theirs was never a typical mother-son relationship. When you're talking about a coach's family, nothing is really normal.

So today, Rex Ryan will remain in Maryland with his wife and two children. He sent flowers to his stepmother and says Joanie won't be far from his thoughts. She never is.

And similar to most Sundays, Joanie, 76, is supposed to be picked up by her husband of 37 years. Buddy Ryan will take her to a Louisville, Ky., church, and as they chat, she'll surely ask how Rex is doing and how his twin brother, Rob, is doing, too. Buddy will tell her they're both good, but inevitably, just a few minutes later, she'll forget and will ask again.

"I don't know how you just accept that this is the way it is now," says Rex Ryan, the Ravens' defensive coordinator.

Long before Joanie Ryan started misplacing her purse and keys, before her twin stepsons became two of the NFL's most successful defensive coordinators, before her husband sold the family farm and the shine had worn from the couple's golden years, Buddy Ryan was a recently divorced assistant coach for the New York Jets.

When he met a young woman who happened to live at the same Bayside, N.Y., apartment complex, his sons were living with their birth mother in Toronto.

The twins were more than a handful. As Rex tells it, "we weren't always in trouble, but we were always around it." They shared a couple of newspaper routes and regularly skipped school, spending more time throwing papers than writing them. Both boys loved sports but were kicked off the youth football team after just three games because of their "temperament."

"We were much different then," Rex says.

A change was needed and Buddy thought the twins would benefit from a different environment. So as they were set to begin high school in 1976, Rob and Rex moved to Minnesota, where their father was defensive coordinator with the Vikings and lived with Joanie, whom Buddy had wed in 1970.

The Ryan boys weren't eager to leave Canada, but Joanie, who had no kids of her own, was thrilled to have an instant family.

"I don't think she had a clue what she was getting into," Buddy says today with a chuckle. "She would've run away as soon as she could, if she knew."

New beginnings

Life changed for everybody. The twins were suddenly following rules, going to class, attending church regularly and growing closer and closer to their stepmother.

It's difficult for outsiders to fully understand the dynamics of a coaching family. The coach spends so much time on the road, in team meetings and studying film that a special bond often develops between mothers and sons. Buddy always remained close with his sons - both twins served as ballboys for their father's teams - but they each saw much more of Joanie.

"During football season, Dad had to miss some [games] but Joanie was always right there," Rex says.

Buddy tried steering his sons away from the coaching life, but after they both turned down a management program in the food services industry, Buddy checked his boys into an Oklahoma hotel room and didn't let them leave until they'd learned all there is to know about Buddy's feared 46 defense.

As Rob and Rex rose through the coaching ranks, they often turned to Buddy and Joanie for advice and for comfort. Buddy was practical, reminding each of his sons of similar experiences and hardships he'd endured. And Joanie was always the optimist. She always spoke about "God's game plan."

"If anyone ever thought they really needed something, you go straight to Joanie and ask her to pray," Rex says. "She was such a saint. You just assumed she had a direct line."

Rex can't help but notice how his wife, Michelle, happens to embody many of Joanie's qualities, and Michelle can't help but be grateful that in Joanie, she had a coach of her own.

"Rex would be gone and miss something, and Joanie was the one who I'd call and say, `Argh! Rex is gone and the basement is flooded,'" Michelle says.

Both Rex and Rob moved from job to job before receiving a call to coach in the NFL - from their father. When Buddy Ryan became head coach of the Arizona Cardinals in 1994, he hired his twin sons as assistants.

The families all lived near one another in Phoenix, and Joanie was thrilled to be a full-time grandmother. Rex and Michelle's oldest son, Payton, was a toddler and Seth was just a baby at the time. Joanie would visit the preschool, take them to the park to feed ducks in the pond, attend Halloween and Christmas school functions.

"All these things," Michelle says. "This is how I'd like the boys to remember their grandmother. Not like now."

Turning point

Who even notices the first signs? The Ryans certainly didn't. Initially, they thought nothing of it when Joanie would forget to pay a bill or forget something that was just told to her. That's just part of aging, right?

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