Talk to the old-timers, the ones who played and watched sports before there were any major pro teams in Buffalo, and they'll tell you Tom Ryan was the best athlete ever to play in this area. It's amazing how little argument there is. Ryan's legend is lasting and unassailable, calling out from a simpler time.
That legend was forged in the 1953-54 school year, when a seven-year-old Catholic high school in Buffalo's First Ward enjoyed its finest athletic hour. Ryan was Bishop Timon's Frank Merriwell, their Chip Hilton, carrying them to Catholic League championships and earning first-team honors in all three major sports.
Ryan scored all the points in a 7-0 win over Canisius in football, which clinched the Notre Dame Cup as Catholic League champion. It was Timon's first win over its bitter rival and snapped a 22-game Canisius win streak. Ryan led Timon to the Manhattan Cup title in basketball, scoring 19 points and grabbing a loose ball n the final seconds of the title game to preserve a win over St. Joe's.
He hit a ball into the trees at Cazenovia Park with two out, the bases loaded, and Timon down by two runs in the last of the seventh to give the Tigers the Georgetown Cup title.
"Ryan taught us all how good we could be," said Dr. John Neeson, a '54 Timon grad who is chairman of the physics department at St. Bonaventure.
Neeson said it was a triumph for hundreds of middle-class Buffalo families, mostly in the First Ward, who wouldn't have been financially able to send their kids to Catholic high school if Timon hadn't provided an affordable alternative.
"In our minds, the people who went to Canisius were rich," said Neeson. "My father worked for the gas company. In '46, our priest said, 'The bishop is starting a new school in the ward. Instead of paying $200, you'll pay $40.' "
As Ryan recalls, the tuition was up to $60 by the time he enrolled in 1950, but it was a bargain, nonetheless.
"I came all the way from North Buffalo because the tuition was only $60," said Ryan, who is a guidance counselor at Maryvale. "My brother, Jimmy, was going to St. Joe's and it was $200. In those days, $200 was heavy. But at this new school, the Franciscans were all young kids, great guys."
Ryan has fond memories of the Franciscans, even though he suffered personally from their firm disciplinary ways. Ryan was thrown off the baseball team as a junior because he missed school to take a driver's exam. It cost him a chance to make all-Catholic three years in a row.
He came back even more determined as a senior. By 1953-54, Timon had about 900 boys and was the dominant force in Catholic sports. It was an unforgettable year. In addition to winning the three major sports, the Tigers were Catholic League champs in cross country, track, golf and crew. They even won the chess title.
The cross country team, coached by a young Mel Palano, went unbeaten and was in the midst of a 10-year winning streak, a national high school record at the time. Jerry Janan lowered the league record five times that year. The track team was unbeaten for the third year in a row. Ten runners made all-Catholic. The two-mile relay team of Janan, Don Herrmann, Cornelius Stafford and Don McNally set a Western New York Catholic record.
Timon went unbeaten in football -- its first-ever perfect season -- and gave up just 14 points all season. It took five of the 11 spots on the all-Catholic first team: Ryan and George Gould were the halfbacks; Gene Gollareny and Bob Thomas were tackles; and Mike Songer was the center. Gollareny played in college and had a tryout with the Bills.
The basketball team went 19-2, losing to St. Francis of Brooklyn in overtime in the semifinals of the Glens Falls invitational, which brought together the best teams in the East. That St. Francis team had the Stith brothers, who later starred at St. Bonaventure. Ryan, a guard, was named MVP of the tourney, even though Timon didn't make the final.
Ryan and Lew McManus, a 6-foot-10 center, made all-Catholic first team. McManus, who led the Tigers in scoring, attended Kentucky and then finished his college career at Middle Tennessee State in the Ohio Valley Conference. Gould, Ryan and pitcher Jack Heitzhaus made the all-Catholic first team in baseball.
Ryan went on to Holy Cross, where he played basketball with Tommy Heinsohn and against the likes of Bill Russell and Lenny Wilkens. Ryan played baseball, too, and was on a college World Series team that lost to future big leaguer Ron Fairly and the University of Southern California, which went on to win the championship.
He signed with the Baltimore Orioles and played briefly in the minor leagues. His first manager was Earl Weaver. One of his teammates was the late Cal Ripken Sr.
Timon had many talented athletes that year, a number of whom played in college. But none of them could approach Ryan. He was a man among boys, blessed with strength, speed, and an iron will to win. He was a nice, modest kid but a fierce, unrelenting competitor. He said he got his toughness from his father, an Irish immigrant who worked as a railroad engineer.
"He was one of those guys who worked, worked, worked," said Ryan. "He never had a driver's license. He walked everywhere he went. We had 10 kids in the family. I was second-last. We fought for the food, slept three in a bed. I don't think my father ever saw a game I played."
The people who did still talk about him, though. Even people who saw him play pick-up basketball or slow-pitch softball in his 50s were astonished at how good he was.
"He was amazing," said Gould, who once ran the Aud for Jimmy Griffin. "Every time you went out there he did something different. He was far and away better than anybody in the area at that time, and probably since. He had a great feel, a sense for every game. He was very humble, too. Every game, every practice, was a challenge for him. He rose to every challenge. He had it on his shoulders to provide that leadership, and he always did."
It's a wonder his shoulder held up through 1953-54. In the summer before his senior year, Ryan dislocated his right shoulder sliding into second base. He didn't have it operated on until after his freshman year at Holy Cross.
"In baseball season, I would play right field and had to underhand the ball to the infielders," he said. "I got knocked out of my final football game that year. And it kept popping out in basketball. I had no strength that year."
On the contrary, people who witnessed it never saw such strength, such a will to win. In retrospect, it seems like a fairy tale. Neeson remembers the scene after the football game against Canisius. Ryan was standing under the goal posts, surrounded by well-wishers, holding the game ball. In a few hours, Ryan would be leaving by train for a recruiting visit to Notre Dame. He handed Neeson the ball.
"Don't let go of it," he said.
Neeson gave the ball to another Timon player later that night. He's held on to the memory for 45 years.
THURSDAY: A point per minute.