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The wild early years and the football family that shaped Bills coach Rex Ryan

HENDERSON, Nev. – Rex Ryan was a trampled man. His New York Jets were 2-8 entering last November’s game against the Buffalo Bills, the one that was moved to Detroit because Ralph Wilson Stadium was buried under a snowstorm.

An avalanche already had fallen on Ryan. He knew the Jets would fire him at the end of the season. Their micromanaging front office had squeezed every ounce of enjoyment from him.

General Manager John Idzik exuded such control over the coach that when a reporter asked Ryan about his ailing father, renowned defensive mastermind Buddy Ryan, a Jets spokesman inexplicably prevented Rex from answering.

Rex Ryan adores his family and worships his father. Yet the Jets wouldn’t even let Ryan speak fondly about a sick, old man.

“He was not free to decide almost anything,” Rex’s 80-year-old mother, Doris Ryan, said recently in the house Rex bought her in a suburban Las Vegas retirement community up against the scenic McCullough Range. “Rex could see the handwriting was on the wall. Rex just knew the fella was a control freak who wanted his own coaches and his own players.

“So he did what Rex does: He worked as hard as he could. But you pay a price for that mentally and emotionally.”

Doris hoped the Jets would fire her son during the bye week to put him out of his misery. When the Jets ousted him after a 4-12 season that was more miserable than the record would indicate, Doris recommended Rex take time away from coaching and accept a lucrative television offer from ESPN or CBS.

“Last year was so painful, not just because of the losses,” Doris Ryan said. “The truly painful part was there was absolutely nothing he could do. He had a wonderful front seven, and that was it. He had no players in the secondary at all.”

Then Rex called his mom about a potential job with the Bills. He had met with Bills owners Terry and Kim Pegula, President Russ Brandon and General Manager Doug Whaley.

“I just didn’t know if he could get back to where he usually is, to the Joy of Rex,” Doris said, citing the headline of a June 2009 Sports Illustrated article that extolled Rex’s indomitable spirit, a flame the Jets had managed to extinguish.

“Well, I don’t know what happened in that interview with the Bills’ owners, but it didn’t take a week for the Joy of Rex to be back again.”

Rex Ryan eventually signed a five-year contract worth $27.5 million. He has said this will be his last coaching job, and Doris Ryan is convinced of that. She can’t see another team reinvigorating him like this again.

So Rex is back to acting like himself with the Bills.

But what made him who he is?

Sure, everybody knows his father created the legendary 46 defense that took the Chicago Bears to a Super Bowl title. Yes, we’ve heard some raucous stories about the Ryan boys growing up, even a few in which they were sober. Bills fans, of course, heard an earful about Ryan while he was coaching the Jets.

The best way to learn about Rex Ryan and his family probably isn’t by calling former friends, coaches, associates and players.

The best way is to let the Ryans tell stories about each other.

Is Rex really Rob?

Buddy Ryan was a University at Buffalo defensive assistant when the twins were born in 1962. The Ryans lived on Meadow Lea Drive in Amherst, but because Buddy was off on recruiting trips and twins usually arrive early, Doris decided to go home to her mother in Ardmore, Okla., and deliver the babies there.

The twins’ birth certificates show Rex was born five minutes ahead of Rob. But there is no guarantee which one truly is which.

The Bills’ new coach might actually be Rob. The Saints’ defensive coordinator might actually be Rex.

There’s a good chance Buddy and Doris mixed them up. On multiple occasions.

For a while, Rex and Rob were identified as Baby A and Baby B in the hospital.

“The nurse would take one away when I was done feeding and bring me the other one,” Doris said, “and I’d swear, ‘I think I just fed this baby.’ ”

As long as they were switched an even number of times. If not …

“I would’ve had a better name,” Rex said. “We’ve laughed about it before. I probably really am Rob, and he’s Rex. Isn’t that funny, though? Who knows?”

Not that it would matter. Rex and Rob Ryan practically are the same person. They once were so inseparable they shared the same wallet (Rob carried it) and the same car key (Rex always drove because he was older, at least in theory) into their 20s.

“We were at the same place anyway,” Rex said. “So if we’re going out to eat, we don’t need two wallets. We lived out of that.

“The first time I really carried my own wallet was the day I got married.”

An eye out for each other

One of the remarkable aspects about talking with Rex and Rob separately is how their stories are photocopies. Even in decades-old tales that are embarrassing to one brother or the other, the details are synchronized. They even make the same asides and emphasize the same points, sometimes using the same vocabulary.

Take for instance the time they played baseball for Stevenson High in suburban Chicago. Buddy Ryan, with the Bears by then, had been diagnosed with skin cancer for the umpteenth time. He and his second wife, Joanie, were at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in Manhattan.

The twins and the dogs were home alone. Rex had lost a contact lens, but he couldn’t bring himself to bother Buddy and Joanie about it.

Rex: “I wasn’t going to bitch about not having a contact lens, so I played with just one. This pitcher was throwing nothing but fastballs by me. I was getting pissed because I knew if I could see I could launch one on this kid.”

Rob: “I was on deck. Rex was our best hitter by far and up against an all-state pitcher. I think we had some professional scouts watching the game. He swings and misses on two pitches.”

Rex: “My brother was up next. I said, ‘Bro, gimme a left contact lens!’ ”

Rob: “I gave him my contact, and he puts it in.”

Rex: “I hit a three-run shot, honest to God. It’s Ripley’s; I know.”

Rob: “He goes up and blasts a line-drive home run – and he was a left-handed stick – to the opposite field. He could crush it, now.”

Rex: “So I touch home and say, ‘Here, bro,’ and went to give him his contact back. He said, ‘Nah, I’m going to strike out anyway.’ ”

No-nonsense mom

Doris Ryan isn’t a firecracker. She’s a string of them. Ignite her with the right question, and she’ll rat-a-tat through story after story, opinion after opinion.

She has a Ph.D. in education and was Canada’s first female college administrator, but she will drop an F-bomb or two without breaking stride. She already has dumped her Jets gear onto a neighbor down the street. She and Buddy divorced a lifetime ago, but she still calls Kevin Gilbride “that idiot” 20 years after Buddy punched him on the Houston Oilers’ sideline.

People assume Rex got his gregarious personality from Buddy. But a few hours with the 5-foot-7, 115-pound Doris will nuke that theory.

The apples of Doris’ eye – Rex’s twin brother, Rob, New Orleans Saints defensive coordinator; and oldest brother Jim, a St. Louis-based attorney – didn’t fall far from her tree either.

“Rex really always dreaded the call from Mom on Mondays more than he did from Dad,” Jim said. “She’d say, ‘You’ve got to put the quarterback down.’ Mom, I sent eight guys after him. ‘Well, bring nine.’ ”

Shared blood, spilled blood

Rob Ryan would challenge anyone who claimed a more airtight brotherly bond than he and Rex enjoy.

“You can’t get tighter than us,” Rob Ryan said. “We can pretend there’s brothers that are close, but they aren’t closer than we are. We’re as tight as we can be, closer than blood.”

Occasionally, that blood would leak.

Take, for instance, the time Rex ended up in jail after he broke Rob’s nose days before the Bears’ defense carried Buddy Ryan off the field for winning Super Bowl XX.

They were students at Southwestern Oklahoma State. Rob wanted to take a lady on a date and needed Rex to be his wingman. Rex wasn’t down for the mission because he’d already met Micki, the woman he would marry.

Rob: “I was a solo rider and had a babe on the line. But she had a friend. I said, ‘You know, come on. Be a team player.’ ”

Rex: “I said, ‘Dude, I’m staying at home today.’ ”

Rob: “So after a few hundred beers I said, ‘You need to help out.’ He didn’t, so I was pissed and got in a wrestling match with him. I think he was a lot more sober than I was.”

Rex: “I was bigger and was just going to throw his ass down. But he reversed me and got on top. So we went at it. We ended up outside, and here he comes.”

Rob: “I ran after him, and he had a right hand waiting for me. I never saw it coming. Still haven’t seen it.”

Rex: “I got him good, and it was over. I felt terrible. I couldn’t believe I hit my brother like that.”

Rex was furious and, as keeper of the car key, drove off to clear his head. Tatters of a bloody shirt hung off him.

“I get pulled over by a cop. He sees me and doesn’t know what he’s got,” Rex said with a gleaming-white smile. “I said, ‘I just got in a fight with my brother. You can take me back there, and he’ll explain it.’

“They take me to jail and then called my brother. He said, ‘Nah, leave him in there.’ ”

Rob’s ankle was broken during the wrestling portion of the match, and his nose broken during the boxing portion. When they arrived in New Orleans for Super Bowl week, Rob’s ankle was in a cast. “We both had black eyes,” Rob said. Buddy wasn’t amused.

The ballad of Alabama Kitty

Buddy and Doris Ryan met on the front steps of her sorority house at Oklahoma A&M (now Oklahoma State University). They were sophomores, although he was older than she because he had served in the Korean War. Buddy asked her to a movie. They were married mid-semester of their junior year.

Buddy’s life goal was to be a football coach, and he would be a great one.

Doris was a Phi Kappa Phi scholar, majoring in education with a minor in political science. After they got together, Buddy suspiciously received Academic All-American honors. Doris insisted Buddy did the work.

“Aw, hell,” Rex said, shaking his head. “There was no way my dad would have gotten that on his own.”

Buddy and Doris divorced after 11 years. Her mother certainly could understand.

No one has wondered how the Ryan boys became fun-loving, verbal-gunslinging, larger-than-life characters. That’s what you’d expect from Buddy Ryan’s sons.

Or Alabama Kitty’s grandsons.

Alabama Kitty Ward – a name that should come with a six-shooter – was Doris Ryan’s mother. She was from Ardmore, a city that includes the town of Gene Autry, Okla., where the singing cowboy’s museum is located.

Alabama Kitty wasn’t amused by her name, so she changed it to Bamma Catherine. She took no guff, and raised her three children through the Great Depression in ways that obliterated feminine expectations.

Bamma’s husband, Earl Ward, died of tuberculosis when Doris was 2. Bamma never remarried. With only an eighth-grade education and housekeeping skills in her repertoire, she and one of her sisters opened a boardinghouse. Bamma later bought the restaurant where she worked and took correspondence classes to become one of the Midwest’s first female real estate brokers.

Bamma’s independent streak and knack for conquering gender barriers were passed along to Doris.

“I wanted a life besides being a housewife,” Doris Ryan said. “It’s not that I didn’t want to be a football wife. I didn’t want to be a football wife if that’s all there was.”

It all began in WNY

While Buddy was coaching at UB, the twins weren’t old enough for school. Jim Ryan attended Windermere Boulevard Elementary. Doris taught English and was a guidance counselor at a Tonawanda high school (she can’t recall which one) and obtained a master’s degree from UB in counselor education.

Doris recalled that Bills coach Lou Saban offered Buddy a spot on his staff, but Buddy turned it down to remain a college coach. When Buddy took a job at Vanderbilt University, the Ryans pulled out of Meadow Lea Drive for Nashville.

“We had a lot of nice memories there,” Jim Ryan said. “I did not like leaving.”

As with Rex and Rob’s time in the Northtowns, they don’t have memories of their parents’ divorce like Jim does.

“Me being older, watching my mom and dad grow apart and all the tension that went along with it affected me clearly much more than them,” Jim said. “They were really too young to understand it.

“People ask why I didn’t go into football, and I tell them, ‘My dad told me not to, and I saw what it did to his family.’ ”

Jim got his MBA from Notre Dame and his law degree from St. Louis University. He was an NHL corporate sponsorship executive in 1991-92 and was Buddy’s agent when the Arizona Cardinals hired him in 1994.

Doris simply needed more out of life than playing bridge and waiting for Buddy to come home. She deeply admired her mother’s ability – radical for the times, really – to defy feminine stereotypes.

Just as unconventional for the 1960s, Doris sought a divorce and continued her education. On the advice of UB professor Eugene Gaier and with the help of a Ford Foundation grant, she earned a Ph.D. from the University of Chicago. Her specialties were educational psychology and educational administration.

The Ontario Institute for Studies in Education recruited Doris for Canada’s first administrative education program in 1968. She also was a professor at the University of Toronto.

By then, Buddy had become a rising assistant with the New York Jets.

Doris took all three boys with her to Toronto.

Jim’s parents never had to worry about him. But what a shocker: The twins became problems as adolescents.

Shipped off to Buddy

Rex and Rob delivered the Globe & Mail in the morning and the Toronto Star in the afternoon. In between, they didn’t report to Winfield Junior High as often as they should. They spent their paper-route money on Blue Jays or Maple Leafs tickets.

Sometimes, they found themselves in trouble.

“I don’t think we realized how bad we were,” Rex said. “Hey, we did what we wanted to do – fights, stuff like that. We wouldn’t go looking for fights, but we weren’t going to take any s---. And if you’re in a place where you don’t belong, then it’s going to come to you.

“My dad never wanted us fighting, but he always told us, ‘Never walk away a loser.’ And I never did.”

There’s a reason for that. When you tangled with one of the Ryan twins, you tangled with both.

“Those two mad at you is a sight to behold,” Jim Ryan said.

Doris was a working, single mother. She traveled frequently. She admitted she was oblivious to much of the twins’ shenanigans.

“She had no chance,” Rob said. “She had a tough job. She had to support the family by herself, and to do that, she had to advance in her career. My mom was doing everything she could.”

There never was any doubt Doris had their backs, though. She loved watching her sons play sports. They played hockey. Rex was a stand-up, poke-check goaltender. Rob was a defenseman. Jim, also a goalie, stopped playing in his recreation league just a couple years ago.

Football was tricky in Canada. The twins were passionate about the game, and with a father coaching in the NFL, their fundamentals were superior.

“My brother and I got kicked out of the league,” Rex said. “We knocked one of the coach’s kids out from the other team, but other kids our age really didn’t know how to play. We loved to play and were aggressive.

“The other parents were bitching, and I’ll never forget my mom came out onto the field and yelled, ‘My kids know how to play. These other kids are wimps.’ ”

Some moments were less humorous than others. Concern about the twins’ extracurricular activities turned into alarm bells when the Canadian government deported one of their troublemaking friends.

Nobody remembers what for. Either that, or nobody’s saying. Regardless, could the Ryan twins be next if they didn’t straighten up?

“They had that independent streak forever,” Jim Ryan said. “But right about the time I went to college, now they were big enough to get into real trouble. They went from throwing snowballs to something more troubling, as teenagers are wont to do.”

A change of scenery and some discipline were in order. Besides, the twins were eager to go. They wanted to play quality football and follow their dad’s coaching footsteps. Rex and Rob went to live with Buddy and Joanie Ryan in Minnesota, where Buddy was coaching the Vikings’ famed Purple People Eaters defense.

“I let them go,” Doris said. “Oh, God, it was the hardest thing I ever did in my whole life.

“I took my three kids and my dogs to Minnesota and cried all the way back and got stopped for speeding. When the cop came to my window, I was just bawling. So he let me go.”

Rex and Rob part ways

About 10 years later, Rex Ryan came back alone. For the first time, Rex and Rob’s paths diverged. Once they finished playing football at Southwestern Oklahoma, they took undergraduate classes at Oklahoma State. Or at least Rex signed up for some.

“I partied too much and dropped out,” Rex said. “I never really knew what I wanted to do. I knew I wanted to coach, but I wasn’t getting any grades.”

Rex returned to Toronto to live with his mom. For the first time, the twins weren’t doing the same thing.

“Well, that sucked,” Rob Ryan said. “That was weird as hell. Neither one of us knew what the hell we were doing.”

Rex struggled with coursework because he has dyslexia, a condition that went undiagnosed until he was an assistant coach with the Baltimore Ravens some 30 years later.

Dyslexia was a mystery to most in the 1970s and 1980s. Doris, despite advanced degrees that would lead to the vice presidency at the University of New Brunswick, didn’t even know what dyslexia was.

Rex: “A frustrating thing for me is I knew I had half my mom’s blood in me. So why was I struggling so bad in school? At the time, nobody knew what dyslexia was.”

Doris: “Here I am at the premier graduate school of education in Canada. They wondered, ‘Is he just a dumb kid?’ But they would test him, and he would test incredibly well.”

Rex and Doris cherished their semester together. She coached him on how to better understand coursework. He did the housework – and avoided carousing to the point they didn't need to worry about deportation.

Rex: “Mom and I were a team.”

Doris: “It was the most fun I ever had in my whole life. This is a big sweetheart of a man-boy.”

Rex: “I moved back in with her and realized, ‘There’s life out there. I’ve got to mature. I’ve got to go back and get it done.’ ”

Rex returned to Oklahoma State for the next semester. He and Rob transferred back to Southwestern Oklahoma State and graduated together in 1986.

Unharvested dreams

Buddy Ryan is 84 and hard of hearing. He has dealt with recurring skin cancer since the 1960s. He lives on a farm in Shelbyville, Ky.

That’s not where he wanted to be and not alongside the person with whom he wanted to spend retirement.

About 40 years ago, Buddy and Joanie Ryan bought 176 acres in Lawrenceburg, Ky. Their dream was a horse and cattle farm. They poured a lot of money, time and sweat into their property. In the summers, Rex and Rob toiled alongside them.

“We’d work until sundown at least,” Rex Ryan said. “We planted every fencepost around there. We built every run-in shed, everything.

“We lived in this little, tiny trailer. My brother and I slept in the overhang, the thing above the truck cab. We called it 'the coffin.' Two 6-2 guys. Never turned the air on. We had these narrow, little windows we had to crank open. All we asked for was our own sheet so our bodies wouldn’t touch.”

When the Cardinals fired Buddy – and two young defensive assistants named Rex Ryan and Rob Ryan – in 1995, Buddy and Joanie headed to their retirement heaven. They tended their horses and watched football on the weekends. They tried to breed a Kentucky Derby entry.

Regardless of whatever turmoil Buddy experienced – or caused – on the sidelines, he and Joanie always had each other. They met in their Queens apartment complex while he was coaching the Jets. They made each other happy.

Their dreams turned to dust eight years after he retired. Joanie had Alzheimer’s disease. Buddy no longer could care for her.

“Oh, it was brutal,” Rex Ryan said in a whisper. “My dad brought her to our house when I was coaching the Ravens. He said he had a fishing trip for a week. But that wasn’t the reason. He wanted us to see what Joanie had become.

“Every now and then she’d know who I was. Then there were times she’d be all dressed at 3 in the morning, with her suitcase packed. She would think I was her dad.

“Their dreams had been shattered, man. They had this farm … I remember telling Dad, ‘You’ve got no choice, man. You’ve got to put her in a home.’

“That was all he wanted. He wanted to make sure I saw it, so that he wasn’t the person deciding, so that I could tell him, so that it was OK.”

Buddy moved Joanie into a Louisville assisted-living facility in 2003. He moved to Shelbyville to be closer to her and sold the farm. He dutifully went to church and then to lunch with Joanie every Sunday until she died in September 2013.

Buddy has a caretaker, but he hasn’t been doing well lately.

“Cancer is eating him,” Rex said. “That’s tough to watch. I’m seeing my father’s body get run down by about eight bouts of cancer, encephalitis and other things.

“The worst thing that I think you can imagine are the two things I’m seeing from him and Joanie: One leaves this world mentally, and the other leaves the world physically.”

Jim Ryan guessed that Rex wouldn’t admit it, but winning another Super Bowl before Buddy dies is on all his sons’ minds. Jim admitted he’s rooting for it to be Rex because the Ryan clan has won five Lombardi Trophies, but none as a head coach.

“I really hope Rex can win a Super Bowl while my dad is still here,” Jim Ryan said. “That would be great.

“My dad, I think, built up a controversial-but-awesome football name. Rex and Rob are carrying that on. With Rex as a head coach, it would be awesome to see him get that ring.”

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