August 2, 2014

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Let it bowl, let it bowl … Football and the holidays just go together for the Ryans with three sons playing Division I

Connor Ryan, left, is a wide receiver for Ball State, which played in the GoDaddy Bowl. (Courtesy of Ball State University)

Connor Ryan, left, is a wide receiver for Ball State, which played in the GoDaddy Bowl. (Courtesy of Ball State University)

It’s been almost a decade since Susan Ryan has cooked an old-fashioned Thanksgiving dinner … one with relatives and card tables and all the trimmings.

Christmas has been dicey as well, but the Westlake resident wouldn’t have it any other way.

Instead of turkey dinners and Christmas ornaments, the Ryan family’s holiday seasons have consisted of motel rooms and connecting flights. You know, the things you have to worry about when your three sons play Division I football.

Team spirit replaces Christmas cheer. Team breakfasts replace the Christmas morning gift exchange.

Connor Ryan

Connor Ryan

Jake Ryan

Jake Ryan

Zack Ryan

Zack Ryan

The Ryans have four sons. Connor, the oldest, is a redshirt junior wide receiver at Ball State University. Jake, the second oldest, is going into his senior season as a starting linebacker at the University of Michigan. Second youngest Zack is a freshman linebacker at Ball State, while the youngest, Ian, plays at St. Ignatius High School.

Every year since Connor was a sophomore at St. Ignatius, football has played a part in the Ryans’ holiday plans. From the OHSAA playoffs to NCAA bowl games, there has always been somewhere for someone to be that was football related, causing the holiday plans to be adjusted.

This year the entire Ryan family was able to spend Christmas together … just not at home. They were together in a motel room in Scottsdale, Ariz., where Jake, was preparing for the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl.

“Both Connor and Zack came with us to Jake’s game, so we were all together for Christmas, which was nice,” Susan said. “But the last time we had a sit-down holiday dinner at home? I have no idea when the last one was. It’s been a long time, that’s for sure.”

Jake, far left, is a starting linebacker for Michigan, which played in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl on Dec. 28. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

Jake, far left, is a starting linebacker for Michigan, which played in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl on Dec. 28. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

This is nothing new for Susan or her husband, Tim. Susan’s father, Francis Sweeney, played collegiately at Xavier and in the Canadian Football League. Her grandfather was a semi-pro quarterback around the turn of the century.

Tim Ryan played at St. Ignatius and at Wake Forest. He had two brothers, one an Ignatius graduate and one a St. Edward alumnus, who went on to play at Ohio University.

“We all have football in our genes,” Susan said. “When my mother’s father was young his mother would actually give him money not to play football because she was afraid he was going to get hurt. He took the money and played anyway.”

“Football has been running through our family for a long time, and going to these bowl games has been a great experience,” Zack said. “As a family, going to these bowls is getting to be kind of normal for us.”

Zack and Connor’s Ball State Cardinals square off with Sun Belt Conference opponent Arkansas State tonight in the GoDaddy Bowl in Mobile, Ala. It’s the second consecutive season Zack and Connor have gone bowling. Last season the Cardinals played in the Beef O’Brady Bowl in St. Petersburg, Fla.

Like his brother Jake at Michigan, Connor was elected a team captain this season. He caught 10 passes for 68 yards as Ball State went 10-2, 7-1 in the Mid-American Conference. Zack, who earned a scholarship after coming to Ball State as a walk-on, played in 12 games this season and finished third on the team with 85 tackles. He also forced a team-high two fumbles and recovered a pair of fumbles as well.

Jake was coming off a monster sophomore season in which he was second-team All-Big Ten after leading the Wolverines in total tackles (88), solo stops (56), tackles for loss (16), sacks (4.5) and forced fumbles (four) when he injured his ACL in spring practice and missed the first five games of the season.

He made it back faster than most and was still named Michigan’s top linebacker for a second straight season.

Zack Ryan, left, is a linebacker for Ball State, which played in the GoDaddy Bowl. (Courtesy of Ball State University)

Zack Ryan, left, is a linebacker for Ball State, which played in the GoDaddy Bowl. (Courtesy of Ball State University)

“I’m very proud,” Connor said about his younger brothers. “We all went through St. Ignatius so I got to play with Jake a little bit, but I never got to play with Zack. I’m at a loss for words how proud I am of them just because of how well they’re doing. Jake set his goals very high, worked hard and deserves everything that’s coming his way.”

Connor is especially pleased with Zack’s progress, which he has witnessed first-hand.

“Zack, a lot of people thought he would play Division III or II ball, but he told me he thought he could play at the Division I level, that he didn’t care what everyone else thought,” Connor said. “I told him if he thought he could do it he should, and I would love to have him at Ball State. It was a great honor that he thought Ball State would be a good fit for him. He came here, worked his butt off and earned a scholarship after one year. That’s unheard of around here. … It really doesn’t happen.

“Put yourself in my shoes. To see your little brothers succeed at such a high level is really special.”

All four Ryan sons were born within a six-year span. That meant a few things for their parents. First, the food budget went through the roof. Second, when the boys were younger, much of the day was spent breaking up fights and wrestling matches.

“They were like any other young boys,” Susan said. “One couldn’t walk past one of his brothers without getting tripped or tackled. It was nothing mean-spirited. … It was just boys being boys. The funny thing is that they still are always at each other whenever they’re together. They still trip and hit each other and wrestle all over the place.”

One of the biggest challenges for the Ryan parents, with three boys playing at two different colleges and one still playing in high school, has been to see them all play in person. This year, according to Tim, it wasn’t that bad.

“The MAC is nice because at about the midpoint of the season, most of their games were on weeknights,” he said. “I could go see Connor and Zack at Ball State, then get to Jake’s games at Michigan or where they were playing on Saturday. That worked out very well this season.

“I only missed one of Jake’s games this year, the Iowa game. It was below zero outside and I didn’t want to have to drive for nine hours to sit outside and freeze, then turn around and drive home. I watched it at home, which was probably a good thing because they lost. I didn’t break anything but I was pretty worked up.”

Susan, Tim and Ian will be in Mobile tonight to watch the GoDaddy Bowl. They actually flew out midweek so they could spend as much time with the Cardinals as possible.

“Only a few teams get to do this so we really shoot for this,” Connor said of playing in a bowl game. “There’s the MAC championship and then a bowl game as far as our goals. When we found out we were coming down here to Mobile we were very excited. My parents are going to make the trip down here and it’s going to be a family affair. We’ll be able to do things together for a few nights. It’s a great atmosphere.”

The Ryan family has been to big bowl games and smaller ones, but from the BCS bowls on down, one thing is certain.

“They’re all special,” Zack said. “Jake’s Sugar Bowl in New Orleans was cool, down on Bourbon Street there were tons of people. Here in Mobile isn’t like New Orleans because there aren’t as many people, but it’s still a similar experience. You get to interact with the other team and have a different practice environment. It’s always fun to do new things with your teammates.”

And they all are family affairs.

“That’s how life is now,” Connor said. “We’ve gotten used to it. We miss Thanksgiving every year and sometimes we miss Christmas. The family has gotten used to that and we know it’s for a purpose.”

Contact Mike Perry at 329-7135 or macsportstalk@gmail.com.