Ryan shows softer side on Kentucky farm
Originally published June 25, 1986 Buddy Ryan detests athletes that are dumb, fragile, easily distracted. Thoroughbred race horses, inbred to their eyeballs, are dumb, fragile, easily distracted. Yet Buddy Ryan loves thoroughbred race horses.
Originally published June 25, 1986
ALTON, Ky. — Buddy Ryan detests athletes that are dumb, fragile, easily distracted.
Thoroughbred race horses, inbred to their eyeballs, are dumb, fragile, easily distracted.
Yet Buddy Ryan loves thoroughbred race horses.
"Been queer for horses since I was a kid growing up in Oklahoma," Ryan confessed last week. "My wife says I've got suicidal tendencies. I go from coaching football to raising horses."
Risky businesses, both of them. The road to wrist-slashing madness is paved with good-intentioned but slow football players. Or well-bred but slow horses.
When he's not coaching football, Ryan raises horses on 176 slanty acres near Lawrenceburg. Bought the place 10 years ago, when it was a scraggly dairy farm. Will someday build a three-bedroom house on the crest of a hill and retire here.
In mid-June, the sweet Kentucky bluegrass glistens in the afternoon sun. The newly mown hay smells like oak, like vanilla, like butter, carpeting the hillside.
Rex and Rob, Ryan's twin sons, lug rocks from the pasture. Matthew Russo, a nephew, plucks thistles from the blond ribbons of hay. Ryan's wife, Joan, hangs wash from a single strand of rope near the house trailer perched precariously on bumper jacks, where they all live together until the summer chores get done and the hay is in the barn.
The hell of his first Eagles training camp can wait. This is Ryan's view of heaven on earth, working from sunup 'til sundown, doing what he can, and what he can afford, to keep his race horses healthy and happy.
To know Buddy Ryan you must visit him here. Watch him work the farm with a grease-smeared, pale orange "Ryan Farm" baseball cap jammed on his head, wearing a tattered yellow shirt crammed inside wrinkled blue pants, the pants tucked into gray boots Walter Payton gave him, his hands smudged with dirt, his arms littered with healing cuts.
Football players who have earned his wrath would discover the true Ryan. They would find that inside that stubby, gruff, sarcastic body lurks a stubby, gruff, sarcastic person who goads family, friends and feeble sports writers with his fresh mouth.
And then, just when you think he's all pith and vinegar, you see him planting wet, noisy, slobbery kisses on Mollie Plumb, a weanling filly he named for assistant coach Ted Plumb's lovely daughter because the filly was born on her birthday.
You see him stroking the broodmares, talking gently to them. You hear him talking about the horses he has sent to the race track, how he searched for a compassionate trainer who would be patient, and if, hey, they didn't get to run at 2, that's OK, because maybe they would still be sound at 5.
The mailman in Deerfield, Ill., forwards The Thoroughbred Times and Ryan chuckles because the mailman, whose father-in-law once owned a stakes horse, knows what's important mail and what's junk.
"I read 'The Blood Horse,' " he said. "I read stud books. It's the only reading I do outside of football. I see [Jersey Derby winner] Snow Chief, and I know my horses are all bred better than he is.
"You've gotta be lucky. I've always been lucky. I breed the best I've got to the best I can afford. I'm looking for that one big horse."
The search for that one big horse has bankrupted richer men than Ryan, humbled haughtier men than Ryan, but you wouldn't want to bet against the Eagles' coach.
He owns 17 thooroughbreds. Didn't intend to have that many. Fell in love with the foals and couldn't bear to sell them.
"I owned five quarter horses when I graduated from high school," he said. "Roped off 'em, played cowboy with 'em.
"I thought about quarter-horse racing, but that's a crazy business. Only a few big races, and you've got to run 'em at [age] 2. I don't want to break my horses down."
He's got that deep reservoir of patience when he's dealing with horses that he keeps concealed when he's dealing with football players.
"Football's a whole different game," he snarled. "You've gotta win now!"
Ryan will find out soon enough how many plodders he has in green and silver, facing a schedule only the Marquis de Sade's mother could love.
"We'll hit the first day of training camp," Ryan said. "We'll go one-on-one right off. We already know how smart they are. Now we'll find out how tough they are."
It may take a while to evaluate the guys who have not signed 1986 contracts. They may choose to sit home, by the telephone.
"I'm inviting everybody on the 17th [of July]," Ryan said bluntly. "It won't do any good if only a few of 'em show up. I want 'em all there, getting ready to play Washington in the opener.
"We've got a whole new system to put in. If they all show up on the 17th this year, then next year, training camp will start just nine days before the first preseason game. Hell, ordinarily, I don't believe in long camps."
When he finishes weeding out the studs from the duds, they will wear coats and ties on road trips. The whining may break windows in Camden.
"Terrific," Ryan said, rubbing his calloused hands. "I love a good fight. Ahhh, they won't complain. They might grumble in bars or in hotel rooms, but they won't squawk to me.
"I make 'em wear their chin straps buckled on the field. I make 'em touch the line when they run the ladder drill. They must put their hand on the line, not behind it, not in front of it.
"I hate a tie worse than anyone, but it's gonna be coat and tie because they're on a business trip. They represent the Eagles, they represent their parents. You can say it has nothing to do with football...but it does. It's discipline.
"I'm gonna put the older players in the front of the airplane. They'll get the first-class seats. I'll be in the back end, because that way I'll be able to see what's going on.
"Years in the league, that will decide who sits up front. And, if they matriculate, we'll move other guys up."
Matriculate? Is that the harshest word Ryan can find to describe what happens when a veteran quits or gets released? There it is, that soft, flowery side, peeking out from the cactus needles.
"It's not hard to cut a rookie," Ryan said. "But the saddest thing is to have to cut a guy who's been to the Super Bowl with you, to cut a guy who's laid it on the line.
"Bring in a guy who's been to war with you and have to say, 'Son, it's time to retire.' That's tough. Had to do it with Terry Schmidt, with Doug Buffone in Chicago.
"Had to say, 'Hey, you guys are through, you better go about your life's work.' They accept it from me. If someone else told 'em, they'd say, 'I'd better check with Buddy.' "
Mrs. Ryan names the foals, tries to use the parents in the process. Some names are spawned by current events. They've got a colt named Home Shutout because he was born on Jan. 6, smack-dab between two Chicago playoff shutouts.
They have a 2-year-old that ran at Hawthorne on Sunday named Intriped Pursuit that may simply be a garbling of "intrepid" pursuit. Spelling doesn't count, but breeding does, and Ryan can recite the pedigree of his foals through three generations.
So why does he call John Spagnola "88" and why does he call Mike Reichenbach "Rock-em-back" or "55" if he's unhappy with him?
"Numbers are important," Ryan said. "You use numbers on your depth chart. You use numbers when you're talking about the other team's lineup. You speak in numbers a lot.
"Actually, when I first went to Chicago, first game I coached, we had a guy named [Brian] Baschnagel and a guy named [Lenny] Walterscheid, both special-teamers.
"Baschnagel played offense, Walterscheid played defense. I wanted Walterscheid in the game, only I'm hollering, 'Baschnagel!' The twins were ballboys and they knew who I wanted.
"Came up to me and said, 'Dad, you want Walterscheid.' I said, 'Yeah, yeah, 23.' And that's when I started calling 'em by their numbers.
"Plus, in Chicago, everybody had a nickname...I hope we get the same rapport in Philadelphia. But I'll start out calling 'em by their numbers. Cheap satire, I guess you'd call it.
"Most of 'em call me Buddy. If they start calling me 'coach,' I call them 'player.' Some guys you can't be that nice to, or they'll take advantage of you.
"Gary Fencik, if I was too nice to him, he'd be in my office sitting in my lap. Some people, you can never cross the line with. You don't socialize with 'em. Before long, you end up with a buddy-buddy deal and you've gotta be the boss."
He is the boss at Ryan Farm, tough, demanding, untiring, unflappable. In one 36-hour period last week, everything that could go wrong, did go wrong. Ryan never cussed, never stomped, never moaned, never raised his voice above a low growl to his sons.
When a bolt sheared on the mower blade, Ryan improvised with a coiled spring, got 45 minutes more of mowing on the north side before the spring gave way.
A neighbor, Keith Franklin, fixed the knotter on the baling machine. Stops by most nights to sit and chat under Ryan's oak tree. Brought the terrible news that one of the neighbor boys had been killed, passing a truck with a mower that came loose just as he went by. The "boy" was in his 60s.
The Ryans ran out of water that night, the result of five adults showering the sweat and mud away. Larry Case, the farm manager, who tends to things when Ryan is off coaching football, brought them the news around 10:30. Bedtime.
The next morning, the water man in a Rooster Run baseball cap, delivered $30 worth of water. Stuck around to gossip. Wondered if we'd heard about the guy who got "de-headed" passing a truck with a mower blade that came loose and slashed through the car, through the poor ole boy.
That's the way it happened in the old days, before telephones, before radio, before television, neighbors bringing the news, good and bad.
The district farm agent, Roy Toney, showed up later in the day. Made small talk, drew some doodles in the dirt with his toe, summoning up courage to ask a favor.
His 12-year old son, Kwasi, was finishing up football camp down the road and wondered if coach Ryan could spare five or 10 minutes the next morning to talk to the campers.
Ryan agreed to do it. Toney had helped when Ryan installed a gravity line from the bass-stocked pond to the water troughs in the broodmare paddocks. This is the way it used to be, neighbors helping out, installing water lines, gathering the hay from the hillsides before rain could ruin it.
Ryan had started the day driving to Lawrenceburg to get new bolts for the mower. Waited grumpily until the hardware store opened at 8.
Fixed the mower. Fixed it again when the blade smashed into a hidden rock and the bolt came loose.
Used the outhouse because the electricity was turned off and there was no water in the trailer toilet.
Assistant coach Dan Neal dropped by, with wife Barbara, daughters Kelly and Tiffany.
Kelly rushed off to pet the horses, paused at the edge of the paddock to ask, "Why does it stink?"
Kelly has an excellent chance to be a Philadelphia sports writer someday.
Neal brought a friend, a contractor, who went off to the crest of the hill with Mrs. Ryan to draw floor plans in the golden sunshine. They came back, talking of mud rooms and dens and picture windows.
Ryan, half-listening, said, "She'll have some input, but you know who's gonna make the final decisions."
We all knew.
This year's project had involved moving the farm manager's home from the crest of the hill, to a spot 70 yards away.
"Cost me $5,000," Ryan muttered. "I said it was a lot of money to move a house 70 yards and the guy said he'd move it 4 miles and charge me the same thing. The main thing was getting it up, on wheels."
Ryan contrived to bundle 10 bales of hay so that Daily News photographer Susan Winters could get some pictures. And then he wandered into the paddocks, talking to his horses.
He fondled a shaggy weanling, a Soy Numero Uno colt that looked like a burro with his shaggy winter coat.
"Looks like a camel," Ryan said, offering his forearm as a target for some awkward biting motions.
It was dinner time and Ryan rattled some pellets into the feed troughs. "Start-to-Finish," he said proudly. "Costs $75 for a 25-pound bag. Only give 'em a glassful a day. Vitamin supplement."
His first horse couldn't outrun a fat man. Named him after a New York sports writer named Larry Fox. Somehow, they're still friends.
"I was with the Jets then," Ryan said. "I'd submitted 1,000 names and the Jockey Club had rejected all of 'em.
"The Jets had this tradition of going to the 21 Club and then going to Monmouth Park for the races and then to the [then-co-owner Phil] Iselin shore house for dinner.
"I saw Fox and asked him how he'd feel if I named it after him. He liked it. His wife said, 'I hope you have better luck with your Larry Fox than I've had with mine.'
"Horse couldn't run a lick. Finally sold it as a jumper. I was getting ready to go on a six-week scouting trip for Weeb [Ewbank]. Told the trainer, sell it, give it away, kill it, I don't care.
"Came back, he brought me a check for $750. I felt great. Then he handed me his last bill. It was for $500. I'd spent $750 to fly the horse from the coast.
"They've all got different personalities. When you raise 'em, foal 'em, see 'em when they're 10 minutes old, they're like your children.
"I go to the track but I don't bet on 'em. I'm maybe a $2 bettor and a $1 exacta player. That's what they say, you can't afford to feed 'em and bet on 'em.
"Actually, the best time for me is the early mornings. Pet 'em, feed 'em carrots, play with 'em. Watch 'em work out."
Mrs. Ryan keeps meticulous books and the racing operation has held its own, despite some harsh luck.
"Came down last year and had three healthy yearlings," Ryan recalled. "Man across the road cut down a tree and when it crashed, it frightened two of the yearlings. They tried to jump the fence, tore up their front legs.
"Put the third yearling in with a broodmare and her foal. He came too close to the foal, and she kicked him. Got him in the jugular. Went from three healthy yearlings to none, inside of a week."
Besides the thoroughbreds, Ryan keeps 27 head of cattle on the farm, some of them the Simenthal variety, black-and-white and beefy.
He has three goats, Rebecca, Heidi, Gretchen. "Got $50 worth of goats and $500 worth of trouble," he grumbled.
He keeps them around because he grew up believing an Oklahoma myth that a goat in a horse's stall absorbs potential illness.
The farm manager has an angry dog named Buster and a shaggy poodle named Susie. The Ryans have Taffy, a hyper golden retriever puppy. And a sad-eyed beagle named Lady, who shadows Mrs. Ryan everywhere she goes.
"Wouldn't bite a biscuit," Ryan said, hiding his true feelings under that veneer of cheap sarcasm.
Let the record show that the Ryans took the dog when its owners abandoned it, paid to have it spayed, and when it came time to make the career move, the Ryans drove from Chicago to Cherry Hill because Lady has epilepsy and cannot fly.
The next time a player grumbles about Ryan treating him like a dog, remember Lady, the sad-eyed beagle who has prospered with tender, loving care.
"We'll do it my way," Ryan said, when the only other sounds were the warbling of birds and the whinnying of a 2-year-old filly. "And if it ain't good enough, I'll come back here, mow hay, raise horses."