Mark Story: Facing cancer, Buddy Ryan remains a fighter

Longtime NFL Coach's latest fight is with cancer

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistSeptember 27, 2011 

If you watched the 2011 NFL Sunday Night Football season opener — head coach Rex Ryan's New York Jets against the Dallas Cowboys and their defensive coordinator Rob Ryan — you likely came away with one image in mind.

A camera shot of a beaming Buddy Ryan, shown just before the coaching matchup between his twin sons. That night, the announcers pointed out that the colorful, often controversial former NFL coach had delayed surgery for cancer in his neck to be in New Jersey for the game.

"I rooted for the defenses on both sides," Buddy Ryan said Monday. "We call it 'The Ryan Bowl.' It was a big deal for the Ryans."

The rest of the story carries a strong Lexington flavor.

After Rex Ryan's Jets rallied late to beat Rob Ryan and the Cowboys on Sept. 11, Buddy came back to his home in Shelbyville.

Five days later, Dr. Joseph Valentino from the University of Kentucky Department of Surgery, operated on Ryan at UK's Good Samaritan Hospital.

"He had the surgery on a Friday, and he was out of the hospital (by) Sunday at lunchtime," says Debbie Ellis, a friend of Ryan's. "He kept telling the doctors, 'I've got to get out of here, man. I've got a couple of football games to watch.'"

In his long NFL coaching career, among the jobs Ryan held were head man of the Philadelphia Eagles and Arizona Cardinals, defensive line coach with Joe Namath's New York Jets when they won Super Bowl III and defensive coordinator for the 1985 "Super Bowl Shuffle" Chicago Bears.

For Ryan, 77, cancer has been a more relentless opponent than the Green Bay Packers could ever hope to be.

A brother died from the disease at age 42.

"I had a melanoma in 1968," Ryan said in an interview at the Kentucky Clinic on the UK campus. "I had another melanoma in 1980 when I was with the Bears. Then I've had this time around."

Ryan's dermatologist, Dr. Charlie Becknell, became concerned about swelling in Ryan's neck area. He referred the former coach to Valentino, who, in layman's terms, is a head-and-neck surgeon at UK.

"Every three months, I get a checkup," Ryan said. "With my past, I have to stay on top of this."

Adopting Kentucky

An Oklahoma native, Ryan developed an affinity for the commonwealth of Kentucky during his days as a Jets assistant. He eventually bought a horse farm in Anderson County.

"I bought the place in '76 when I was coaching with the (Minnesota) Vikings," he said. "The reason I bought in Kentucky, I was living in New York and coaching with the Jets, and I'd drive home through Kentucky to Oklahoma, particularly during the month of June which we got off (from work).

"We were looking for a place to retire. I said, What about the San Francisco area?' But my wife liked Kentucky. And I did, too. So I bought a home and a farm here. Even when we weren't living here, it felt like home."

In recent years, Buddy has moved from Anderson County to Shelbyville. He did that, in part, to be closer to his wife, Joanie. She suffers from Alzheimer's and is in a facility in Louisville designed to care for those who suffer from that ailment.

"A terrible disease," Ryan says, "just terrible."

Same Buddy

He might be 77 and waging battle with cancer, but Ryan still has the mischievous nature that characterized his coaching days.

In 1993, Ryan was defensive coordinator of the Houston Oilers. During a game, he became upset with the play calling of Oilers offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride. The two got into it, and Ryan slugged his younger colleague.

"You mean Kevin Gil-dumb?" Ryan said Monday when asked about Gilbride, currently the New York Giants' offensive coordinator. "He was wrong. He came at me and what are you going to do when someone comes at you? I slugged him."

Ryan's most famous football feud was with Mike Ditka, the Bears head coach when Ryan was installing his famed "46 defense" and helping Chicago to its sole Super Bowl title (1985 season). The two are said to have nearly come to blows at halftime of the '85 Bears only loss, at Miami on a Monday night. When Chicago claimed Super Bowl XX, the offensive players carried Ditka off the field; the Bears' defense did the same for Ryan.

Are Ryan and Ditka even on speaking terms now?

"Oh, yeah, Debbie got us all hugging and kissing," Ryan said of his friend, Ellis. "They had a big reunion up in Chicago about six months ago. She was saying, 'You guys ought to bury the hatchet.' And (Ditka) wanted to."

Facing radiation

On a visit to the Kentucky Clinic for a checkup Monday, Ryan was decked out in a New York Jets baseball cap and was wearing his 1969 Jets Super Bowl ring.

Valentino, the UK surgeon, says the ex-coach "has skin cancer. He's had a lot of skin cancers through the years. This time, it had spread to the lymph nodes in his neck."

After the surgery, Ryan "is healing. He will get, probably, another two, three weeks following the surgery. Then he'll start radiation therapy," Valentino said. "He'll have five to six weeks of radiation therapy."

Ryan is approaching the radiation treatments with the same resolve with which his defenses used to blitz quarterbacks.

"It's what the doctors say I need to do. Radiation, it does the job," he said.

The old coach doesn't lack for motivation in his fight with a familiar foe. If the next 'Ryan Bowl' comes in a Super Bowl sometime soon, you think there's a chance in heck Buddy would miss that?

Says Buddy Ryan: "So far, I've never lost to cancer. I'm planning to beat it this time, too."

Reach Mark Story at (859) 231-3230 or 1-800-950-6397, ext. 3230, or mstory@herald-leader.com.

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