Sunday, February 04, 2007

The Heart of a Champion

As it seems all the world knows, Super Bowl XLI kicks off at 6.25 tonight in Miami's Dolphins Stadium.

Go Lovie & Co. Go Tony & Co. -- it's all good. You lot know me well enough, though, that deep down inside the only truly compelling aspects of any non-Eagles Super Bowl are the commercials and the flickering hope that, one day, the Birds' third appearance at the Big Dance will be the charm.

The defensive coordinator of the 1986 Chicago Bears' squad -- the last to make it to The Game -- was the first Birds' coach of my living memory, James "Buddy" Ryan. Yesterday's NYTimes tracked down the Bud (still beloved in this town for his gruff, shoot-from-the-hip, often-railing-at-everybody character) on his farm in Kentucky, with a moving focus on bigger things than the gridiron.
Each morning at 5 a.m., Buddy Ryan’s day begins in solitude, mucking out the stalls of his horses. He has 17 of them, and three mares in particular are named for milestones in his colorful and sometimes cantankerous lifetime....

But his favorite is Bayside Girl, named for his wife of 36 years, Joanie. Ryan met her in Queens in 1968, after Weeb Ewbank brought him to the Jets as an assistant. She was a high-strung New Yorker; he was a steel-willed Okie....

Unlike football, life cannot always be neatly schemed. In 2003, Buddy moved Joanie to an assisted-living home after her Alzheimer’s disease, diagnosed two years earlier, finally made it impossible for him to care for her alone.

On Sunday, Ryan will watch the Bears play in the Super Bowl for the first time in 21 years, against the Indianapolis Colts, but it will not be the most important thing he will do that day. That will be attending Mass with his wife in the morning, having lunch with her and her favorite priest, and sitting with her for the afternoon.

“It’s our date,” said Ryan, 73. “Sometimes, she recognizes me. Sometimes, she thinks I’m her father, which is O.K., too.”

When Ryan eventually settles into his recliner at his home on a golf course, he will watch two teams with old friends on each sideline play a game that he loves. He will watch how the Bears’ defensive coordinator, Ron Rivera, a backup linebacker when Ryan was Chicago’s defensive coordinator, handles the Colts’ offense designed by Tom Moore, who coached with Ryan under Bud Grant in Minnesota.

“I miss the camaraderie of the locker room, and the strategy, but I got more than enough to keep me busy,” Ryan said. “When I hit the pillow each night, I sleep good. I’m one of those people who need a lot of turmoil in my life so I can stay focused.”...

His former players know where he is: They call frequently, and a few have even visited.

“It is remarkable how much they love Buddy,” said Debbie Ellis, a friend who owns the farm where Ryan boards his horses. “You see these big, grown men giving him a hug and a kiss on the neck.”...

Ryan talks to his former players, or his boys, whenever he wants to remember the joys and pressures of coaching in the N.F.L.

He talks to Joanie Ryan about how the simple life they sought is not always so simple. About how last week, they lost a foal on the same day one of their fillies won a race at Turfway Park. About how hard it is, despite some stakes wins, to breed a Derby champion. About the $10,000 the soybean crop brought in, and how he’s now thinking of planting corn.

About how much he misses his Bayside Girl.

“I don’t know how much she understands,” Ryan said, “but I tell her everything anyway.”

PHOTO: David R. Lutman/The New York Times