A Man of Two Worlds

When he wasn't teaching advanced mathematics, Frank Ryan was making history with the Cleveland Browns.

By Jonas Fortune

Michael Diamant (CIT ’68) stared at the sling hugging his math professor’s right arm.

Frank Ryan was drafted by the Los Angeles Rams in 1958 and joined the Cleveland Browns four years later. In a New York Times interview in 1977, he said that as far back as junior high school, he had been fascinated by “the throwing of a football . . . the spiral . . . the sense of making that rather awkward object go in a beautiful way.”

Frank Ryan was drafted by the Los Angeles Rams in 1958 and joined the Cleveland Browns four years later. In a New York Times interview in 1977, he said that as far back as junior high school, he had been fascinated by “the throwing of a football . . . the spiral . . . the sense of making that rather awkward object go in a beautiful way.”
Credit: Courtesy of the Cleveland Browns

He noticed the fashion: The sling was cut from blue patterned silk that matched the professor’s tie, his elegant tweed jacket and his Oxford shirt.

“He looked as if he had stepped from the pages of GQ,” Diamant recalls. “It was as if he were teaching in the Ivy League rather than at a Midwestern institute of technology.”

Forty-six years later, Diamant remembers something else just as vividly: the professor’s refusal to let his injury interfere with his teaching. During a typical lesson, he would fill three, four or five blackboards in his Sears Library classroom.

“He looked like he was unprepared for the next chapter, and then he would do 40-, 50-, 60-step proofs cold,” Diamant says. “And he wrote these proofs that fast with his left hand. It completely blew your mind.”

Still, there was more to Frank Ryan’s mystique than that.

He wasn’t the first professor to teach a class following surgery. But how many could say they had been nursing an injury since a gang tackle in the 1965 Pro Bowl?

Baltimore Colts defensive lineman Gino Marchetti and two others had gotten the better of Ryan that day. But Ryan, and the rest of the Cleveland Browns, had gotten the better of Marchetti and the Colts two weeks earlier, in a 27-0 upset in the 1964 NFL championship game.

It was a victory that sticks in nearly every Clevelander’s mind: the city’s last professional sports title. And quarterback Frank Ryan had thrown three second-half touchdowns to Gary Collins to earn it.

Once his sling came off, Ryan was back leading the Browns on Sunday afternoons. His years in Cleveland defined him in the minds of students, fans, teammates and the media: a man of two worlds.

Today, Ryan has plenty of memories from that era, but he doesn’t dwell on them. At age 76, he lives in Vermont with his wife, Joan, a retired sportswriter and nationally syndicated columnist for the Washington Post. Their home is in Grafton, a town of 600 that still has the look of a traditional New England village. When Ryan takes a stroll on a fall afternoon, he can pick the grapes ripening on their property.

In an office he built above their garage, math books rest on the shelves: AlgorithmsGödel’s Proof, Stephen Hawking’s God Created the Integers. A bag of game balls he earned during his football career sits in a closet.

On one of his two desks, a stack of manila folders lies waiting. Ryan opens the top two, which contain notes for the courses he taught in the spring and fall of 1967. The handwriting is clean and concise in both, but the notes from the spring, when his arm was in the sling, aren’t nearly as sharp.

“Doing that left-handed was such a chore,” Ryan says. “I got very good at it at the end. Not at the beginning.”

Among Ryan's keepsakes from his football career are the 1964 NFL Championship ring he earned with the Cleveland Browns (right) and the 1957 Southwest Conference Championship ring he earned at Rice.

Among Ryan’s keepsakes from his football career are the 1964 NFL Championship ring he earned with the Cleveland Browns (right) and the 1957 Southwest Conference Championship ring he earned at Rice.
Photo credit: Nancy Nutile-McMenemy

He made the notes to prepare for class, but once they were finished, he didn’t need to refer to them again. For all his students knew, he was doing those proofs at the board off the top of his head.

“I was very conscientious about preparing my lectures,” Ryan recalls. “I wanted them to reveal things to me as well as to the students; we were all being educated. So I tried to get the nuance of explanation down just right. It was a very win-win type of thing, and I enjoyed it immensely.”


“Sort of a Challenge”

Frank Ryan teaching

As a CIT faculty member, Ryan taught advanced mathematics electives, not required courses for freshmen and sophomores. Photo credit: Courtesy of Frank Ryan

Ryan began his athletic career playing high school football in Fort Worth, Texas. College coaches from across the country, including the legendary Bear Bryant, tried to recruit him, and he was admitted to Yale University, where many members of his family had been educated. But he chose the Rice Institute (subsequently renamed Rice University) in Houston, where he declared a major in physics and joined the football team.

“People said, ‘You just can’t do the work at Rice and play football,’” Ryan recalls. “That was sort of a challenge, you know.”

He wound up splitting snaps at quarterback with teammate King Hill, the eventual top pick in the 1958 NFL draft. Ryan didn’t think he’d be drafted himself and was prepared to quit the sport. But to his surprise, the Los Angeles Rams selected him in the fifth round of the 1958 draft, shortly after he completed his bachelor’s degree.

Ryan accepted the offer but decided to pursue a doctorate in mathematics while playing pro ball. He began his graduate work at UCLA but then transferred back to Rice, where he studied during the off-season.

After four mediocre years with the Rams, Ryan was traded to the Cleveland Browns on his 26th birthday, July 12, 1962. At the end of October, he became the starting quarterback after Jim Ninowski broke his collarbone.

Ninowski never got his job back: Ryan threw 117 touchdowns during the next five seasons. He led the league in touchdown passes in 1964 (25) and 1966 (29) and played in three Pro Bowls (’65, ’66, ’67).

Even today, Ryan ranks near the top of the team’s career passing lists: He is second in touchdown passes (134), third in quarterback rating (81.4), pass attempts (1,755) and completions (907), and fourth in passing yards (13,361).

Ryan discusses a play with Browns coach Blanton Collier. Collier believed in Ryan and stuck with him through early struggles with the Browns. It paid off with Ryan playing in three consecutive Pro Bowls (’65, ’66 and ’67) and leading the Browns to Cleveland’s last professional sports title in 1964.

Ryan discusses a play with Browns coach Blanton Collier. Collier believed in Ryan and stuck with him through early struggles with the Browns. It paid off with Ryan playing in three consecutive Pro Bowls (’65, ’66 and ’67) and leading the Browns to Cleveland’s last professional sports title in 1964.
Photo credit: Courtesy of the Cleveland Browns

During his first seven years in the NFL, Ryan continued his studies. Every spring, he returned to Rice. In training camp and during the regular season, he split his time in the evenings between watching game films and solving elaborate math problems.

Ryan received his doctorate in June 1965, six months after leading the Browns to victory in the 1964 championship game. And in February 1967, he became an assistant professor at Case Institute of Technology, where he taught a variety of courses for junior, seniors and graduate students. 

“I think it is significant that he was not simply teaching the basic required freshman calculus or sophomore differential equations courses, but rather advanced math electives,” Diamant says. When he registered for Ryan’s course in complex variable analysis, Diamant had already completed the math requirements for his engineering science degree. But the prospect of studying with a star quarterback was too intriguing to pass up.

 

A Very Special Role

If he’d wanted to, Ryan could have ingratiated himself with his students by recounting episodes from his football career. Long before “The Drive,” “The Fumble” or “Red Right 88,” there had been the “quagmire” that helped usher out the Browns’ golden era—the championship game of 1965, when they were defeated by the Green Bay Packers 23-12 at Lambeau Field. The Browns won four NFL championships and played in nine title games from 1950 to 1965, but haven’t reached a title game since.

“God! We should have won that game,” Ryan says, tossing his head back in disappointment nearly 47 years later.

“It snowed during the morning, and when they took the tarp off, the snow fell onto the field,” he recalls. “There wasn’t that much snow to worry about, but they had added a new feature to the field: a warming matrix underneath. It warmed the field just about the time we started playing the game. So this moisture that came from the snow melted, and it became the greatest quagmire game you ever saw in your life.”

The Packers, he concludes, “were just better mudders than we were.”

But Ryan never discussed that game, or any other, in the classroom. “I was very careful not to allude to any of that, and I kept it very straight with respect to mathematics,” he says. “I thought there was something really fundamentally good about teaching, and teaching right. That was a responsibility that older people had for younger people. I had this view of teaching as a very special role, and I didn’t have the same view of athletics.”

Still, Diamant recalls times when football came up in class. A dropped eraser would prompt a student to blurt out, “Fumble!” Ryan would just smile. And then there was a goofy car commercial featuring Ryan that debuted one Sunday afternoon. He felt the need to address it in class the next day.

“I suppose y’all are wondering about the commercial,” Diamant remembers him saying. “And I will give you one word on the commercial, and then we’ll move on: money. Now, where were we on Friday?”

It wasn’t unusual in the 1960s for NFL athletes like Ryan to have second jobs or other sources of revenue. Some sold insurance or became businessmen. It was a different era. There were no agents or multimillion-dollar contracts to hold out on. Players earned what the teams wanted to pay them, and players didn’t have much knowledge of what fair market pricing was, or leverage to use it if they did.

“My first contract with the L.A. Rams in 1958 was $12,000 per year,” Ryan says. “When I got to the Browns, I made about $18,000. When we won the championship in 1964, Art Modell bumped it up to $25,000. Just thinking back upon it, I really didn’t have many options.”

Dr. Frank

As he pursued his parallel lives, Ryan came in for his share of misunderstanding and criticism. To some, he was too intelligent to be wasting time with football. To others, he was too much of an athlete to be in academia. But he also had his defenders.

“There seems to be an impression that Ryan was handed his doctorate on a platter,” CIT Professor Arthur “Jack” Lohwater told the Saturday Evening Post in 1965. “Nothing could be less correct. The man worked hard for his degree. He worked for seven postgraduate years under Dr. G. R. MacLane, one of the best geometric-function theorists and a man of uncompromising standards.” Lohwater had previously taught at Rice and knew Ryan long before the quarterback joined the CIT faculty in 1967.

To many sports enthusiasts, Ryan was “Dr. Frank,” a stereotypical genius who had written a dissertation no one could understand: “A Characterization of the Set of Asymptotic Values of a Function Holomorphic in the Unit Disc.”

“Sportswriters had a lot of fun with ‘the Unit Disc,’” Ryan groans, recalling the frequent references to his thesis in the press.

Then again, he didn’t always help his cause. A practical joker with a dry sense of humor, Ryan once answered a question about a windy game day in Cleveland by discussing Bernoulli’s Principle.

“I had my fun, too,” Ryan says. “I would joke about things. And I still joke about things.”

Former Browns receiver Gary Collins says that Ryan worked hard to be a regular guy and a good teammate. It was impossible not to be aware of his intellect. Yet everyone recognized that, along with being “book smart,” Ryan was “football smart.” Collins had known other players whose intelligence hadn’t translated into success on the gridiron. Ryan didn’t fall into this category.

A Path Off the Field

During two of his best years with the Browns, Ryan played with an injury. That gang tackle in the 1965 Pro Bowl separated his right shoulder. Afterwards, Ryan says, he was subjected to a series of misdiagnoses and ineffective treatments, and he needed regular injections of painkillers to keep throwing. By the time he was properly diagnosed in 1967, the biggest muscle in his right forearm was nearly detached from his elbow.

Despite this ordeal, Ryan maintained his dominance. In 1966, he threw for 2,974 yards and led the league with 29 touchdown passes.

But by then, the purity of the game he’d grown up enjoying had dissipated for him. Apart from struggles with his injury, he was troubled by rampant drug use in the NFL and the illicit bounty programs that rewarded players for inflicting game-ending injuries on their opponents.

Besides, Ryan says, “I didn’t want to be limited to just being a football player. I wanted to be something beyond that. I was always curious, and most of the time I didn’t fulfill my curiosity to the extent I wish I had now. But that always pushed me, and I was becoming more and more confused as to where football was leading me.”

His path off the field was becoming clearer.

Through Case Western Reserve’s newly launched private computer company, the Chi Corp., Ryan learned programming and software. He applied what he learned to football, compiling advanced statistics on the game. He showed his results to the Browns, who liked the project but weren’t ready to offer the extra cash he needed to move it forward.

In 1969, Ryan signed with the Washington Redskins, whose coach, Vince Lombardi, embraced his research. Ryan recalls that Lombardi paid him a salary of $75,000 and threw in another $35,000 to fund a group to analyze the statistics.

When he retired from professional football in 1971, Ryan’s computer savvy brought him a new opportunity. The U.S. House of Representatives hired him to create and head up a technology group to guide the House into the computer age. Its first major accomplishment was the creation of a computer-driven electronic voting system. Once Ryan was finished, floor votes that used to take 45 minutes could be completed in 15 minutes.

Joan and Frank Ryan raised four sons while pursuing their careers: his as an academic and an athlete, and hers as a nationally syndicated sports columnist.

Joan and Frank Ryan raised four sons while pursuing their careers: his as an academic and an athlete, and hers as a nationally syndicated sports columnist.
photo credit: Nancy Nutile-McMenemy

“The number of issues that the House voted upon tripled overnight,” Ryan says. “The reps just loved it.”

Ryan taught his last course at Case Western Reserve in the spring of 1971. He was promoted to associate professor that summer. After taking a leave of absence for the next three years, he resigned his faculty position in 1974. He remained at the House until 1978, then left to spend 10 years as director of athletics and lecturer in mathematics at Yale University. He ended his institutional career after serving as vice president for external affairs and professor of mathematics at Rice.

His health continues to be affected by his years in the NFL. He is currently resisting his orthopedist’s advice to have his knee joints replaced. He’s already had surgery on both knees, his right elbow and left pinky. He also had two vertebrae in his neck fused as a consequence of an encounter with the Chicago Bears in 1967; the neck injury went misdiagnosed for five years. He is currently a plaintiff in one of the concussion lawsuits against the NFL.

Despite this, Ryan says he doesn’t regret playing football.

“No, no. But I do wish I had played golf early on,” he says. “I would perhaps have been a great golfer. But you can’t play life over again. What’s done is done.”

Although he is retired now, Joan Ryan says that her husband’s mind never stops. On one of the two computers in his office, he runs a sophisticated self-designed program that helps him micro-analyze aspects of the futures market. He is focused on the statistical behavior of “ticks,” the up-and-down pricing movement that underlies pricing behavior. In another project, he is delving into Oppermann’s 1882 conjecture concerning prime numbers and their distribution.

The Ryans now live in Grafton, Vermont, a town nestled among three state forests. On a Tuesday in early September, Frank Ryan set out on a stroll to pick grapes.

The Ryans now live in Grafton, Vermont, a town nestled among three state forests. On a Tuesday in early September, Frank Ryan set out on a stroll to pick grapes.
photo credit: Nancy Nutile-McMenemy

“He is usually in his office from dawn until dusk,” Joan Ryan says.

“And sometimes later,” he adds, in a voice that still hints at his Texas upbringing. But he rarely stops to sift through his memorabilia.

“There is much that I’ve done just sitting there in storage,” Ryan says. “And yet, I abhor dwelling on the past. My focus is on the future.”

Jonas Fortune, a former sportswriter for the Akron Beacon Journal, is a freelance writer.