Canadian Football League

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Former Canadian Football League punter struggling to focus on football with Dad's Cancer battle

Bob Ryan grew up in Canada loving the Green Bay Packers. Vince Lombardi, Paul Hornung, Bart Starr, Willie Davis - he followed all the legends.
So when the 53-year-old psychologist got to see his son, Jon, punt for his favorite team in an Aug. 19 preseason game against Atlanta, well, you could say Bob Ryan's life was complete.
But that wouldn't be fair. Because his life isn't complete, and it isn't fair. It isn't fair that a man with so much more to do, a man who has given so much to his community, a man with so much life still left in him, is running out of time as cancer spreads throughout his body.
And yet, every time he watches his two sons play football - Jon with the Packers and Steve at the University of Regina in Saskatchewan - Bob Ryan feels a little bit better.
"He tells me how proud he is of me," Jon Ryan said as he stood in the Packers locker room Monday. "Sometimes, when times have been tough, it's been a bit of an escape to watch me play football and watch my brother play football. So football's kind of a medicine for my family right now."
And so, with that knowledge, Jon Ryan returned to work Monday, just as the rest of his Packers teammates did.
But while it was hard for some of those players to leave warmer climates or the freedom of a football-less weekend, it was a thousand times harder for Ryan, the first-year punter, who signed with the Packers this offseason after playing in the Canadian Football League.
Because when Ryan flew back on Sunday, he did so knowing that he may not see his father alive again.
"I had a long talk with him on Saturday night, and it was very difficult because they don't know how much time he has left," Ryan said. "It's kind of like goodbye."
The ordeal began two months ago, after his father fell at his home in Saskatchewan, tearing part of his hip flexor off the bone. Afterward, doctors discovered a tumor in his hip area, and the cancer spread quickly to his other hip and lungs.
"They kind of gave him two options: Basically amputate from the waist down, wait for that to heal and then start cutting tumors out of his lungs, or he could just kind of go home and make the most of the time he had left," Ryan said. "He said that, you know, cutting off half his body just wasn't any way to live. He said he wanted to live, not survive. So we took him home, and he's just trying to make the best of the time that he's got left."
Just days before that, Ryan's parents had come to Green Bay for that preseason game. Inside the Packers Pro Shop at Lambeau Field, no one recognized the kid with the red mullet or his proud-as-could-be parents, the three of them with armloads of green-and-gold clothes to wear to the game.
"He got to come to that preseason game, so that was pretty special," Ryan said. "The Packers were his favorite team growing up - even before I signed here - so he said he kind of had a tear in his eye when he walked out into the stands there."
The seriousness of his father's illness became clear after a biopsy Sept. 10, the day of the Packers' season-opening loss to Chicago. Since then, Ryan has done his best to focus on his job, but he admits he hasn't always succeeded.
"I have my days. There's times when I'd be lying if I said my head was fully in the game," said Ryan, who enters Sunday's game at Miami averaging 47.4 gross yards and 34.6 net yards on 26 punts.
"For the games, all my strength and all my focus is to get my head into it. Usually, once I get on the field and start getting ready for the game, I don't think about cancer or death or anything like that. I just let all those thoughts come in after the game."
His teammates and coaches are amazed that Ryan has been able to focus as well as he has.
"We give him his privacy, give him his space," said special teams coordinator Mike Stock, whose wife, Peggy, is a cancer survivor. "The only thing I told him (was), 'I have some experience with this with my wife, and if you need to talk to somebody, I'm here.' "
Added kicker Dave Rayner, Ryan's closest friend on the team: "This job is hard enough when everything's perfect in your life, you know? Obviously, when you're going through what he's going through at home, it's even harder. But if I know Jon, he's going to use football as kind of an escape. If he needs anything, I'm right here."
What Ryan needed most was time with his family, which he got during the bye week. He wasn't expecting any special treatment, but before the Oct. 8 game against St. Louis, coach Mike McCarthy excused Ryan from all of last week's practices so he could maximize his time with his father.
"(McCarthy) just came to me on Friday and said, 'Get the first flight out of here after the game on Sunday,' " Ryan said. "I'm just very grateful for that."
Bob Ryan was in a Calgary hospital the first part of the week, then flew home on Wednesday and was admitted to a hospital in Regina. He came home Friday, and the family spent Saturday at Steve's game - which Regina won by one point, on the last play of the game.
"My dad doesn't move around real well right now, he's pretty brittle, but we managed to get him in the car and take him to the football game," Ryan said. "And it was, quite honestly, one of the greatest days of my life."
Ryan hopes there are a few more of those left. His dad has spent the last 30 years working for the non-profit Ranch Ehrlo Society, which helps troubled youths in Saskatchewan, and was set to ascend to president of the organization in the next few years.
After watching his father devote his life to helping others, Ryan has seen him continue to do that even with death approaching.
"He's given back to the community ten-fold from what the average person has, so he's lived a full life," Ryan said. "He's just been so good and so strong through all of this. Sometimes, it's kind of weird. When we're having a bad day, he tries to bring us up - when it should really be the other way around. He's been a real inspiration to everyone."


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