- The Washington Times - Monday, May 2, 2005

SHELBYVILLE, Ky. — Buddy Ryan gripped the nervous, month-old colt as it struggled to rejoin its mother and move into a pasture. The scared weanling wanted to escape, and Ryan needed both hands to control it.

Ryan was just trying to prevent the colt from hurting itself, but its struggles had turned the short walk into a long tussle.

Finally, Ryan maneuvered the colt through the gate, where it ran to its mother. Ryan’s defensive game plan had worked again.

As an NFL coach, Ryan fought his fellow coaches, placed bounties on opposing players — so they claimed — and was never short on something pithy to say about his colleagues, players or opponents.

Life is much quieter these days. Ryan lives and works in the bluegrass country of Kentucky, where he spends his semi-retirement breeding thoroughbreds on a farm about 30 miles from Churchill Downs.

Horses are Ryan’s true passion, more than the game that will define his legacy.

Ryan, at 75, still rides occasionally, enjoying the quiet of spring mornings broken only by the whinnies of horses waiting to be released into the fields. The silence gives Ryan a peace he seldom found in the NFL, other than the sunrise of a training camp.

“Where would you rather be than here?” Ryan said. “This is a great life, being with the horses. You get a good horse, and you have fun.”

It’s odd, though, seeing Ryan taking such pleasure in this pastoral life.

You keep waiting for the old fiery Ryan to emerge, the coach who was the emotional equal of Mike Ditka, Bill Parcells and even Vince Lombardi.

What happened to the guy who once punched a fellow coach on the sideline and as an assistant refused to speak to his own head coach?

Who turned Buddy Ryan into — dare it be said? — a nice guy?

“When you’re dealing with animals, it becomes more relaxing,” said Debbie Ellis, who leases Ryan part of her 120-acre farm for his five broodmares and two babies. “He’s a sweet guy. I wish all my clients were as kind to his horses as Buddy is.”

Oh, Ryan still chuckles over how he, as the Houston Oilers’ defensive coordinator, punched offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride in “self-defense” after the offense lost a fumble just before halftime of a 1994 playoff game.

Chicago Bears coach Mike Ditka said in 1989 that he would “hands down” win a fight with Ryan, the club’s former defensive coordinator. If Ditka is still interested, well, take Exit 28 off the interstate and follow the signs to the farm.

Just watch out for “Little Buddy,” a pooch who now is Ryan’s devoted pal. Nobody messes with Buddy — big or small.

The simple life

The sun hasn’t even shown itself, and Ryan is leading the mares and weanlings from the barn to the pastures.

The mares are easy, eager to escape the confinement of the stall for a day of running and browsing with their offspring over grass that already is deep and green.

The youngsters don’t like to leave their mothers even for a few minutes, so Ryan applies a firm hold with a right hand that bears the Super Bowl ring he won with Chicago in the 1985 season.

It’s a workout, but chores on a farm usually are.

Ryan now has help with his work. He has hired trainer David Pate to oversee the two horses — soon to be joined by five more — who run at nearby Keeneland Race Course.

Ryan jokes that, these days, he only is in charge of sipping coffee. But he is just kidding: Ryan performs myriad tasks, from wrestling with colts to meeting with investors to working with veterinarians to handling the paperwork at the racetracks.

Football is never too far away.

Signed photos of his former players hang on the wall of his barn office next to pictures of his horses in the winner’s circle.

A mare named “Fired for Winning” — Ryan’s take on the reason he was dismissed as coach of the Philadelphia Eagles after three straight playoff appearances — shares a field with a horse called “46 Blitz.” That, of course, refers to Ryan’s famed “46 defense” that led the Bears to the NFL championship.

For Ryan, the hardest part of the switch to horse racing was dialing down the emotion.

Ryan began training horses after he was fired by the Eagles in 1991, but it didn’t last long. Racing was too slow back then for Ryan, who expected the frantic pace and intensity of an NFL Sunday. He returned to football in 1993 as the defensive coordinator for the Oilers.

“It took me several years to unwind,” he said. “It was hard to get used to people who didn’t work with the same urgency. In the NFL, if I told you to do something, you did it on the run. Here, you’re lucky if they walk to do it.”

But Ryan eagerly returned to racing in 1996 after a two-year coaching stint with the Arizona Cardinals that proved to be his final stop in the NFL.

There’s something about a two-minute race that matches the drama of a two-minute drill.

“There’s still action at the racetrack,” he said. “That’s a great fix for you, those two minutes.”

Ryan nowadays runs a colt named Tricky Gold and a filly called Devil’s Lick. Devil’s Lick has earned $18,495, winning twice and finishing second once in four races. Ryan picked her out for $2,000 at the Keeneland sales, a sum that normally doesn’t cover the sales tax on the million-dollar yearlings sold through the renowned ring.

Devil’s Lick is a daughter of Devil His Due, who is owned by a doctor who treated Ryan for cancer in the 1980s. Ryan likes the Devil’s Bag bloodline that has yielded a standout sprinter in Devil His Due and now Devil’s Lick.

Ryan prefers horses with big rear ends that resemble those of the quarterhorses he rode in the makeshift afternoon races of his youth in Frederick, Okla. Devil’s Lick might be the best runner yet of Ryan’s second career.

“Buddy hasn’t had a lot of luck on the racetrack, but it’s going to turn around,” Pate said.

One of Ryan’s first horses was a mare “that couldn’t run a lick” at Belmont Park. Ryan left orders to sell her while he was away scouting. The trainer later handed him a check for $700 and a bill for $600.

Then there was a $48,000 yearling Ryan bought with son Rex Ryan, despite a promise not to spend more than $21,000. The colt was such a flop it was given to a friend in Oklahoma to be used as a barrel racer.

“They can either run or can’t run,” Ryan said with a grin. “We got one that couldn’t run.”

Ryan won a stakes race at Turfway Park with Patton Road, and his Song for James and Rock’spride were nice runners. Ryan has watched 17 runnings of the Kentucky Derby from the stands, but he still is hoping one day to watch the race from the owner’s box.

“It’s a lot harder than winning the Super Bowl,” he said. “The Super Bowl is easy. I’ve been to three of those but never the Derby [as an owner]. I’d love to get one to the Derby.”

Phone call away

Joe Gibbs returned to the NFL and the Washington Redskins after a 12-year absence. Dick Vermeil came back after 15 years to win a Super Bowl with the St. Louis Rams.

It has been 10 years since Ryan concluded his last season with the Cardinals, but the right offer could lure him back to the sidelines again.

“It would depend on who it is,” he said. “I’d want to be around somebody who wanted to win and spend some cash. … I wish I was [late Washington Redskins owner] Jack Kent Cooke’s boy. He would have spent the money.”

Ryan compiled a 55-55-1 record as the coach of the Eagles (1986-90) and the Cardinals (1994-95). He never, however, won a playoff game. The Eagles won 31 games over three seasons before losing their first postseason game each year. Ryan was expecting a raise when his contract expired. Instead, it wasn’t renewed.

“If I had just one more draft …” Ryan said. “The owner, for some reason, didn’t like me.”

Arizona proved even more frustrating. Ryan managed an 8-8 mark in his first season, but the injury-decimated team fell to 4-12 the next year, and Ryan was fired.

The best part of his two seasons in Phoenix was giving twin sons Rex and Rob their first pro jobs as assistants. Rex Ryan is now Baltimore’s defensive coordinator, and Rob Ryan is Oakland’s defensive coordinator.

“I tried to get them not to go into coaching,” Ryan said. “When they were ballboys, they were always paying attention. They knew what they wanted to be.”

Young at heart

Ryan would be considered the game’s grand old man if he still were in football. In racing, however, he’s not even close; many trainers and breeders remain active well into their 80s.

Indeed, the racing axiom that says nobody died with a good young horse in the barn may have saved Ryan in January. Ryan was hospitalized a week for encephalitis, a potentially lethal brain inflammation that he suspects was caused by a mosquito bite.

The experience remains fuzzy; Ryan remembers only the last day before he was released.

Sundays are spent with his wife, Joanie, who convinced him to buy a rundown dairy farm in nearby Lawrenceburg, Ky., in 1976 instead of spending offseasons in California. Joanie Ryan now resides in a nearby assisted care facility after suffering from Alzheimer’s disease the last three years.

Ryan leases their old farm and brings his wife to the new one after they attend church so she can see the horses. Joanie Ryan remembers her spouse. She still enjoys the horses. Buddy Ryan feels the same way, too.

In the twilight years, Ryan has no regrets. He was never anything fancy, just a smash-mouth guy who went straight after his goals.

Retirement is no different: simply enjoy it.

“Just remember I was an honest guy who gave 100 percent,” he said.

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