Rex Ryan is practically mapping out the parade route.
The one down Bay St., not Broadway.
The emotional coach of the New York Jets is discussing how much a championship would mean to a certain title-starved city. He’s not talking about the Jets, the Big Apple and the NFL, either.
“Can you imagine how crazy Toronto would go if the Maple Leafs were to ever win a Stanley Cup?” the bubbly Ryan says with excitement. “Man, people would go nuts!
“It might be the biggest celebration in the history of sports.”
Wait a minute. Wasn’t this interview supposed to be about Ryan and his Jets, who are coming to Rogers Centre to smash helmets with the Buffalo Bills Thursday in just the second regular-season NFL game played on Canadian soil?
That’s how it started off, anyway.
But for Ryan, who spent much of his youth growing up in a townhouse complex at Bayview Ave. and York Mills Rd., returning to Toronto represents more than another road game for his Jets. Much more.
Ryan can’t help himself. He has to reminisce. About Toronto’s fierce love affair with the Leafs. About attending the Blue Jays first-ever game at snowy Exhibition Stadium in 1977. About the legendary Jolly Miller tavern at Yonge and York Mills. So many memories ...
“Did I ever dream that one day I would be coaching an NFL game in Toronto? Absolutely no way!” Ryan admitted during a lengthy chat with Sun Media. “But, then again, I never thought I’d see as many NHL teams in the United States as there are now either.”
In crunching the numbers, this contest is crucial in the quest by Ryan’s Jets to keep their flickering playoff hopes alive. At 5-6 they trail the AFC East-leading New England Patriots, 7-4, by two games and desperately need a victory to stay in wild card contention.
With so much on the line, Ryan figures there could be no better city to host such a vital road game for his Jets than Toronto.
“If they had picked any place other than (Giants Stadium) for us to play, I would have picked Toronto,” he said. “For me, it’s such a special place.
As the hours tick down toward kickoff, this much is obvious: You can take Rex Ryan out of Toronto, but you can’t take Toronto out of Rex Ryan.
Doris Ryan was not going to take this crap any more.
Watching her twin boys, Rex and Rob, play in a kid’s minor football game one crisp Toronto day, the miffed mom could not understand why Rex had just been given the boot.
So she marched onto the field and gave the coach a piece of her mind.
“I think the boys were in Grade 4 at the time,” Doris recalled the other day from her Oklahoma home. “I think Rex had tackled the coach’s son and, suddenly, he was kicked out.
“I was peeved. I said: “Where we come from, football is a contact sport ... at least it is down in the States!”"
We’d expect such a reaction from Rex’s father Buddy, the long-time combustible NFL coach who could blow up at any minute.
“True story,” Rex confirmed. “It was great. Maybe we were like fish out of water when it came to hockey when we moved up there but football, well, that was a different story.
“I remember getting pulled out, my brother and I. We were probably using our helmets as weapons. Something like that.”
The twins were born in Ardmore, Okla. while Buddy, employed by the University of Buffalo, was on a recruiting trip. After Buddy and Doris divorced in 1965, Doris scooped up the twin boys along with their older brother, Jimmy, and relocated to Toronto.
Doris, who graduated Phi Beta Kappa from the University of Chicago, became a professor at the University of Toronto. After moving the family to “a nice neighbourhood” in the Bayview-York Mills area, they would frequent the Bayview Country Club, where the twins took up curling.
All the while, Buddy, no matter where he was working, would make frequent visits to Toronto to see the kids.
“We knew their dad was a football coach in the U.S. but it was no big deal to us,” said childhood friend Michael Andrew, now the Ontario Sales Manager for RONA’s commercial division. “It was their dad’s job, nothing more.
“When we were throwing the football around and it ended up in the pool, it didn’t matter that it came from an actual Minnesota football game. We needed a ball and it was the only one around.”
Sun Media colleague Steve Simmons sat beside Jimmy Ryan in Grade 12 geography class at York Mills Collegiate. As for Rex, five years younger, Simmons once wrote that “we knew him then as one of the annoying twins ... forever scooting around on his bicycle with his brother Rob, wreaking havoc.”
Rex does not dispute that description.
“We were kind of wild,” he admitted.
To earn money, the twins both had a pair of paper routes, one in the morning, one in the afternoon. And, every New Year’s Eve, according to Doris, “the boys would take the subway down to Nathan Phillips Square to skate.”
Of his many childhood adventures, attending the inaugural Blue Jays game in 1977 with Rob and Michael Andrew still stands out for Rex.
“To this day, I still have the game program,” Rex said. “We took the subway and the streetcar down, then bought tickets to the bleachers.
“During batting practice, we snuck across the field behind the outfield fence. We must have scooped up six balls, then climbed into the other stands.”
The right field stands, where they didn’t have tickets.
“We just squeezed in on one of the benches,” Andrew said. “It was the first ever game, so nobody realized that three extra bodies squeezed into a row wasn’t normal.”
Cutting classes for events like a Jays game was not uncommon for kids of Rex Ryan’s generation. He is the first to tell you that “we skipped school a lot.”
One of the reasons he avoided class, he admits now, was his difficulty with reading and writing. Just a few years ago, he discovered why.
Ryan was diagnosed with dyslexia, a language-based learning disability which affects one’s abilities to read, write, spell and pronounce words.
“I just struggled,” Rex said of his public school days in Toronto. “It was brutal. Maybe it drove me to follow athletics. We’d have a spelling test and I’d have no chance. Even now, I’ll mess up a vowel in a second.
“Here’s my mom, a Phi Beta Kappa, and I’m having all this trouble (reading and writing). It was embarrassing.
“It got to the point that, if there wasn’t floor hockey or some other sport going on at school, there wasn’t much motivation for me to go.”
Doris Ryan remembers sending Rex to a reading clinic at the Ontario Institute for Studies and Education. He underwent physical tests, psychological studies, none that provided any answers.
“He had a hard time reading,” Doris said. “The teachers just thought he was dumb.
“We now know that he was dyslexic.”
After having been diagnosed with the condition, Rex told Sports Illustrated about how many times he had skipped school as a kid. Those comments caught his mother off-guard.
“After reading that, I immediately called him and said: “Did you really skip all those classes?” He said, “Well, ya.”
“Even before he found out he was dislexic, he kind of figured out his own solution. If he put his game plans on coloured paper he discovered he could read the plays better.”
When interviewing for the Jets job, Ryan, 46, immediately told them of his condition. The team now helps Rex with TV and radio commercial spots by having the copy read to him, then letting him repeat it before taping.
“I want the public to know that, condition or no condition, anything is possible,” Rex said. “I want them to know you can have dyslexia and still reach your goals.”
Like the goal of one day becoming an NFL head coach.
Whenever Rob Ryan looks in the mirror, he sees a souvenir of his childhood in Canada.
A fake front tooth, courtesy of twin brother Rex.
The boys were playing street hockey one day when Rex ripped a shot at Rob, who was playing goal.
The puck smacked Rob right in the kisser, knocking out one of his pearly whites.
“I think it deflected off his stick, then off his mouth,” Rex said of Rob, who is now the defensive coordinator of the Cleveland Browns. “He had one of those gold teeth put in at the time.”
A puck? In road hockey?
“I guess there was no tennis ball around,” older brother Jimmy said.
“We learned to love hockey pretty quick. When we moved to Toronto, we discovered there were two sports - ice hockey and road hockey.”
While Rex joked with New York reporters Monday that his biggest problem upon moving to Toronto was “learning how to skate,” his love affair with the sport and the Leafs quickly swelled. He played goal in ice hockey and often took the subway down to games at Maple Leaf Gardens.
“I always wanted to be a goalie,” he said. “The goalie always had the best equipment and was the one player who stayed on the ice for the whole game.”
Ryan’s passion for hockey is evident in his New York Jets office. There, among the autographed photos of Walter Payton, Jimmy Buffett, Joe Namath and former Jets offensive lineman Winston Hill, is a signed picture of the Hanson Brothers of Slapshot fame.
When Jimmy Ryan, who briefly played in a Minnesota summer hockey league with the Hansons back in the 1970s, ran into Dave Hanson several years ago, he immediately called Rex to tell him.
“It was amazing,” Jimmy said. “Here’s my brother, who is in the NFL and has coached a future Hall of Famer like Ray Lewis, and he’s more excited about me running into a Hanson brother.”
Rex admits always liking the pugilists of the game.
“Garry Howatt, Billy Smith ... it had to be some hatchet guy,” Rex said.
Told that Dave Hanson’s son Christian plays for the Leafs, an intrigued Rex needed to know one thing.
“Does the kid put on the foil like his ol’ man?” Rex asked with a laugh.
Once a Slapshot aficionado, always a Slapshot aficionado.
When Rex Ryan arrives in Toronto Wednesday, there will be little time to slog down memory lane.
Having moved away to Minnesota in 1976 to live with Buddy, who could better help the twins achieve their goals of one day becoming pro football coaches, time chugs on for the Jets boss. Other than hopefully getting together with his buddy Andrew at some point, there are gameplans to finalize and preparations to be made, especially in a short week.
“He’s so busy,” Andrew said. “That’s the life of an NFL coach.
“It’s funny. I’ve gone to all these places over the years to watch him coach. Morehead State. Cincinnati. Arizona. Baltimore. Now he’s coming here. I told him: “This is no good for my travel - you’re just playing at the end of my street.”
Maybe, just maybe, once the final gun has sounded Thursday night, the last of the media interviews have been completed and the team has boarded the bus for the airport, Rex Ryan will have a rare peaceful moment to peer out the window at the twinkling lights of Toronto and allow the memories to come flooding back.
And, of course, pick out his spot for the Leafs Stanley Cup parade.