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Still Laughing Despite the Pain : Royal Middle Blocker Ryan Denihan Has Adjusted After Mother's Death


SIMI VALLEY — Ryan Denihan searches his bedroom and digs behind the stereo speaker, carefully avoiding the signed Michael Jordan photo.

He looks next to the Bugs Bunny coffee mug and behind the photo of his girlfriend.

He opens and closes drawers without luck.

As his stuffed toy alligator surveys the scene, Denihan's search concludes.

"I found it," he says, pulling out a hand-held photo of his mother. "It was right before my eyes."

Sherry Denihan is smiling on the photo, like she probably was when Ryan gave her the frame, made in the second grade out of puzzle pieces and Popsicle sticks.

The picture stirs memories of a time when laughing didn't come easy for Denihan, a 6-foot-5 senior middle blocker on the Royal High boys' volleyball team that meets Esperanza tonight in the Southern Section Division I championship match at Cypress College.

Denihan, who was born in Glendale in 1977, moved two years later with his mother to Palatine, Ill., when his parents divorced.

In the summer of 1990, Sherry, a lifelong smoker, visited a doctor for food poisoning and was told she had early stages of lung cancer.

She underwent chemotherapy and was apparently in remission but started having headaches in early 1993.

Sherry returned to the doctor and stunned Ryan with the news.

"I'm going to die," she said.

She had been diagnosed with brain cancer.

Ryan and his sister, Heather, nursed their mother. School and social lives became secondary.

"It was scary," Ryan said. "You don't really understand, until it happens to someone you know and you see how it affects them."

On Dec. 19, 1993, nine days before Ryan's 16th birthday, Sherry died. She was 43.

Six months later, Ryan left Palatine against his will and moved to live with his dad, stepmother and stepsister in Simi Valley.

"In a way it was like a foster home or like I was in college, with rent-a-room," said Ryan, who saw his father, David, only three times in nearly 15 years after the divorce. "I was mad the first six months and kept telling myself I was going to find a way back to my grandfather [Al, who lived near Palatine].

"Anything that bothered me was kept to myself. If I was mad at anybody, I'd deal with it on my own."

Ryan's father and stepmother, Evelyn, tried to get Ryan to open up, but he was reluctant.

His father knew why.

"We were a different family than what he grew up with," David said. "We never got to know each other."

As his sophomore year at Royal came to a close, Ryan became more accustomed to life in Simi Valley.

Of course, he missed his mom.

And his friends. And Chicago Bulls basketball. And Chicago-style pizza.

But he understood he was receiving a high degree of freedom under David and Evelyn's roof.

"They were more lenient with me," Ryan said. "I grew up with my grandfather as a father figure, where it was like old, traditional, shut up and take it.

"It was a pleasant change. It's not as much of a dictatorship, there's more compromise and you can argue [your beliefs]."

Ryan has made the adjustment well.

It's important to be on top of your humor game in the Denihan household, where barbs and verbal jabs are traded with the velocity of one of Ryan's kills on the court.

When the family gathers in the living room, the wit is sharp, the minutes move quickly and there are plenty of stories.

Like the one about Ryan and the BB gun.

Clean-cut, yet mischievous, Ryan decided when he lived in Palatine to aim for a neighbor's rear windshield.

Direct hit.

Chicago's finest traced the path of the BB to Ryan's bedroom window. No magic bullet theory here. Ryan was sternly lectured by the police and the gun was confiscated.

Then there's the tale his stepsister, Lynn, spins about Ryan.

She had just seen the thriller "Seven" and was curled up in bed, flashlight and telephone inches away.

As if on cue, Ryan scratched and clawed on her window from outside. Lynn was not amused.

"It's kind of [him] making up for lost time," Lynn said.

Evelyn, whom Ryan now calls mom, has attended all but one of Ryan's volleyball matches this season. She has accepted the daunting challenge of cooking spaghetti for about 100 people for next Saturday's team banquet.

Father and son have grown closer, some of it through Ryan's participation in basketball and volleyball.

"It's kind of funny because he'll give me all these tips," Ryan said. "He'll tell me I was a half-second slow in my jump or that the timing wasn't right. He loves to see me get out there and play."

Despite playing in only his third year of volleyball--there wasn't much organized volleyball in Palatine--Ryan has drawn nibbles from USC and Cal State Northridge, but nothing concrete.

He did not accept a partial scholarship to William Woods, an NAIA Division I school in Fulton, Mo., that will switch next school year from all-female to co-educational.

Denihan would have been one of about 50 men among about 1,000 women.

"I know," he said. "I'm an idiot."

Actually, he was hoping to latch on to a school with a bigger name. And he wasn't sure he wanted to return to the Midwest.

Southern California, it appears, has made an impression on him.

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