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Defenseless

Buddy Ryan's heat-seeking football teams were ready for anything, but nothing prepared him for his wife's Alzheimer's

October 18, 2005|Sam Farmer | Times Staff Writer

SHELBYVILLE, Ky. — Never the same and always the same, that's how Sundays are for Buddy Ryan.

They're never the same because he's worlds removed from his life as a controversial NFL coach and the hot-tempered architect of the best defense in league history. He now spends every Sunday with the love of his life.

On a good day, she remembers him.

Buddy and Joanie Ryan were supposed to live out their golden years together, raising championship thoroughbreds, rooting on their twin sons, Rex and Rob, who followed in their father's footsteps and became NFL defensive coordinators.

But life took a heartbreaking turn four years ago when Joanie was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease. Although Buddy wanted to keep her home, and did so for two years, he eventually realized the job of caring for her there was too difficult.

"It's a terrible disease," said Buddy, 73. "There are things that she does that aren't even her."

Two years ago, he moved her into an assisted-living facility in Louisville, a half an hour drive north from their home here. Although she recognizes him, she seldom remembers much about their 35 years together. He sees her at various times throughout the week and picks her up every Sunday so they can attend Mass at her favorite church and afterward have breakfast with the priest at a nearby McDonald's. Sometimes, they go to a place that sells crepe-paper flowers and invariably leave with a vibrant bouquet for Joanie.

"She's a saint," he said.

No one ever confused Buddy for a saint. In his 34 years as an NFL assistant and head coach, he polarized the league the way his defenses split heads. To some, he was the schematic mastermind and fiery motivator whose "46" defense paved the way for the 1985 Chicago Bears to win the Super Bowl.

"Buddy had a huge impact on that team," said Bill Walsh, who coached the San Francisco 49ers. "He was maybe the key element in that organization."

To his detractors, Ryan was as dirty as coaches come, a guy best remembered by some for punching fellow assistant Kevin Gilbride on the Houston Oiler sideline and allegedly putting an on-field "bounty" on a couple of Dallas Cowboys.

Ryan's NFL career began when he was an assistant with the New York Jets in the 1960s -- he still wears his Super Bowl III ring the team won in the 1968 season -- and spanned four decades. He became a household name as defensive coordinator of the Bears, and later took over as head coach of the Philadelphia Eagles, then the Arizona Cardinals. Wherever he went, controversy followed. By his thinking, the football world was broken into two distinct camps: Buddy backers and Buddy bashers.

"As a defensive coordinator, he was beloved by his players," Walsh said. "They truly believed in him. They'd sacrifice anything to do what he said. He was as unique a man as we've seen from that standpoint."

Football is not entirely a part of Ryan's past. He has made several trips to Chicago this year for celebrations honoring the 20th anniversary of the championship Bears. He also goes to Philadelphia from time to time, where "people still love me. I could go down there right now and draw a crowd of 500."

Mostly, though, he spends his days working the 120-acre ranch where he boards 17 thoroughbreds, racehorses with names such as "FiredForWinning," "KnockEmBack" and "FortySixBlitz." He still looks like the old Buddy Ryan -- he's a little grayer, moves a little slower -- but he's softened over the years. He's more kindly than cantankerous.

"Buddy's like a magnet," said Debbie Ellis, who co-owns the ranch with him. "We have clients come by and they all want to talk to him. It's amazing how many of his old players call to check in on him. He says, 'The great ones, the ones who really played for me, still care.' They had a bond."

On chilly mornings, Ellis works the ranch in an oversized, over-stained Arizona Cardinal sweatshirt. It's a remnant from a forgettable chapter in Ryan's coaching career. He took over as head coach there in 1994 and went 8-8 his first season. He was fired a year later, however, after his injury-depleted team went 4-12.

"I threw it out and she got it out of the trash," Ryan said of the sweatshirt. "If [Cardinal owner Bill] Bidwill sees that he'll send me a bill for it."

By Ryan's thinking, the only good thing to come out of his Arizona swing was that he was able to give his twins their first pro jobs as assistants. Rex is now defensive coordinator of the Baltimore Ravens; Rob is defensive coordinator of the Oakland Raiders. A third son, Jim, is an attorney in St. Louis. (Although the boys think of Joanie as a second mom, their mother is Ryan's first wife, Doris, a former university president with whom they remain close.)

Ryan said he tried to discourage his sons from getting into coaching, but they were unwavering in their goals since their days as ball boys with the Bears and Jets.

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