Bond of brothers: Twins Rex and Rob Ryan face off as Jets take on Saints
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One wallet. One car. Even one stomach, it seemed.
Growing up, Rex and Rob Ryan always seemed like one person.
"Did we eat yet?" Rex would ask daily.
"Yeah, dummy, we just ate dinner about an hour ago," Rob would fire back.
"Well, I'm hungry again," Rex would respond on cue.
The Ryan boys, who are 50, share everything from their identical features to their quick wit and their passion for pigskin. Their love of football is intrinsic, rooted in Buddy Ryan's DNA and cemented during a childhood spent shuttling from one NFL city to another.
Brothers have a certain bond, but the Ryan twins are even tighter. But on this particular Sunday, family ties will fall by the wayside when Rex's 4-4 Jets face off against Rob, the defensive coordinator for the 6-1 Saints, with Buddy, 82, their mother, Doris, and their brother Jim, 56, in the MetLife Stadium crowd.
Rob has two Super Bowl rings from his time as a position coach with the Patriots, but Rex has the upper hand head-to-head. He's 4-0 against Rob, twice defeating his twin while he was the defensive coordinator for the Ravens and twice more as the Jets' coach.
"Rex is a couple up on him,'' said Chuck Abate, 50, their best friend since their days at Stevenson High School in the northern suburbs of Chicago, not far from the Chicago Bears' camp and headquarters. "Even going back, I was the best athlete out of the three of us, Rex was probably second and Rob was third. So Rob's always been chasing Rex a little bit."
Buddy -- the brains behind the vaunted 46 defense and the architect of the Bears' and Philadelphia Eagles' defenses of the 1980s and '90s -- made it clear he didn't want his children following in his coaching footsteps. But only one listened.
"I like to joke I'm the black sheep of the family because I actually studied," Jim, a St. Louis-based attorney, said by phone Thursday evening.
As early as the second grade, it was clear the twins' futures were in coaching. And they were ultra-competitive too. Rex and Rob gave up playing football together because the games "got too violent." Later, the boys abandoned Strat-O-Matic football because Rex didn't think it was "realistic enough."
"They only had like 10 blitzes and he wanted to blitz everybody and the game wouldn't allow him to do it," Abate, now a high school football coach in St. Charles, Ill., said by phone.
Even arm-wrestling was hazardous with the Ryan twins. "They were always out for blood for each other," Abate said.
As loyal as the twins have always been to one another, they're equally mischievous.
The Saturday before the Saints' Week 5 road game in Chicago, Rob and Abate met up to "goof off" and ended up at Stevenson. They slipped through an open door but twice were kicked out by a janitor.
"All Rob could talk about was how the worst tackler he had ever seen in his life was Rex Ryan," Abate said. "And we were trying to climb the fence to reenact some of Rex's misses."
The twins were born five minutes apart, and Rex always assumed the role of Rob's older brother. He was always thinking, always watching. Wherever they went, he drove, using the one car key they both shared. He was always in charge back then. And he hasn't changed.
"Rex is like the grown-up out of the group," Abate said. "Rex was always the mature one."
"He's the same person he was, just bigger -- physically and personality-wise," Abate said. "A little sarcastic, a little not caring, but at the same time caring about people close to him."
Growing up, if you picked on one twin, you had to deal with both.
"You had two tigers by the tail," Jim said. "They were always almost like one unit."
Jim, who takes after their "more academic-oriented" mother, remembers how difficult it was for their parents to maintain a family with Buddy's coaching hours. The couple eventually divorced, but when all three boys were together, it was clear the bond between Rex and Rob was special.
To this day, the twins talk all the time. And more than likely, their conversations eventually veer toward defensive strategies.
"I remember at our stepmother's funeral [on Oct. 1], they were discussing how to cover Tony Gonzalez 'cause Rob had done it and Rex had him coming up," Jim said, referring to the Jets' Week 5 game in Atlanta. "And Rob's approach was completely different from Rex's. They're both their own people."
During the week leading up to Sunday's game, there hasn't been any "insider trading," as Rex likes to joke. But the outcome won't determine when the twins will speak again, or who will be the one to place the call first. But it will make for a rather uncomfortable situation for Jim. "I think it's more emotional for me than for them because I don't like to watch my brothers lose," he said.
Three weeks ago, Rob's raw emotions were captured on network TV after Tom Brady shocked New Orleans with a game-winning touchdown pass with only five seconds to spare. Rex -- whose team lost to the Steelers earlier that day -- experienced sympathy pains that night.
"Rex is more concerned about how Rob is doing and rooting for him," Abate said. "The Patriots game, it bothers Rob, but Rex, too. Rex is looking out for his twin, but it's almost like his little brother."
The following week, Rob texted Rex to congratulate him for defeating the Patriots in overtime.
The latest installment of The Ryan Bowl will pit teams in different situations. And this time Rob, who was fired as the Cowboys' defensive coordinator at the end of the 2012 season, could wind up defeating his brother for the first time on an NFL stage.
"Honestly, I think my heart will be out for Rex," said Jim, adding that the Saints are "a legit" Super Bowl contender. "I mean, look, the Jets need a win against anybody. I'd love to see Rex, somehow, show all the experts how wrong they were and guide the Jets to the playoffs."
"I think Rex needs it more," Abate agreed, adding that he's rooting for a 3-2 Jets win. "Rob getting a safety would be nice."
Not much has changed over five decades of friendship. But for Rex and Rob, a 'W' is a 'W' -- regardless of who it comes against.
"When we first played [it was real special]," Rob said in his weekly news conference. ". . . Now, honestly, when the ball snaps, he's a nameless faceless opponent until you go shake his hand across the field."
Buddy had cautioned his sons to avoid the coaching trap, but stubbornness may have been the twins' best asset back then.
"I'm really proud of both of them," Jim said. "They've really followed in our dad's footsteps to become the kind of coaches that they are, which is the kind of coach that players love to play for.
"And both will do anything to win."