Rex Ryan sat in a plush chair at the Ritz Carlton Hotel Sunday afternoon, chewing a piece of gum, which is about all he can chew these days.
"I'd kill to eat something right now," the Jets' coach cracked.
A little more than a week since undergoing surgery to place a lap band around his stomach in an effort to lose weight, Ryan lives mostly on soup and protein shakes. But that's OK with the 47-year-old, because he knows the rest of his life depends on the decision he finally made after five years of debating: Either do something meaningful to lose weight after ballooning to 348 pounds last season, or risk the long-term consequences of morbid obesity.
"I've got everything right now, everything I've ever wanted in my life," Ryan said. "I have a great family, a healthy family, I'm making more money coaching than I ever thought I'd make in my life. I'm doing exactly what I want to do. I'm at the very top of my profession, I love the guys on my team, it's our team. But if you don't have your health, then you don't have anything."
Ryan has lost 31 pounds since the end of the season and says he feels great. Minutes after surgery at NYU Medical Center, he was on the phone asking Jets officials if they had signed free-agent running back LaDainian Tomlinson. After being told he hadn't signed, Ryan called Tomlinson himself, told him about the surgery, then urged him to join the team.
Tomlinson agreed to terms the next day.
"I was back in the office Monday working a full day after getting the surgery Saturday," Ryan said.
He considered having the surgery during the Jets' bye week last season but feared complications might affect his ability to work. After the season, he attended a five-day weight-loss program at Duke University, during which he was told of the benefits of lap band surgery.
He met with former NFL offensive lineman Jamie Dukes, an NFL Network analyst, at the scouting combine in February. And it was Dukes, who also had the surgery and has lost more than 100 pounds, who recommended the procedure.
"I've done all kinds of different things, the traditional 'yo-yo' deal, where I get down to 280 and then pop right back up,'' Ryan said. "It was the same thing all the time, over and over. I talked to Jamie Dukes, and he's a champion of the surgery. He said, 'Rex, you've got nothing to worry about. It's a piece of cake.' "
Ryan also considered a more invasive surgery in which part of the stomach is stapled shut, but a recent conversation with former Notre Dame coach Charlie Weis, who nearly died from the procedure, convinced Ryan to go with the lap-band surgery.
"We talked for about an hour, and he told me about all the problems he had, what happened with his procedure," Ryan said. "He was a big help."
Ryan is relieved he finally made the move, even though it means staying on a restricted diet and reducing food intake once he is allowed to eat solid food.
"It will be another week when I get off this type of liquid stuff, and I can have mashed potatoes, scrambled eggs," he said. "I'll be ready to kill for them."
Eventually, he can enjoy his favorite foods, only in moderation. "When they told me I could have Mexican food, I was like, 'I'm in. I can do it. I can survive now.' "
And Ryan did admit to sneaking in a few "last meals" before the surgery. "Had three of them," he said.
Ryan hopes to set an example for others battling weight problems. "I just hope I lose enough weight and am healthy enough,'' he said, "and if that can help people, great."
The Jets are heartened that Ryan took action.
"I was happy he did it, and I think it's a very positive step," team owner Woody Johnson said. "It makes a lot of sense for him to be the long-term coach to take care of himself. We want everyone in the building to be the best they can be."
Especially the most important football man in the organization. Good for Ryan.
Rex: Monday opener OK
Johnson wanted the Jets to be the first to play in New Meadowlands Stadium, but Ryan doesn't mind the alternative. The Giants will open it on a Sunday and the Jets will play the first Monday night game. "I'm excited to play Monday night," Ryan said. "That's the biggest stage anyway. The opening Monday night of the season in front of our fans in our stadium? I don't know if it gets much better than that."
Ryan on a potential change in overtime being proposed at this week's owners meetings: "I kind of like the rules the way they are."