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Ohio State wrestling coach Tom Ryan sees big picture

Ohio State wrestling coach Tom Ryan, of Wantagh,

Ohio State wrestling coach Tom Ryan, of Wantagh, awaits a decision from the referree at the 2016 NCAA Wrestling Championships at Madison Square Garden on March 19, 2016. Credit: Ray Nelson

Gone is the coach who believed wrestling was his “god.” That version of Tom Ryan has gradually eroded over the last 22 years.

The 10th-year Ohio State wrestling coach’s passion for the sport has remained intact. It’s still important. But a different perspective, a new outlook, now defines who Tom Ryan is.

“The person I was when I was just beginning as a coach and the person I am now,” Ryan said, “it’s night and day.”

Ryan, 46, can hardly walk 10 feet in the undergrounds of Madison Square Garden without getting stopped by a passerby. The Wantagh High School alumnus is a local hero in these parts and at this event: last weekend’s NCAA wrestling championships.

“He means a lot to a lot of us here,” said Noel Thompson, who wrestled at Hofstra from 2000-2004 while Ryan was the head coach.

Ryan, who won a state title at 138 pounds as a senior at Wantagh High School in 1987, was a two-time Big Ten champion and a two-time All-American at the University of Iowa. 

Up until that point, he was headed for a career in physical therapy.

“Then I started interning my senior year as a physical therapist, and I realized it wasn’t what I wanted to do,” he said. “Now you’re in a real-life tailspin: What am I going to do with my life?”

After his final match at the Big 10 championships in 1992, Ryan was offered an assistant coaching job at Indiana University.

“To be quite frank with you,” Ryan said, “that’s the first time in my life I thought about being involved at this level, and it’s been a blessing for me.”

Ryan was an assistant at Indiana from 1992-1994 before taking over at Hofstra in 1995 at just 24. At the time, he was the youngest wrestling coach in the nation.

“I was full-speed ahead,” Ryan said. “It was extremely exciting for me and my family — I had two kids at the time — to come home.

“I wasn’t ready, but I had energy. I had passion.”

Ryan described the type of coach he was in those early years of his career: “A wild, crazy, intense guy that was all about hard work — which I still am. That was kind of the foundational piece of my life.”

But then, on Feb. 16, 2004, Ryan was blindsided by incomprehensible tragedy. His 5-year-old son, Teague, died in his arms at the family’s home in Hauppauge. Long Q-T Syndrome, anelectrical malfunction of the heart, caused Teague to have difficulty breathing before passing out. He died before emergency personnel arrived at the home.

“It was the lowest I’ve ever seen a man in my entire life,” said Dennis Papadatos, who currently is the head wrestling coach at Hofstra and wrestled under Ryan as a member of the Pride from 1997-2001. Papadatos said he rushed to Ryan’s house after he had heard about the tragedy that night. “It was shocking. Bring-you-to-your-knees type of stuff.”

Papadatos said Ryan still hasn’t fully healed, and probably never will. How could he?

“It gave me a different perspective on life,” Ryan said.

Some things about Ryan remain the same. On Saturday, the third day of the NCAA tournament,

Ryan spoke with a hoarse voice — the result of nonstop shouts of encouragement to his eight qualifying wrestlers — to old friends, admirers and reporters looking for an interview.

“He hasn’t lost any intensity,” Papadatos said. “And he has an undying belief in himself and his wrestlers. Almost unrealistic sometimes, to the point of, ‘My guy is better than that guy,’ even when it’s clear that he’s not. He honestly believes it. And I think that becomes contagious.”

So when Ryan guided the Ohio State wrestling program, which began in 1921, to its first national wrestling title last season, there was elation. But it wasn’t the same type he would have felt as a 24-year-old.

“I think so many times in life, we chase these massive dreams,” Ryan said. “This was a dream for so many. So it was emotional because so many people found great happiness. It was fulfilling, but at the same time, it’s fleeting. The next morning you wake up, and your dog pisses on the floor, and you’ve got your daughter that’s dealing with things . . . Life goes on.”

This is Ryan now: a heightened sense of who he is, and what life is about.

Coming to Madison Square Garden for the NCAA wrestling championships, for example, was “surreal, a landmark moment for the sport,” Ryan said. But it had nothing on the fact that his 20-year-old son, Jake, who qualified at 157, was there with him.

“My dad is so giving and so loving and so caring to all of the people around him,” Jake Ryan said. “He’s an amazing person. He’s someone that’s willing to give the shirt off his back to someone on the street. He’ll do it 100 times. I’ve learned an incredible amount of things from him and the person he is.”

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