Frank Ryan of the Cleveland Browns goes through life wearing the Charlie Chan smile of somebody who knows something. He does. He knows how to frisk the opposition secondary on a long, down-and-out pass pattern. He knows how to run with the ball and fake the other guys out of their undergarments. He knows about geometric function theory and linear transformations, complex variables and Cauchy sequences. He knows the probabilities against hitting the case card for an inside straight (though he seldom lets the knowledge inhibit his razzle-dazzle poker style) and how to infiltrate the King's Indian defense in chess and why one kind of airfoil will create efficient lift and another will create morbid statistics.
He also knows about failure. Frank Ryan (see cover) spent eight years earning a Ph. D. in mathematics at Rice Institute (he blew one year trying to solve an unsolvable problem) and 15 years earning a Ph. D. in frustration on the football field. Now he stands astride the world of sport as quarterback of the NFL championship team, an eminence to which every little kid aspires, and the lesson of his life seems clear: if at first you don't succeed, fail, fail again.
Even as a child in Fort Worth, Frank Beall Ryan didn't make it. "I was never very fast or well coordinated," he recalls. "I never played any sport well. I couldn't hit in baseball. I couldn't dribble in basketball or play tennis or golf. I'm not a natural athlete. I pick up a dart and people start running." As a 5-and 6-year-old he spent a lot of his time drawing side-view cutaway sketches of rockets and figuring out how fast a space missile would have to go to break out of the earth's gravitational pull. Somehow he bumbled into football, but he didn't become a bona fide first-stringer till his senior year of high school. At Rice he played about 20% of the time, and a burly Texan named King Hill quarterbacked the rest. On the Los Angeles Rams, Ryan was started and yanked and started and yanked with such consistent inconsistency that he finally announced for everybody to hear that he was going to quit the game if he wasn't traded. He went to the Cleveland Browns, and only in the last few years has he managed to break the pattern of failure that had been thrust upon him. "I'm still sort of amazed that I didn't quit," he says now, looking back on the arid years. An ordinary man would have.
At 29 Frank Ryan is a tall (6 feet 3), perfectly proportioned (205 pounds) specimen of a stage Texan. His eyes are blue and seem to contain somewhere behind the cornea a secret joke on the whole world. He has an Ipana smile and a soft chuckle and, when you get to know him, an infectious little-boy manner. His thick hair is receding at two points, giving a slightly satanic twist to his otherwise pleasant features, and it is as gray as it is black, the result, he says, of too many third-and-10 situations. When he is not blurting signals like a Parris Island drill sergeant, he speaks just above audibility in a sort of refined Texas accent. He says "minny tams" for "many times" and his first-person pronoun is still "ah"; to him, this is the month of "Siptimber" and he was born in "Joo-lah" 1936. On the other hand, he does not refer to Mexicans as "Messicans" or shrimp as "s'rimp," so it is not instantaneously obvious that he is a big old Texas. He prefers to speak in the abstract, as befits a theoretical mathematician whose Ph. D. dissertation bears, by his own admission, not the slightest application to practicality (title: A Characterization of the Set of Asymptotic Values of a Function Holomorphic in the Unit Disc). He likes to avoid clichés and has declared war on one particular bromide that bedevils him whenever he picks up a newspaper and reads about himself. "I relish a little bit of individuality," he says, "but sportswriters make such a big unnecessary to-do about the combination of mathematics and football, the so-called associated intellect. The combination is a little bit unusual, but people tend to exaggerate the unusual in it. Then they say that I'm a genius and all this sort of stuff; it's easy to say. Sportswriters have groped every time they've been confronted with me for something out of the ordinary that I'm not sure exists."
To hear Ryan tell it, the connection between his mathematical bent and his quarterbacking knack is all but nonexistent. "It's absolutely false to pursue any sort of notion that football and mathematics are related. The thing is, the world outside has no conception of what higher mathematics is about. The heart and soul of modern mathematics is very abstract symbolism. People think mathematicians are concerned with numbers, and they're not at all. Advanced mathematics is unrelated in a casual way to anything else, including football."
But if Ryan expects sportswriters to take him at his word and stop bugging him with questions about the relationship between his mathematics and his football, he doesn't know his sportswriters, including this one. The images are too delicious to resist: Dr. Frank Ryan, star quarterback and acknowledged genius in geometric function theory, strides out on the field, his head crammed with equations, and by astute vector analysis and the law of inverse squares he calculates that he can beat Dick Lynch of the New York Giants on a flag pattern. Poor Lynch stumbles over Newton's first law of motion, just as the wise Dr. Ryan had known he would, and Cleveland Flanker Gary Collins, utilizing the coefficients of friction of his hands and the leather ellipsoid, grabs the pass and stumbles across the goal line to score the square root of 36, the cube root of 216, the logarithm of....
Lately Ryan has taken to fending off questions on his mathematics, not rudely but forcefully. "Don't try to read my dissertation," he told me. "You won't understand a word of it." He was wrong. I understood the dedication: "TO MY WIFE JOAN." When Ryan tells his biographers to lay off trying to understand the math, he is only trying to be kind. Once Mickey Herskowitz of The Houston Post asked Ryan to sum up his doctoral paper. Ryan scribbled a note:
"It concerns a set of complex numbers which arises as limit values of a certain type holomorphic of function defined in the unit disc when the independent variable is restricted to an arc which tends to the boundary."
Herskowitz said, "Thanks a lot, that certainly is simple enough," and walked off blinking his eyes. To spare writers such traumas, Ryan now tries to duck the subject. And there are other reasons for ducking. One is that the constant emphasis on his cloud-nine mathematics and his Ph. D. and his IQ tends to characterize him as a freak, something he definitely is not. A quarterback has to have a rapport with his fellow players both off and on the field, and Ryan seems to make a constant effort to be just another one of the boys who graduated with a C minus in phys ed or mort sci. "He does a lot of horsing around and jollying around," says a Cleveland sportswriter, "and this is for the benefit of the other players, to offset the genius tag he's had put on him. He wants to be considered a regular fellow. He tries to go out with the guys and be one of them; he does a little drinking with them, but I don't think he's too crazy about it. And it's all complicated by the second-string quarterback, Jim Ninowski. Nino's a naturally outgoing guy; I think Frank likes people just as much as Nino, but Nino shows it easier. Frank's a little introverted and shy, and it takes a while to get to know him."
Ryan's public image as an egghead disturbs him partially because he doesn't think of himself as overly bright and partially because he is getting publicity that he thinks should be going to the genuine geniuses in the mathematics department at Rice, a tough school that is to the Southwest as MIT is to the East and Cal Tech to the West. Says his wife Joan, a pretty blonde who is the mother of three boys by trade and a newspaper columnist by avocation: "Frank is in daily contact at Rice with men who are authentic geniuses, men who finished college in two years and wrote textbooks for his classes, men of his own age. It embarrasses Frank that he gets publicity about his scholastic accomplishments when these people don't."
"The press has overemphasized my intelligence," Ryan says. A case in point is his chess-playing. He used to keep eight or 10 games going through the mails, a feat that any normal 7-year-old could bring off with no difficulty. But his biographers persisted in treating his chess as a grand intellectual accomplishment. "They think there's something special about playing chess by mail, like playing the piano blindfolded," Ryan says. "Now it's coming back to haunt me, because I'm getting challenges from all over the country. The champion of the sixth grade in some place in Minnesota wants to play me. Trouble is, he probably would beat me. One time in the dressing room after a game in Los Angeles, in came this man from San Bernardino. He'd been playing me through the mails, and he came in and plunked down our unfinished game in front of me. We finished it right there, and he won. Now that I think about it, I was in a bad position anyway."
There was a time, in the distant past, when Frank Ryan, boy failure, used to run out on the football field trying to exploit the last erg of his IQ of 155, a process that often resulted in his tripping over his own intellect. As Cleveland Coach Blanton Collier, no stumblebrain himself, put the matter, "He used to overthink himself." Collier finally told Ryan: "Frank, every time you try to mastermind a situation you fail more often than not." This sent Ryan into one of his long, patented huddles with his medulla oblongata, his cerebral cortex and his cerebellum and produced a new approach. Ryan explains: "A few years ago I'd get so wrapped up in strategy that when I got to the line of scrimmage I hadn't yet switched from the play-calling to the mechanics. What's important is turning off the mental aspect and turning on the mechanical aspect. When I'm going over the films during the week I'm thinking very hard, because I want to be able to have the proper intuition during the game. Play-calling is a matter of intuition. Study-in the films requires extreme concentration. It's like working on my dissertation. When I'm writing down the facts and trying to prove the theorem I work very hard, but when I've got to rattle off my result it's easy, there it is. That's the way it is during the football week. I work very hard to weed out all the superfluous stuff and get to the heart of the matter, so that my intuition is attuned to the heart of the matter when I play the game. When I get in the game, if I try to mastermind it I mess up every time. It's got to be done in advance. On the field I've reduced the importance of being a mastermind more or less to calling a play and getting out there and reacting the right way. It's more instinct, experience, reflex than it is masterminding. I still analyze the defense, but then I rely on my intuition. And also I get a lot of suggestions from my teammates, and I almost always follow them.
"Of course, you've got to go by down and situation, but that only patterns how my intuitions go. Like if it's a running situation I don't think: Should we run inside or outside or off tackle or should we use a trap or whatnot? I just—pop! It comes like that.
"I used to put too much responsibility on my own shoulders, and I wasn't relaxed. I used to think that football was much more complicated than it is. There are so many defenses and so many ways you can run this play and hit the defensive weakness. If you let it all overwhelm you it becomes a big blur. Somewhere along the line it just occurred to me that I shouldn't concern myself so much with getting it just so, that I should make snap judgments and carry them through. More often than not, football is luck. You can study the defense and call a play that you think'll kill 'em, and all of a sudden they put on a line slant that squashes the play. It occurred to me that a lot of the success or failure depended upon the luck of the situation. My insight was that I shouldn't be tormented or worried or lose sleep over calling exactly the right play because there was such a tremendous variable of luck in it that I couldn't hope to be right every time. So I've become more relaxed, and when people are more relaxed they do better.
"Now I push this feeling even further. It's so nebulous, but I've got a feeling that I could take practically any pass pattern with three ends going down and a back flaring—that gives me four receivers—and I feel I could complete it every time against any defense. Why? Because those poor defensive people are just as bad off as I am. They don't know what's coming. They don't know where the exact spot is for them to break up the pass. Now when I've got four guys going downfield, that means at least four of their guys have to be in the right spot to stop the pass, so the percentage is on my side. And I feel that I can complete the pass every time. I know I won't, because mechanically I'm not that good a passer. I make mistakes. But I've got the feeling that the pass ought to be completed."
Ryan laughs at the popular misconception that pro football players have to learn an unreasonable number of plays and formations and defenses. "It's another cliché of sportswriters to bring up: 'Well, how many plays have you got? Isn't that a tremendous burden on your mind?' Well, it isn't, because the plays are all logically interwoven and you do things over and over so minny tarns that you never think twice about what plays you have. Knowing your own plays is the easiest part of football. I had to laugh: I was reading an article about Joe Namath commenting on the fact that he had maintained a C average in college but had not graduated, and they were trying to bring out the fact that he had a good football mind. This sportswriter was trying to give the public a new image of Joe Namath, because he said anybody who has to learn six or seven different formations and 50 or 60 pass patterns, individual cuts, this and that, it proves he's got a good football mind. The fact is it proves nothing. Learning plays is the easiest part of it."
The process of becoming a skilled pro quarterback, says theoretician Ryan, is nontheoretical. "Provided you have all the equipment, it's a process of being thrown into the fray and having to live or die in it. It's a process of learning, and the only way you can learn is to be out there under game conditions. You take quarterbacks like Norm Snead and Fran Tarkenton. They're lucky quarterbacks, because they were given the opportunity to play regularly much quicker than I was. They had to play. I didn't have to play till I was midway through my fifth pro season."
It seemed for the better part of two decades that Frank Ryan would never have to play. He was first-string for a while in the ninth grade, but he played with the scrubs in both his sophomore and junior years at Fort Worth's Paschal High School, and in his senior year, by his own evaluation, "I was the fifth best of the six quarterbacks in the conference." The All-Conference quarterback was Jim Shofner. At Rice, Ryan had his few splendid moments, but always as an understudy to King Hill who, incidentally, was one of the few people around who realized just how good his sub was. Years later, Hill was to say to a Philadelphia reporter: "I owe a lot to Frank. We beat Texas A&M when A&M was No. 1 in the country. Frank took the club about 70 yards right to the goal. I'll always remember a run he made on the last play of the drive. He spun off tackle, and there was John David Crow waiting for him. Frank stiff-armed him. He really spun his neck back and ran the ball right up to the goal. Then the quarter ended. We changed units, and all I had to do was sneak the thing over for a touchdown. It set me up for All-America. I got a lot of publicity out of the game, but Frank made it possible. You just got to like a guy like that."
All through that annoying senior year at Rice, Ryan had problems. He twisted his knee in the opening game and kept retwisting it as the season went on (it still bothers him occasionally). And although he never stopped thinking of himself as a first-string quarterback, the incontrovertible fact was that he was a scrub. "The coach was right, too," Ryan says now. "I was immature and inconsistent in my play and very emotional. When we played Clemson early in the season and lost 20—7, I had gotten to play about two series of downs and I was very disgruntled, and that was the low point for me. I was very close to quitting. I can't remember now why I didn't quit, except that I was interested in getting the education."
To Ryan's own puzzlement, he was drafted in the fourth round by the Los Angeles Rams, a team that in those years was suffering from a surfeit of owners, no one of whom got along with the others. Ryan played—or tried to play—under an astute coach, Sid Gillman, and later under a rookie coach, Bob Waterfield, both of whom were exposed to the laser beam of constant advice by the seemingly dozens of owners running around with ideas for plays like the Statue of Liberty with a triple reverse in the pike position. Ryan still grimaces and raises his voice, unRyan-like, when he discusses those years through the looking glass. "Gillman had a two-and-ten year and got the ax. Waterfield came in, and he didn't know what to do. He'd sort of been elected by public demand, and he didn't have enough coaching experience. I had a tremendous personal feeling for Waterfield that I hadn't had for any other coach. If I could have climbed mountains for him I would have. He was very fair at first. He said I was going to be his quarterback. So he started me in the preseason stuff, and I played the first half of the first exhibition game, and I played lousy. I didn't play again until four games into the league season.
"We hadn't won a league game in 14 starts, and Water-field finally let me play, and we tied the Bears 24 all. I played the whole game. As a reward for breaking our losing streak he let me start the next week against Detroit, and I had a lucky hand that day. I threw a real nice touchdown pass to Red Phillips to begin with; then I threw a short pass to Jon Arnett, who lateraled back to me, and I ran for a touchdown. At the end of the first half I threw a real short pass for a touchdown. So we were 10 points in the lead and I'd thrown three touchdown passes in the first half, and I felt this confidence starting to come. A good quarterback's got to be sort of flippant, you know.
"In the second series of the half I threw an interception and Waterfield yanked me.
"The next week we're going to Dallas, and I thought if there's any game I really want to play in it's Dallas, 30 miles from the home town. I felt on top of the world, going back to Dallas as a starting quarterback. On the second play we flanked Red Phillips out. He goes straight down the right sideline, and I throw a ball that goes about 65 yards in the air, a perfect pass, and it's caught for a touchdown. Oh, boy, I felt great! In that first half I hit another touchdown pass to Red and we were moving real well, and we were ahead, I think, by 20 points. We start the second half, and I call a pattern that puts Jon Arnett in the open; if I hit him it's a first down. But I overthrew him, pretty badly, too. So I'm jerked! I couldn't understand this.
"I started the next week against Detroit. We went almost 80 yards, and had to kick a field goal, but we had moved the ball. Midway in the second quarter I threw a pitchout to Arnett, right in the chest, and he fumbled. It turned out that Waterfield hadn't been watching at the time; he looked and saw a ball running loose out there backwards. So he replaced me with Billy Wade. I didn't get back in till maybe three, four minutes left in the game, and we're losing 12-10, and by this time I was down flat. My first pass bounced off a defensive back's chest; it would have been an interception otherwise. The second one I threw went out in the wild blue yonder, and the third was intercepted."
Ryan capped his torturous four-year career with the Rams by sitting on the bench for the last four games of the 1961 season. After the final game he stormed into the dressing room and shouted to General Manager Elroy Hirsch that he was going to be traded or he was going to quit football. He wound up in Cleveland, where Jim Ninowski had a lock on the quarterback's job but where, at least, there was more football sanity and no front-office bickering. Ninowski broke a collarbone midway in the 1962 season, and the perennial second-stringer was in for good. To this day Ryan and his wife sit around and ponder why he was handled so quixotically by the Rams. Waterfield, as silent now as he was in his playing and coaching days, sheds no light. "All Frank lacked was experience," he says. He does not explain how Ryan was to get experience when he was hauled off the field after his mistakes. Joan Ryan, who prefers not to discuss the matter, leans to the theory that one of the squabbling owners had it in for her husband. She says, "Someday I'll meet one of those former owners drunk in a bar in Los Angeles, and I'll put on a bleached-blonde wig and slink up to him and really get the truth. Who pulled the rug out from under Frank? Was it Bob Waterfield or was it one of the owners?" Joan thinks her husband has conquered the nervousness that the Los Angeles experience brought him, "but of course he'll never get completely over it. What the Rams did to their quarterbacks it took them all a long time to get over. It's like being at sea, and when you're back on land you still think you're rocking. He'll always be a little insecure because of the Rams."
At Cleveland, Ryan came under the quick tutelage of Blanton Collier, holder of various international awards for patience, and Collier treated the confused young quarterback to a long period of agonizing reeducation. Collier has dozens of theories on football, and one of them covers a system of training based on psychocybernetics. "I've believed for years that you can break down any action into its elements and practice each element," he says. "And then when you want to perform the whole act you just pick out one element to concentrate on, to trigger your mind, to make you do those other things automatically. Now, with a passer the three things are: 1) the squaring of the shoulders and coming to balance, 2) picking out a target and 3) throwing the ball. You practice each component until you do it almost subconsciously, almost without thinking. It's using the subconscious as a computer. You feed this information into the subconscious in practice, and then the subconscious plays back what you have stored in it. Frank is sold on this. I've been fooling around with it for years; there's a book on it called Psychocybernetics by Maxwell Maltz. I keep it at my bedside."
One can imagine the joyous explosion of minds when the frustrated Ryan, with his scientific attitude, ran into Blanton Collier, with his psychocybernetics. "He is the first coach that ever really coached me," Ryan says enthusiastically. "He spent days with me, weeks. He taught me those three steps: setting, aiming, throwing. He taught me to pick out a small target on a receiver rather than just trying to hit a big blob out there with arms. If you're looking at a little pink dot on him then you're reducing your error. He taught me not to watch the ball. This was a bad habit I used to have, watching my wobbly passes. All of a sudden you're gonna be watching the flight of the ball before you throw and take your eyes off the target. I still tend to throw wobbly passes, but now I catch myself looking at the receiver and never seeing the ball till it gets there, which to me indicates an improvement."
Before all Brown games Collier slides alongside Ryan and tries to start him concentrating on one aspect of passing to trigger the whole set of motor responses. "At first it irritated him," Collier says. "If you'll watch us warm up before a game, you'll see me right around Frank Ryan. And I'll be trying to bring one of these elements into his mind. I'll try to say or do something to get him started. 'Pinpoint that target, Frank!' 'Drill it, Frank!' 'Right to the numbers, Frank.' Just to give him that one thought."
In Collier's book, all Ryan lacks to become one of the best of all pro quarterbacks in history is maturity. "It sounds kinda funny, at his age, to say that he needs maturity," Collier says. "But you see he'd never really been a first-string quarterback before he came here. A quarterback's got to have heart, he's got to have poise, he's got to have leadership, but he's got to have opportunity, Somebody has to give him the opportunity to go in there and play regardless of what mistakes he makes. Without that he can have everything else and never develop. Now Frank's still lacking in some of that developing maturity. For example, he's said some very immature things to the newspapers that he'd have given anything to take back later."
The subject is a sore one. Either of the Ryans is prepared to expatiate for hours on the daily press. Certain members of the daily press are prepared to do the same about Frank Ryan. Part of the problem seems to be that Ryan, consistent with his training, is a precise fellow, and a reporter with a pad and a deadline in 15 minutes is not always able to be as accurate as an IBM 650. For example:
After Joe Namath signed his $400,000 contract with the show-biz New York Jets, Ryan was quoted as saying: "I guess I'll have to ask for a raise of about $980,000. If a fellow who hasn't even pulled on his cleats in pro ball is worth $400,000, then I must be worth a million dollars." The remark made an interesting second lead on sports pages all over the country, and the net result was that Ryan looked like a blowhard, which is exactly what he is not. What had happened, according to the anguished Ryan, was as follows:
"This sportswriter slipped up on me and Sonny Jurgensen and two or three other players unbeknownst to us, and first of all Jurgensen said something about, 'If Namath is worth $400,000 I guess you're gonna ask for a $300,000 raise,' implying that I made $100,000.
"So I said, 'No, but if Namath is worth $400,000 then I'm worth a million and Unitas is worth $10 million,' which puts a slightly different light on the quote. Then Jurgensen said, 'That means you're gonna ask for a $900,000 raise,' still implying that I'm making $100,000. I said, 'No, I'm gonna ask for a $999,000 raise,' implying that I was getting $1,000. So now it comes out in the papers, and it's got me asking for a $980,000 raise, implying I'm making $20,000, which puts it in a more legitimate area and makes it a more serious quote. The headlines in the Los Angeles papers were RYAN SAYS HE'S WORTH A MILLION.
"So I got on the phone and called the writer up, and I said, 'How could you write such a story?' And I got him to admit that what he did was to make a few notations on his pad and then go home and reconstruct this stuff from his memory, and then he'd put quotes around it. I told him I was thinking about suing him because he had embarrassed me so. He was nice about it, so I didn't. But this sort of thing irritates me. I think sportswriters should have a little more obligation to the people they're writing about and to the public. Sportswriting has become a very easy living; you just sit down and write anything you want. They've got to turn in copy every day, so they are inclined to do it the easiest way. I've got a very low regard for sportswriters."
Says Joan Ryan: "Frank's always mad at anybody that writes about him. He's very particular about being quoted correctly, because he goes to a lot of trouble to sit down and explain things to people." Once Ryan was asked by a reporter if the wind had been a factor in a certain football game. Ryan launched into an explanation based on Bernoulli's Principle, which has to do with the effects of winds on surfaces. The finished newspaper account of Ryan's patient explanation read, in full, as follows:
"How about the game?" someone asked.
"As you know from aerodynamics...it makes Bernoulli's Principle...," Ryan said, and laughed. The answer was one of Ryan's many pranks.
This version of the incident was nettling to Ryan, partially because he had taken pains to explain what had happened and partially because he felt he had come off in the quotes as a wise guy, something he tries not to be. Ryan is only now beginning to realize that he has a special communication problem, and not merely with the press. He is a learned man, but he is learned in a discipline that has its own jargon and nomenclature. A person trying to explain geometric function theory in terms of homeomorphisms and Riemann surfaces and Cantor subsets is going to sound a whole lot more arcane than an equally intelligent person explaining how they come of age in Samoa. "It's the old problem of trying to communicate with somebody," he says ruefully. "You can have the purest thought and you can't get your idea directly across to somebody else because you've got to use words. I've reached the point where, if I can't make my point precisely, exactly how I felt and with no way to misunderstand, then I won't try to explain a point at all." Certain individuals in the Browns' front office wish Ryan would leave it exactly at that: "They've told me not to talk to the press at all, and sometimes I think they're right." Says Joan Ryan: "I know why Frank feels the way he does and I feel the same way, except that I have more fear of the press than he does and I'm the wife and I feel more sensitive to what they write about him, and I feel that he should keep on the good side of them so they don't malign him in print. I've read many untrue and critical things about Frank. I feel that he should be polite and courteous with reporters, and he feels that he should not even acknowledge them."
One sportswriter who has written often about Ryan says: "Frank talks a little too quickly, to show what a carefree, devil-may-care guy he is, because he's always fighting that genius image. But he doesn't stop to realize what it's gonna look like in print. He doesn't realize yet that he's a star, and anything he says is gonna be printed, and he doesn't stop to think how it'll look. The quote in the newspaper doesn't show the wink in his eye or the smile on his face or the gentle nudge in the ribs to show that he's just kidding. Reporters don't always print these subtleties and that's what Frank's gonna have to learn. They're not gonna change all the techniques of journalism just to please Frank Ryan."
Whoever is in the right, Ryan does seem to wind up in the eye of the hurricane more often than your everyday, garden variety doctor of philosophy in mathematics. One reason is that he is a needler, and a skilled one, and another is that he is a practical joker. Once he went to his backfield coach the night before a game and swore with a straight face that he had forgotten every play in the book ("My mind's a complete blank"), while the head coach and others stood outside the door and suppressed their laughter at the shocked response ("C'mon now, Frank, you can do it! Think, Frank! Think!"). It was suspected that Ryan was the brains behind a series of late-night phone calls to members of the Browns by a man who posed as a reporter asking questions right out of Confidential. One summer at the Browns' training camp news photographers were invited to take all the pictures they wanted and, later, when the film was developed, picture editors discovered that No. 13, Frank Ryan, had been passing left-handed to hoax the photographers. "They could have reversed the prints and made you out to be No. 31," someone suggested later.
"No, they couldn't," Ryan said in a typical outburst of accuracy. "I would have been E1."
Two years ago the Cleveland Browns' press book noted proudly that Ryan "has rare sense of humor and is a great kidder and prankster." Ryan made them take the line out this year. "I don't like that sort of stuff," he says. "I'm not that funny. They made me sound like Bob Hope or Jack Lemmon, always funny, and I'm not. Every once in a while I get an urge to twist something or other, that's all. I'm rather dull, actually."
Frank Ryan seems to be one of those humans who are misunderstanding-prone. Sometimes, on close analysis, the fault proves to be his own, and he is quick to admit it. Whatever the case, Ryan frequently finds himself in trouble, not cops trouble or scandal trouble or danger trouble, but the kind of trouble that embarrasses. "I'm a little bit different from most people," he confesses, "in that I continually do foolish things. Maybe not blatant foolish things or public foolish things, but things that are personally embarrassing to me, whether or not they seem so to anybody else. I'm impetuous and that's what gets me in trouble a lot of the time." The hoax on the cameramen seems to be an example. "Did you really do that?" I asked Ryan, and he said, "Yeh, I did," his face coloring slightly and his voice muffled. It was plain that this was embarrassing to him. He is also chagrined over some of his public utterances about Waterfield, made in the heat of anger to the press. The easygoing Waterfield made things worse by turning the other cheek, and now Ryan can hardly stand to discuss the matter. His wife says, "When Frank got his Ph. D., Bob Waterfield sent him a telegram: CONGRATULATIONS, YOUR ACHIEVEMENTS SPEAK FOR THEMSELVES. I didn't say anything to Frank about it, but I put it under the glass on his desk and he didn't move it, so I think he liked it. That wire showed a lot of things. It showed that Waterfield is a big man, and it showed that he really did have a feeling and respect for Frank, and it also showed that he read with interest about Frank." Ryan will only say: "I'd cut Waterfield down publicly several times. That wire made me feel awfully small."
But the grand alltime embarrassment of Ryan's career involved an incident in the closing seconds of last year's pro championship game in which Ryan threw three touchdown passes to Gary Collins, the Cleveland defense enjoyed its finest hour and the unbeatable Colts were humiliated 27-0. Baltimore's hulking End Gino Marchetti recalls: "There was about 27 seconds to play, and there were thousands of fans on the field. The referee came up to me and said, 'Gino, there's only 27 seconds to play. You can't win. Shall we call the game?' I told him, 'Definitely, yes.' Ryan said something like, 'You can't call the game. I've got time for two more plays.' Well, my opinion was that we were beat, really beat. I didn't think to try and rub it in was really fair, to throw a couple more passes when that was it. I didn't like Ryan's attitude. I talked too much and said I'd like to get another shot at Ryan."
Ryan, who savors accuracy even when it makes him look bad, does not disagree with Marchetti's version, although he has some additions. "That was one thing I wish hadn't happened," he says. "It was said in an emotion of elation. I wanted to throw one more pass, to John Brewer, and I was gonna make it a touchdown pass. John's a real important part of our football, and everybody else had participated real well in the game except him, and I thought, 'He might enjoy it as much as anybody else.' And those damned Colts were just tremendous loudmouths at the beginning of the game. I threw an interception early and I tackled the guy over there by the bench, and I must have had 25 Colts giving me a rundown on what was gonna happen the next time I passed. But I feel bad about what I said because now that I've thought about it I feel that I did something wrong. Part of my motivation was to throw a flag pattern to Brewer, sure, and at the same time I was up to my ears in taking their wisecracks, and also I was on a cloud, elated, hopped up. But I'm sorry I said it. Gino is a great football player, and I feel like I lost a little bit of his respect."
Just as in a movie script, Marchetti faced Ryan a few weeks later in the Pro Bowl and got the "shot" at Ryan that he had publicly asked for. Ryan came out of the pile-up with a slight shoulder separation, but a study of the game film showed that it was not Marchetti who did the damage. Now the misunderstandings that swirl about Ryan continued. Fans remembered Marchetti's vengeful threat, and the big end was subjected to public scorn. "You should see some of my fan mail," he said. "One person wrote me and said I was a disgrace to professional football and should never have been allowed to play. How about that? And I never had the reputation of being a dirty player. I never was. I played 13 years and I never played dirty. In all those years I only had a couple of penalties called against me. I didn't take any cheap shot at Ryan. I was retiring. Why would I want to do something like that? But everything reverted to my original statement that I wanted another shot at him. It got all twisted around. I've never been in so much trouble."
To worsen matters, Ryan and Marchetti had shown up in the same bar at the time of the Pro Bowl game, and a Los Angeles sportswriter, sniffing a story, tried to start them fighting. Says Marchetti: "This reporter came over to me, and he said, 'Why don't you get your shot at Ryan now?' The reporter was plastered, and I didn't pay any attention to him."
Says Ryan: "I know that sportswriter. As a human being, he's pretty low rate. He comes over to me and he says, 'You better watch out for Marchetti.' Then he talked to Marchetti. I'm surprised Gino didn't just come over there and wax me one."
Ryan feels squirmy after such unsettling experiences, but he also harnesses his own annoyance at himself and tries to apply it to good works. "Every time something like that happens I'm filled with a desire to make up for it," he says. "I find myself having to make up for it." This includes football, where Ryan almost invariably faults himself when the Browns play poorly. In one of this year's preseason games the Los Angeles Rams' offensive line ground Ryan to pieces, forcing him to pass inaccurately and once dumping him in the end zone for a safety. To the naked eye, it looked like a case of the L.A. line beating the Cleveland line with Ryan the innocent victim. "I had a bad day," Ryan said after the game. "That kind of pressure can be controlled by the quarterback. If I had been calling plays well, I wouldn't have had any problems from the pass rushers. If a quarterback gets caught throwing a pass, nine times out of 10 it's his own fault. In this game I should have started out running at 'em, running, running, running, to keep 'em on the line of scrimmage. And when I was throwing I should have thrown shorter, quicker passes where even if they've got one of our linemen whipped they'll never get to me. I played to their strength and to our weakness. The trouble was, I didn't think twice about the game during the week. We spent most of the week playing poker."
Bookies have long known that the best bet in professional football is the Browns to win the week after a loss, especially after a loss where Ryan has had a conspicuously bad day. "Sometimes I don't concentrate in a ball game, and then the next week I concentrate all the harder to make up for it," he explains. Thought processes like concentration fascinate Ryan, and some of his own cerebration is so complex that it even puzzles him. He knows, for example, that sometimes he will be shaving or showering when suddenly the solution to a difficult problem will spring full-blown into his consciousness. Perhaps two seconds before he was not even aware of the problem, let alone the solution.
"Oh, he told you about that?" said his wife Joan. "That's so embarrassing."
"It happens to everybody," I said.
"It happens to him much more often than other people. And on any subject. Once he had one on the population explosion. He said he had a blinding insight about it. Then he started carrying Brave New World around with him. One day I wanted to look something up in it and it was gone. He had taken it with him like the Bible or something."
Ryan is hard-pressed to explain, even to himself, the nature of his flash insights, or epiphanies. "I get these feelings but for my life I couldn't even explain 'em or why they came or even what they're about. It's so complicated. I'm not talking about problems that consciously arise; I'm not even talking about problems. I'm talking about things I haven't even thought about and suddenly it's all right in perspective."
Only rarely will the phenomenon be of direct and immediate benefit. "Early in March of last year, I had been working on my [doctoral] problem for over a year and I hadn't got anywhere because there was a certain aspect of it I couldn't do. And I worried with it and worried with it and worried with it. I would worry so bad about it that I would go to sleep at night thinking about this problem. One night, early in March, the greatest thing that's ever happened to me, I lay down discouraged, maybe 12 or 1 o'clock, and time was running out, it's early March and I've got to have the first draft done by the first of April. And all of a sudden it occurred to me how to do this thing. So I popped out of bed, ran over to my office at Rice and worked the rest of the night, wrote down everything. I came back home about 7. That was the only nonabstract epiphany I ever had. All the other ones were so complicated that I'd spend the rest of my life trying to explain them."
Some day Ryan may be able to verbalize his thought processes, perhaps after he retires from pro football and begins a career in pure mathematics, which inevitably will begin with a teaching assignment. For the moment, he is somewhat tongue-tied, caught between the complexities of his own thinking and the intellectual insufficiencies of his listeners. If Ryan tries to explain his epiphanies to a typical audience of sports-writers and football players, the response is likely to be:
So he shuts up and plays pranks; he needles and jokes and plays poker and sometimes oversteps himself and acts impetuously and wonders whether he has done the wrong thing and dies a thousand deaths over his public and private embarrassments. He does not seem to understand the esteem in which he is held by his peers in the NFL, an esteem that was expressed recently in typical football terms by the man Ryan thinks is angry with him: Gino Marchetti. "He's come a long way," Marchetti said. "He has more confidence than he ever did. He's taking more time before getting rid of the ball, and he's more sure of himself. He knows he's good and belongs there. He calls a good game. You can't outguess him because he doesn't type himself." Gino mused and then added:
"I was talking to him once about what he was going to do when he finished playing, and he started telling me. He's a doctor of something I don't even know how to pronounce. I listened carefully and hardly understood a word he said.
"But I'll tell you: it sure sounded interesting."
Ryan sits for a family picture with sons Frank Jr., 7, Michael 6, and Stuart 3, and his wife Joan, who is both pretty and articulate and believes Frank should get different treatment in the press.