Skip to main content

Early Fifties. Frederick, Oklahoma. He's home now. Home, fresh from the kill. The kill occurred from five feet, a bullet through a young man from China who had appeared to be dead, then suddenly stirred and lifted his gun toward an American medic. Buddy Ryan's finger twitched, and then there was blood coming from the young man's groin, where the bullet went in, and from his side, where the bullet came out, blood puddling almost at Buddy's shoes. But honestly, it wasn't so bad. He has told his family a dozen times already: It didn't bother him. Didn't bother him. Didn't bother him.

Sure, says Buddy. Sure, why not? he says when someone in the family suggests the boys go out in the backyard and challenge one another, just as they often did before Buddy went to Korea. Picture the four brothers lashing the rope around the four Cottonwood trees, no one needing to speak; it will go as it always went. The youngest brother, George, will enter the ring first and be beaten by the second-youngest, D.A. Then D.A. will take his beating from the next-oldest brother, Pat. Which will bring Buddy, the oldest, inside the ropes, and from the look in his eyes, no one doubts that he will make shorter work of Pat than ever before. But the father . . . what will the father do?

EX-EAGLE ANDRE WATERS: Buddy told us to knock the snot out of their noses, stare at them when they're on the ground and don't blink.

EX-BEAR DOUG PLANK: Told us if one of us got in a fight, don't hold our guy back. Hold their guy back, so our guy could hit him.

WATERS: Told us which guy on the other team didn't like to stick his head in the fire. Told us to kill that guy.

CARDINAL SETH JOYNER: Told us never to break up a fight in camp.

EX-BEAR DAVE DUERSON: Told us that if a quarterback scrambles, you go for his knees.

PLANK: Told us that when one of us made an interception, the other 10 guys were to go block the quarterback. It was comical on film! You'd see the quarterback get hit, go down, get up, get hit, go down, get up, get hit. . . .

His father would always enter the ring last and beat his oldest son, but that was . . . that was before. Before Buddy was stripped of his corporal's stripes for taking a lieutenant who burst into the barracks barking wake-ups like a jackal and slamming him against a wall. Before Buddy arrived on the Korean front on Christmas Day 1951, was sent out into a valley on the 38th Parallel where enemy foot patrols roamed the night snow like ghosts, was sent out with no sleeping bag or rations that first night, just a shovel to dig a hole in the ice to crouch inside all night while the frost deadened his fingers and toes. Before that day when Buddy bumped into an enemy soldier in a blinding snowstorm, just the two of them squinting into each other's eyes, and Buddy pulled his trigger, only to hear the click because the clip on his carbine was not in place, and the Chinese soldier pulled his trigger, only to hear the click because his burp gun had frozen. Before Buddy was promoted from private to master sergeant and men began volunteering to go on patrol with him because he seemed so sure of himself when the earth around their bunker convulsed from the 155-mm artillery shells dropping out of the night. Before Buddy walked into bars in Japan, finished his first beer in one swallow, slapped the glass upside down on the counter and left it there, informing anyone who asked its significance: "That means I can lick anyone here." Before the day in that joint in Sapporo when the Fourth Army championship football team, for which he played on the offensive line, was standing around a group of tables, each covered with a few dozen beers, draining them one by one and eyeing the squad of paratroopers doing the same a few feet away, inspiring one of the chutists to scramble up the steps to an overhead loft, leap and tumble perfectly as he hit the floor, hollering, "I bet no football player will do that!" And Buddy bolted up to the loft, shouting "The hell I won't!" and jumped from the ledge and landed smack on the paratroopers' tableful of beer, sending suds and glass and chairs everywhere, sending two teams of men into a brawl that took a couple of dozen MPs to bust up. Before Buddy was a man.

His father's 58 and looks 78. He has already had the first heart attack, the one that made him stop drinking, but if he's fool enough to come inside that rope now, lord help him, because. . . . Lord help him, he's coming, the 58-year-old house painter walking toward the 21-year-old master sergeant, yapping something about "Let's see how tough youspring 199 . . . ," but before it's all out of the old man's mouth the master sergeant feels a foot come down hard on his own foot, pinning him to the spot, and before he can look up there's a punch cracking against his nose, and then a second, a third, a fourth, a fifth.

"And it was over," recalls Buddy's sister Mickey.

"Over," confirms Buddy.

Oh no no no no no. It was only beginning.

ELTON JOHN: Buddy Ryan. . . . The pig on two legs.

BUDDY'S WIFE JOANIE: Such an easy man to live with. Always so considerate of me. He's my best friend.

CARDINAL FAN DAN GRIMES: We've got another Hitler.

EX-BEAR MIKE SINGLETARY: We were like little kids, and Buddy was our father.

EX-BEAR PERSONNEL DIRECTOR BILL TOBIN: The most self-centered man I've ever met in the NFL.

LATE EAGLE JEROME BROWN: I'd sell my body for Buddy.

SPORTSWRITER MIKE RABUN: Had he control over long-range missiles, the earth would have long been vaporized.

EX-VIKING AHMAD RASHAD: You know, there's something going on here people don't see. How could a man who publicly looks like such an ass have so many players who love him to the dying end?

Spring 1994. Phoenix. Cardinal season-ticket sales have nearly doubled. Already. The Pro Bowl punter has been cut, the '93 first-round draft pick has been ripped, three former Pro Bowlers have been signed as free agents. Already. Two of Buddy Ryan's sons, Rob and Rex, have been named assistant coaches. Defensive lineman Eric Swann has taken swings at teammates on each day of a three-day minicamp. Brian Henesey, a kid two years out of Bucknell, working at a pharmaceutical company, has traveled cross-country on a friend's frequent-flier mileage, arrived at the Cardinal training-complex parking lot at dawn to await an audience with Buddy Ryan, vowed to him, "Coach, I'll go down the field on kickoffs and rip off somebody's head in your honor"—and been signed right away to a free-agent contract. Already.

Phoenix mayor Paul Johnson, politely asking what Buddy's focus is, has been told, "I've got a bull---- defense with bull---- plays and bull---- players." Out-of-town reporters have arrived to write about the man who punched a fellow Houston Oiler assistant on national TV during a game last January; who once, upon learning that his old boss with the Bears, Mike Ditka, had been hospitalized with chest pains, grunted, "Must've been gas"; who once called Eagle president Harry Gamble, at a luncheon in front of several hundred people, the illegitimate son of team owner Norman Braman; who was fired in 1991 after leading the Eagles from the depths of their division to the playoffs for three straight years. Sales of the black hat Buddy wears have begun to multiply, Arizonans mimicking the man who caused fans in Philadelphia to form opposing Buddy Backers and Buddy Bashers clubs and an opposing wide receiver to celebrate a playoff touchdown by firing the football, point-blank, at a larger-than-life caricature of Buddy's face. Soon Buddy Ryan's first season as head coach and general manager of the Arizona Cardinals will begin.

PLANK: It was like Leave It to Beaver at the guy's house. Ward Cleaver sitting on the recliner smoking his pipe: "'How are you, Doug? Have a scat! What can I get for you? How about an iced tea?"

AGENT JIM SOLANO: The ultimate ball-breaker. I had this feeling when I was with Buddy that I was back in college, in a locker room with guys whipping each other in the ass with towels.

EX-BEAR GARY FENCIK: Ever see him with Joanie? Like a kid, all dressed up, doing everything just right, not saying boo.

EX-EAGLE RON JAWORSKI: Everywhere I went after the Eagles, coaches asked me about him. Most of them hated his guts.

CARDINAL ASSISTANT COACH TED PLUMB: People live through Buddy. They wish they could do and say the things he does.

EX-JET ASSISTANT SAM RUTIGLIANO: The man has been on a stage since he got that defense going in Chicago. He wants to be a character. Nobody could prepare the things he says. He's having fun and doesn't care if milk goes up to three bucks a quart.

PATRIOT COACH BILL PARCELLS: Buddy Ryan is a Neanderthal, and he attracts Neanderthal players.

BUDDY'S SON JIM: If you could see how high he kicked his legs to Hava Nagila in our wedding video. . . .

Late Fifties. Gainesville, Texas. Waking up next to a Phi Beta Kappa in a rented house with a rotted floor. Waking up a couple of dozen miles of red clay south of the little Oklahoma town where he grew up in a house without indoor plumbing.

She has saved him, really. People back in Frederick figured he would end up working in a gas station. When he married Doris Ward midway through his junior year at Oklahoma A&M, he had only one credit toward his major. Presto! Buddy Ryan, Academic All-America football team!

As a kid he was the kind who made you feel easy if you were his friend heading with him into the night and jittery if you were a third baseman and he was dancing off second. Once, he threw a cross-body block at Altus High's star, busting both a double play and the guy's collarbone, and responded to the crowd's grumbles with a digit and a streak of obscenities that nearly set off a riot.

Now he's 28, about to be introduced at Gainesville High's assembly as the new football coach and athletic director after two years there as an assistant. He knows exactly where he's going. During the off-season at Oklahoma A&M, before reporting for the all-night shift in the oil fields wearing a rubber suit to cut weight, he has sat at basketball practices studying the legendary coach Hank Iba. "Learning how to tear down a player with one sentence," he'll say years later. "That's what coaching's all about. Embarrass 'em. Beat 'em down. Then bring 'em back."

He gazes across the assembly. "I don't know who's running this place," he tells the school, "but in two years I will be."

LARRY SULLIVANT: Buddy saved me. My father had just had a stroke, was incapacitated in a wheelchair, and I was a 16-year-old kid at Gainesville High with no money for college, no self-confidence, no idea who I was.

JIM CAMPBELL: I was principal there. Halfway through the year we realized Buddy had spent the entire athletic budget on football. Left nothing for baseball. Nothing for a track team that won the state meet in 4A that year. I called him to my office.

EX-WIFE DORIS: He was always such fun. A war vet, a football player, always so sure of himself.

FRIEND CURLY RIDDLE: She was a brain. Every third word he wrote was misspelled. We couldn't figure out what they had in common.

SULLIVANT: Oh, the ways he brought the toughness out of us. He walked up to me one day and said, "The boys told me you think you can whip me. Me and you are gonna go find out." Man, I'd never said that to anyone, but the more he prodded me, the more I wanted to knock the fire out of his ass. We got into our stances. He knocked me back so hard, I kissed the moon. He just laughed. He said, "Remember, son: Skill and intelligence always win out over ignorance and superstition."

DORIS: He was a Sunday-school teacher. One tenth of our paycheck went to the Baptist church.

CAMPBELL: I confronted him on the budget. He said, "Let's go to the superintendent's office and see who's running this sonofabitch." I said, "Fine." See, he didn't know about power yet. He didn't know that the track coach who had no funds left was the friend of the superintendent.

SULLIVANT: I got two teeth knocked out in practice one day. I'm bleeding, thinking, This is bad. He sticks a wad of cotton in my mouth and tells me I'm fine. A few minutes later he says, "Let's have a little bull-in-the-ring." Six or seven guys in a circle, me in the middle. Buddy starts calling out numbers, and they take turns coming at me from all sides, and I have to keep getting up, dropping into my stance and fighting them off. Finally one of them throws an elbow at me, and I've already lost the two teeth and I'm mad, and I hit the kid in the eye. That's all Buddy wanted to know about me.

DORIS: A hymn could do it. Sometimes he'd cry in church.

CAMPBELL: Helluva coach, but he was fired after that one year of being in charge. Players went on strike for him, missed four days of spring practice, until I talked them out of it.

SULLIVANT: Buddy called all over the country, sent film everywhere. Got scholarships for 13 of the 14 in my graduating class, and half of them had no right to one. Because he cared so much, I got a scholarship. Became a lawyer and a district judge. He changed the course of lives. Somebody will bless him for that.

Early Sixties. University of Buffalo. Striding across the floor of a small dance studio in Clark Gym, the new assistant coach.

Steeeeek 'em!

A room with barres lining the walls so ballerinas can stretch.

Keeeeel 'em!

Mirrors on all four sides so they can watch themselves perform pirouettes and grands jetès.


The ear of athletic director Jim Peele—warned by a professor that football players are coming to class with purpled, swollen faces—pressed against the door, listening to the noises as linemen in shoulder pads and helmets take turns tearing into each other, one-on-one.

What's wrong with you, worm?

It's off-season. NCAA rules forbid winter practice.

Get up, worm! Get up!

Practice? What practice? The Seminar, Buddy calls it.


See him unnerving the other assistant coaches with those seven-day weeks and 16-hour days. With those defensive-line meetings he sometimes holds in the shower room, those cowboys hats that a roster full of New York, Ohio and Pennsylvania kids begin to wear in his honor as the Buffalo defense becomes one of the country's 10 best against the rush.

See Doris propped against a pillow in the maternity ward. The Ph.D. she will earn at the University of Chicago, the jobs as professor of educational administration at the University of Toronto, vice president of the University of New Brunswick, director of teacher exchange for China and Canada—they are all just vague dreams on this December morning in 1962. She's wondering when Buddy will call the football office from his recruiting trip and discover that three days ago she gave birth to twins.

EX-JET GERRY PHILBIN: Gladiators, man. I played under him at the University of Buffalo and with the Jets. It got mean, cruel. I've never seen anyone better at bringing the animal out of you. If you didn't hit as hard as he wanted, he'd humiliate you in front of everyone. Guys like me loved him, though. He was just so brutally honest.

SPORTSCASTER BILL MAZER: The man just jumped out at me. I used to do University of Buffalo games back then. The irascibility you see now wasn't a guise of his at that time. He was so energetic, dedicated, devoted, dynamic!

SECRETARY VIRGINIA SPICER: He would fall asleep with one hand on the telephone and one on the projector clicker. As soon as he heard Dick Offenhamer's voice, he'd wake up, click on the game films and grab the phone to recruit.

DICK OFFENHAMER: A total perfectionist. Total concentration on the game. It was a pleasant experience having him on my staff.

SPICER: He would close his eyes and pray in the morning. Then he'd teach those kids how to spear in the afternoon.

EX-BUFFALO ASSISTANT: Wanna hear something? Someone in our program sent Buddy an anonymous card that he threw away, but I fished it out of the trash can. Still got it. It said:

You're busy, busy every day and night
Knifing every back in sight
Laughing at the boss's jokes
(Ignoring all the Lesser Folks)
It's plain to see you'll get some place
Why not make it outer space!

Mid-Sixties. Nashville. Lost. All lost. His wife lost—twice. Divorced by Doris, then remarried to her, then divorced by her again almost immediately. His three sons lost, except in summers. His job lost—twice more. His Buffalo assistant's job gone when the school changed coaches after the 1965 season, and his Vanderbilt assistant's job gone a year later when most of the staff there was terminated. A little mole's growing on his right forearm—so what?

Prowling at night. Another gust of midnight whiskey challenges, of men dropped and women picked up. Working the phones for leads, dialing old friends, acquaintances, reporters. Hearing a favorite expression of his father, who worked for himself for 50 years, cackling in his ears: "As the feller says, Do your job right and you won't have to kiss anyone's ass."

RAÚL OSORNIO: I broke the hand. I broke the arm. I broke the tendons. I broke the hip. The glass everywhere in the face. Seven operations. No money. My family all in Mexico. Buddy Ryan took me to his home.

DORIS: He just overestimated the extent to which he had to portray himself as the tough guy.

OSORNIO: Only two months did I know him when I had the accident. I was the groom for his horses. Six months, I stay in his home. He brought me food. He put the television in my room. He cut the meat in little pieces for me. He made me laugh all the time. He tried to speak a little Spanish. This man . . . I like him like my daddy.

RUTIGLIANO: I'm sure he wouldn't want this known: He's basically a good guy.

Early Seventies. New York. On his finger, a ring. On his forearm, a scar. At his elbow, a woman. The ring: '69 Super Bowl victory—Buddy's first season in the bigs, as defensive-line coach of the Jets. Now and then he flashes the ring to a cabbie, saying, "Know what this is? Get me to 54th and Third as quick as you can." It works.

The scar: melanoma, the deadly skin cancer that his sister Judy noticed and harried him to have removed just before it invaded his bloodstream. The same cancer that will kill his brother D.A. a few years later.

The woman: Joanie Clark. She lives in 4-A. He in 4-F. He met her as she was taking the garbage to the incinerator of their Long Island apartment building. She asked him about that melanoma scar. "A bull gored me," he told her. She asked how old he was. He . . . uh . . . well . . . uhhhh. . . . The man revered by players for his brutal honesty has begun fudging on his age. He allows his birthdate to be published as 1934 when it's really 1931, making him three years younger for the rest of his life, making him bristle whenever friends or family mention the discrepancy.

Joanie peers at him. Soft, round, pipe-smoking, bespectacled. Sometimes he looks, already, like a kindly grandfather. She peers at him again. Hard, crusty, cursing, hat tugged low over his eyebrows. Paul Zimmerman, the Jets' beat writer in those years, tries to hammer out a compromise, writing that Buddy looks like a rugged professor . . . or perhaps a scholarly truck driver. No one ever quite solves the paradox. No one knows if the things Buddy hisses on football fields and in meetings are the raw id of the Okie roustabout, the barroom brawler . . . or the calculated con game of a Hall of Fame-hungry coach.

His luck, finally, has turned. After drifting to the University of the Pacific for a year as an assistant, he landed the Jet job because his old University of Buffalo buddies, Philbin and Mazer—now New York hotshots—kept telling Jet coach Weeb Ewbank about this hard round man they couldn't forget. And in Buddy's first year with the Jets, Joe Namath slung lightning across the sky, and Buddy's defensive line, bug-eyed from his cattle prod, flattened everything in front of it, and Buddy got that ring. And at last he began to realize that at 40 he didn't need in a partner what he needed at 22 . . . that an hombre like him needed one flank where he could let down all his guard. Joanie adores him. Joanie's a saint. Joanie has the same dream Buddy does—a rolling green horse farm somewhere the world can't touch them, a place where he can go when the establishment recoils from him, where he can shrug and say, "Doesn't bother me."

Joanie's ready to go where Buddy goes, want what Buddy wants, lay out his socks and shirt and tie in the morning and his wedge of pie at night. She once wanted to become a nun? No problem. The man whose will has to be done on a football field comes home and gratefully surrenders that will; the tithing Baptist Sunday-school teacher becomes the devout Catholic, kneeling and praying every night across the bed from the woman he calls Mama, setting little statues of St. Joseph and Baby Jesus on his office shelf. Letting Mama control the finances on the 176-acre Kentucky farm they'll buy in 1977 with playoff money, on the three dozen thoroughbreds they'll purchase. Letting Mama give him a little cuff whenever he forgets around her and curses. Because the two great wakes he's leaving behind him, the love and the hate, never seem to spill over each other with Mama. Because Mama lets him go to war and be at peace.

LATE JET VERLON BIGGS: So he set up this machine in practice that worked on spring action—a big pad with an iron rod inside it, maybe six feet high and three feet wide—that came exploding at you. And he had us lie on the ground one by one and jump up and hit this thing when he pulled the lever to release it, and if you didn't hit it just right, that thing killed you. He called it Killer.

RUTIGLIANO: Ragged us all on that staff. Ragged me about being a member of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. Ragged me about not smoking or cussing or drinking. But you could rag him back, and he could laugh at himself. There wasn't all that friction around him back then.

EX-JET ASSISTANT JOE SPENCER: Then Buddy put a second spring in the machine, to double the force. We had a big defensive tackle named Steve Chomyszak, nickname was House-mover. One day Killer knocked him out cold.

EWBANK: Never had to reprimand him. Everybody on our staff loved him. But I'll tell you, I never thought I'd see a hair drier in a football locker room till I saw Buddy using one.

A FRIEND: I think he got it into his head that being three years younger would make him a more attractive head coach candidate. All those newspaper stories about him going to war at 16 and becoming a master sergeant at 17 were rot, but they added to the myth. Buddy was at least 20 when he went to the front.

RUTIGLIANO: We were all fired by the Jets in '75. You have to remember how much of the uncertainty of coaching Buddy's been through. He went to the Vikings for a couple of years, coached that Purple People Eaters line, went to another Super Bowl.

Ex-VIKING COACH BUD GRANT: No, he wasn't nearly as belligerent or militaristic as the image that came across later. You laughed a lot around him.

RASHAD: But when you were getting on the bus after an away game, you'd better know which bus. There were always two—the bus Buddy Ryan sat in and the one Bud Grant sat in. Some players showered and dressed fast to make sure they didn't have to sit in Buddy Ryan's bus, because if you made a mistake, he was going to zing you. "All-Pro, my ass." That was his favorite expression. "Take your candy ass over to Bud's bus." Lotta empty seats in the Ryan Express.

BUDDY'S SISTER JUDY: I was with him when he got the stitches taken out of his arm from the melanoma. He fainted.

Chicago. Early Eighties. Off-season. Lying in bed. The dark before dawn. Neck hurting like a sonofabitch. Weeks, months, maybe years of scans and blood tests will be needed to know if the second cancer, which they've just cut out of his upper back, has metastasized, as it did with his brother three years ago; perhaps it's already feeding on Buddy's lungs, Buddy's liver. This time it was Joanie who noticed the melanoma, wider and deeper than the first one. This time his blood pressure rocketed off the charts when he entered the hospital to have it removed. This time he came out of anesthesia swinging his fists.

Crawling out of bed, because he knows, he just knows, that it's like it was with that Italian in his platoon in Korea, shot to hell, refusing the medic's order to lie down in the stretcher: If he lies down and waits, he's going to die. Buddy rearranges the brace so his neck won't move and the pain won't stab him again. He steps outside, the Bears' defensive coordinator alone in the suburban dawn. He lifts the extension ladder, the same act that triggered the heart attack that killed his lather at the age of 74. He climbs it rung by rung and begins to do what his dad did every day for five decades. Wincing, he paints the house.

Click. Death misses him again. Then, within a year of the surgery, everyone begins calling for the head of Bear coach Neill Armstrong, and Buddy appears on the verge of being dumped once more, of becoming a 50-year-old fired assistant waiting on the whims of yet another head coach. Click. Another reprieve. Hall of Fame defensive lineman Alan Page, playing out his last years with the Bears, and Fencik write a powerful letter to owner George Halas pleading that Buddy be spared. The entire defense signs it, because somehow Buddy makes them feel vicious but never guilty. Somehow he makes them feel as if they're better than anyone else but not quite good enough yet for him. Somehow he makes them feel threatened, backs to the wall, beer glasses turned upside down. Somehow he makes them feel like pirates, and like children.

Halas rides into the middle of practice on a golf cart one day in December 1981. No matter what happens, he tells the defense, Buddy will remain and run the defense as he wishes. Consider the collision of feeling inside Buddy, the relief of knowing that the old man isn't discarding him, the pain of wondering why the old man is overlooking him and naming Ditka, a man eight honest years younger than Buddy, a man with no head coaching experience, to run the Bears. Faster it whirls, faster and faster, the contredanse of Buddy's softness and hardness, his vulnerability and strength.