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Rice legend Frank Ryan remembered for athleticism, intelligence, perseverance

Frank Ryan teaching after his football career (top left), with his wife (top right), with his son (bottom left), and playing in the NFL as a quarterback for the Cleveland Browns (bottom right). Courtesy Jack Ryan Jr.

By Andersen Pickard     1/9/24 10:54pm

Frank Ryan, a former Rice football star, NFL champion and highly-regarded professor, passed away Jan. 1 at the age of 87. In addition to his wife and four sons, Ryan is survived by 11 grandchildren and one great-grandchild, according to The New York Times.

In a statement, Ryan’s family identified Alzheimer’s disease as his cause of death. Chronic traumatic encephalopathy likely contributed to the disease’s progression, they added. Ryan’s brain will be donated to the Boston University CTE Center “so that future football players and their families, as well as society in general, can better understand the effects of repetitive brain trauma on the human nervous system,” his family said.

The link between Ryan’s Alzheimer’s and a potential diagnosis of CTE, which often presents in football players who endured head trauma, did not surprise classmate Jack Pietri ’59. He remembers the quarterback’s physical playing style. 

“He was a hard running [player],” Pietri said.

Before he decided to attend Rice, Ryan’s parents envisioned him at Yale University. However, born and raised in Fort Worth, he believed joining the Owls in the Southwestern Conference offered him the best chance to become a football standout while receiving a high-quality education.

“He loved the academic mission,” Ryan’s son, Frank Ryan Jr., told the Thresher. “At the time, Rice was very competitive in football, so he really enjoyed that.”

Splitting quarterback reps with eventual No. 1 overall pick King Hill, Ryan helped lead Rice to a conference title in 1957 and was ultimately drafted by the Los Angeles Rams. He spent four seasons with the Rams before being traded to the Cleveland Browns. He played 84 games with the Browns from 1962 to 1968, posting an 0.684 winning percentage. Ryan led the NFL in passing touchdowns twice, earned three Pro Bowl selections, propelled the Browns to their most recent NFL title in 1964 and finished sixth in MVP voting in 1965. 

Ryan achieved stardom in the NFL while simultaneously remaining a diligent student. He completed his doctorate in mathematics at Rice in 1965, according to Rice Athletics. The football star’s unwavering dedication to academic and intellectual excellence is nearly unparalleled, Terry Pluto, author of “Browns Town 1964,” said. 

“You hear the phrase ‘student-athlete,’” Pluto told the Thresher. “This is one of those special occasions where it actually applies.”

Ryan became an assistant professor at Case Institute of Technology, now Case Western Reserve University, while still playing for the Browns. He enjoyed the position, but football injuries forced him to adapt in the classroom. One day, Ryan’s son accompanied his father to a lecture and was shocked to learn that he had developed a new skill just to preserve a quality learning environment for his students.

“He had just gotten surgery on his right elbow, so that meant he couldn’t use his right arm,” Frank Jr. said. “I can just remember my dad giving his lecture in chalk on the chalkboard, writing all the math equations with his left hand. He very quickly taught himself how to write left-handed.”

The suddenly ambidextrous Ryan signed with the Washington Redskins, now the Commanders, as a backup near the end of his career. He used his computer programming knowledge to compile advanced statistics for his new team.

Ryan retired from the NFL in 1970 — after 13 professional seasons — but his story was just beginning. After his football career ended, he spent seven years as the Director of House Information Systems for the United States House of Representatives. One of his biggest achievements was helping to develop the first computerized voting system, which enhanced the efficiency of Congress’ internal voting process.

Ryan joined Yale University in 1978, serving as their athletic director while teaching mathematics. Twelve years later, he accepted a position as Rice’s vice president of external affairs that also allowed him to teach computational and applied mathematics.

Frank Jr. witnessed his father succeed in a wide variety of roles, from quarterback to administrator to professor, taking inspiration from his versatility and talent. 

“I was very proud of him,” Frank Jr. said. “Excellence can be described in many different ways, both in terms of academia but also in terms of football and other pursuits. I think we were all very aware of his ability and it gave us an understanding that we, too, could do just about anything.”

Throughout the chapters of his career, Frank received support from his wife, Joan, a sportswriter for The Washington Post. The two met at Rice and married during senior year. They had four children together and celebrated their 65th anniversary in 2023. 

“The story is that dad saw my mom from many yards away and what caught his eye was her high, blonde ponytail swishing around going through the arcade at Rice,” Frank Jr. said. “They had a wonderful love affair during college. She was very attractive and a lot of men were wooing her. My dad prevailed. They had a very long marriage and it stood the test of time.”

The couple retired to Vermont, where they enjoyed a more secluded lifestyle for several decades.

“They created a house that was the home base for the family,” Frank Jr. said. “They spent 30 years there and it was their place, it was their time, and they enjoyed their company with each other. They enjoyed the quietness of Vermont, they enjoyed the environment.”

Ryan leaves behind an enormous legacy in a variety of occupations. However, his son makes it clear that nothing came easy for the world champion. 

“Nothing that my father achieved came to him on a silver platter,” Frank Jr. said. “Nothing he achieved was easy. It all required hard, hard work and persistence over time.“I think that he represented the actual living, breathing specimen of what it meant to be truly an athlete of superb caliber, as well as an academic of high achievement. That’s a beautiful thing for Rice to be proud of as the product that my father was.”

Frank Ryan, a former Rice football star, NFL champion and highly-regarded professor, passed away on Jan. 1 at the age of 87. Courtesy Woodson Research Center

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