Saturday, 24 January 2015

Seahawks’ Ryan still one of the boys from the Rams

Jon Ryan boots a punt for the U of Regina Rams in 2002.
   Jon Ryan, the popular and star punter for the Seattle Seahawks.
   I still can't wrap my head around that phrase.
   The 33-year-old Regina product is has one more game to play in his seventh complete season with the Seahawks, but even with his tenure with that NFL club, it still sounds unbelievable. I will always think of Ryan as a talented member of the    University of Regina Rams football team.
During those Rams days, no one ever thought Ryan would earn a Super Bowl ring with the Seahawks last year, throw a touchdown pass in Seattle's NFC Championship victory against the Green Bay Packers last Sunday and will be playing for the Seahawks in the upcoming Super Bowl against the New England Patriots on Feb. 1.
   In Canada, the biggest realistic sports dream is winning the Stanley Cup as a member of an NHL team. In football, the biggest dream is winning the Grey Cup as the champion of the CFL. If you are from Saskatchewan, capturing the Grey Cup with the Roughriders is usually the ultimate dream.
   Winning the Super Bowl with an NFL club wasn't something you dare to dream about as few Canadians have had the opportunity to play in the biggest professional sports league in North America. Super Bowl victories included finishing seasons on the video games Tecmo Super Bowl and Madden Football. Tecmo Super Bowl for the old Nintendo Entertainment System was a favourite video game in Ryan's household, when he was growing up.
Jon Ryan caught a lot of passes as a Rams receiver.
   I first saw Ryan play live in 2000 during Saskatchewan's high school all-star game for graduating players call "The Senior Bowl." He was punting and place kicking for the South Team during a clash with the North Team at a very windy Griffiths Stadium in Saskatoon.

   During that contest won 23-9 by the North Team, I was certain Ryan would become a standout kicker in the Canadian university ranks. If he kept improving, I could foresee him moving on to the CFL, where he did play for the Winnipeg Blue Bombers in 2004 and 2005.
   If he kept and improving and there was a break or two, he might have had a slight chance to crack an NFL roster. As a few Canadian born kickers did move on to have long careers in the NFL, you always had to think that was a possibility, but it was still a remote possibility.
   Ryan joined the Rams in the fall of 2000 for their second season in the Canadian Interuniversity Sport ranks after leaving the Canadian Junior Football League. The big story that year was the return of star quarterback Darryl Leason and his brother and star receiver Michael Leason to the Rams program.
   Both left the University of Calgary Dinos to rejoin the Rams, when the left the junior ranks. Both were stars with the Rams during their junior days.
When Ryan came as an 18-year-old, the big thinking was the kicking game was never going to be in question, while he wore the green and gold. He was slated to be the punter and place kicker. As I was pretty active with the Rams at that time, I was pretty happy the Sheldon-Williams Collegiate grad was there.
Jon Ryan kicks a field goal for the Rams in 2003.
   Very quickly in training camp, it was easy to take notice of Ryan's booming punts. As his first season began, the Rams coaches had other plans for him.

   Growing up, Ryan was a stellar athlete, who also turned heads in hockey and lacrosse. At one time, there was a thought Ryan could become a professional goaltender in hockey.
   In football, he also played receiver, and Rams brain trust decided it would be wise to utilize his abilities on the offensive side of the ball. As his rookie campaign went on, Ryan began taking more reps in practices and in games playing wide receiver.
   This was a very bold move. Before Ryan, the Rams kickers mainly focused on their kicking duties. The team was also very deep at the time at receiver.
   At receiver future CFL star Jason Clermont, Chris Warnecke, Mike Thomas, Michael Leason and Shane Ostapowich all had stellar careers with the Rams. Also catching passes out of the backfield were with current Saskatchewan Roughriders fullback Neal Hughes, another future CFLer in Cory Olynick and Chris Briltz, who all shared in the Rams spotlight. It was common for the football to never hit the ground in a Rams practice.
   Putting Ryan in with that group was really high praise.
   During that freshman season, Ryan helped the Rams advance to their only Vanier Cup appearance, where they dropped a 42-39 decision to the University of Ottawa Gee Gees. In that run to the Vanier Cup final in Toronto, Ryan played a part in one of the most memorable plays during a regular season game against the University of Alberta Golden Bears.
   Trailing 31-28 with under two minutes to play in the fourth quarter, Ryan booted up a high on-side kick. The kick was knocked out of the air by Clermont to Warnecke, who was clear of all possible tacklers and had an open path to the end zone. Warnecke charged the distance for the winning score in a 35-31 victory.
Jon Ryan launches a punt for the Rams in 2000.
   The play was a legal one under Canadian rules and one the Rams worked on in practice.

   Ryan made his most memorable offensive play as a sophomore in 2001 in a regular season game at Griffiths against the University of Saskatchewan Huskies. After a goal-line stand, the Rams were at their own one yard line.
   The Huskies came with a blitz, and Rams quarterback Mark Anderson threw a deep sideline streak pattern to Ryan. Ryan out jumped a defender for the ball, came down with it and raced down the sideline for a 109-yard touchdown reception. Regina fell 34-28, but Ryan's catch was something that would never be forgotten.
   In his final season with the Rams in 2003, Ryan was named the all-star punter for the Canada West football conference averaging 45.9 yards per boot on 67 attempts. He also had 27 catches in eight regular season games to lead the team with 501 receiving yards, while scoring four touchdowns on receptions. Ryan cemented his reputation as a standout receiver.
   During his final campaigns with the Rams, Ryan got to play alongside younger brother and defensive back, Steve, who was the holder on field goal attempts.
Away from the field, the elder Ryan was everyone's best friend. The Rams at the time went everywhere together and did everything together.
   I still have very good memories of cruising to a few social occasions with my old white 1987 Chevrolet Capris former police car packed with Ryan and a bunch of other players. One trip I remember Ryan being pretty pumped that rapper Eminem was being cranked on my old stereo system.
Jon Ryan fires a punt for the Rams in 2003.
   It was also cool from that first year with the Rams to see Ryan develop a really super tight friendship with Jarrod Livingstone, who is a Rams super fan that is confined to a wheelchair because of spina bifida. Livingstone was also the grandson of the late Scotty Livingstone, who was a key influential director in building the Rams in their junior years. The friendship between Ryan and Jarrod Livingstone has grown and is stronger than ever in the current day.

   During his Rams years, Ryan set the team's career record for punting average at the university level with 42.6 yards per kick, which still stands to this day. After his final season, hopes were high Ryan would have a lengthy career in the professional ranks in the CFL.
   In 2004, Ryan was selected in the third round and 24th overall by the Winnipeg Blue Bombers in the CFL Draft. The rookie punter played a key role in the Bombers prevailing 17-4 in what is still their last Labour Day Classic victory over the Saskatchewan Roughriders.
   That contest was a huge defensive battle, and Ryan twice pinned the Roughriders at their own one yard line with two coffin corner kicks. The kicks were so perfect that the football landed both times exactly on the out of bounds spot on the sidelines right beside the one yard-line marker. The officials didn't have any trouble spotting the ball.
Jon Ryan jogs out for starting intros in 2003.
   After witnessing those kicks, you have to believe Ryan would stick in the NFL, if he could get a chance. He signed with the Green Bay Packers in January of 2006. During various Packers camps, the media covering the Packers quickly started asking questions of the Canadian kid who could boom the long punts.
   He spent the 2006 and 2007 campaigns with the Packers. The first season was tough from the fact his father, Bob, passed of cancer. The son played two days after his father's death, and the Packers teammates voted the Canadian punter as the recipient of the Ed Block Courage Award for his display of courage and sportsmanship.
   After being released by the Packers, Ryan quickly caught on with the Seahawks. While career punters and place kicker can be journeymen in the NFL, Ryan's identity has become tied to the fact he is the Seahawks punter.
   While he is making memories doing things in the NFL no Canadian kid would dare dream about, he will still be thought of by a number of people in Regina as a just a good bud from the Rams.

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