By John Goralski
Irv Black’s voice crackled through the speakers at Hartford Public in 1980 as the legendary track official called the play-by-play for the 1500m race at the Colonial Conference Championship. His voice melted into a rhythm with the frontrunner’s steps which included newcomer Mike Ryan.
With each step, Ryan matched Black’s voice. It rose in pitch as Ryan picked up his speed for the finish. It rose in crescendo as Ryan crossed the finish line and rose to a cry as Ryan continued to increase his pace.
“Stop!” croaked Black, but Ryan kept racing toward former Blue Knight track coach Wayne Nakoneczny at the other end of the track. Ryan never slowed.
“I figured that I might as well go for the school record in the mile, so Coach Nak stood at the finish line and timed me,” he said with a laugh. “Everyone finished the race, but I just kept going. Irv Black had one of those voices that you could hear a mile away. He was yelling at me to stop, but I kept going and met coach at the far turn.”
“And he had plenty left at the end,” the coach said in a quote in The Southington Observer. “We just might keep him in that event.”
In just his second performance in the long distance race, but Ryan finished second in the conference standings with a time that broke the school’s record, but his time in the mile was a new standard as well even if it was unofficial. Coach Nak had finally found his distance runner, and Southington fans were introduced to Ryan’s penchant for charting his own course on the track and in his life. It was the start of a journey that carried him to the NFL sidelines.
“I love challenges. It’s one of the reasons that I still run now,” said Ryan, the head trainer for the Jacksonville Jaguars. “I like to challenge myself and see what I’m made of. That’s one of the nice things about sports. You can say all you want, but when it comes to competing against others, you really find out where you stand. I really like that challenge.”
Ryan was always a competitor, growing up as a three-sport athlete in a small town in Massachusetts, but it was the move to Southington in his junior year that really excited the youngster. It wasn’t the chance to compete in one of the biggest programs in Connecticut. It was the opportunities off the field that excited him.
“I knew by the time I was in eighth grade that I wanted to be a trainer in the NFL, so I was just so excited to get down here because I knew what a strong athletic program they had and all the athletic opportunities that they had at the high school and in the town,” he said. “It was like going to Disney World to me.”
Ryan soon discarded his football career when he failed to make Southington’s starting lineup in the fall. He didn’t dare to throw his hat into a baseball program that made his former high school team look like a farm league. Instead, he began to follow around Southington’s trainer, Bob Mastrianni, peppering him with questions about physical training.
The only reason he went out for track was because of an encounter with future Blue Knight coach Bill Thomson in the high school cafeteria.
“He came and sat down on the table in the lunch room and said, ‘So you’re an 800m guy?’ I was thinking who is this guy that’s coming up to me in the lunchroom?” he said. “I didn’t realize that there was such a strong fraternity of runners in the school, but they all ended up becoming great friends and great runners.”
It was in track that Ryan finally learned the discipline that would carry him to the NFL. He wanted to be a decathlete, but coaches forced him to choose one discipline and train in it. Ryan wanted to be a sprinter, but Coach Nak pushed him into the distance races. He wanted to try the different events, but coaches kept him focused on one thing. At first, Ryan fought it.
“I was a sprinter, a pole vaulter, and a javelin thrower, but my coach told me that my best event was going to be the mile,” he said. “I sort of laughed at him. I didn’t want to run a mile in a week, let alone be a miler. But he was very steady about it. I guess he saw something in me.”
Coach Nak seems almost prophetic. “He had the quality of speed plus endurance, and that’s where you get your half-mile and mile runners,” said the former Southington coach. “He was one of the most diligent workers that we’ve ever had. He was always there. He was always doing the workouts. He always gave 100 percent.”
Eventually Ryan came around. By the end of his junior season, he had already qualified for states in the 800m, and that’s when his coach surprised him with the chance to try something else. Ryan ran the 1500m for the first time in the season finale and qualified for states. He went on to break the 1500m record at the conference meet, again at the Class LL meet, and a third time at the state open.
“I had the school record in the mile, and it was only the second time that I ran the race. It was pretty funny,” he said. “I finished 4th at the state championship and finished 6th at the state open.
I was an all-state 1500m guy, and I think I only ran it a total of three or four times.”
Ryan was hooked, and college scouts began to take notice. As a senior, Ryan placed third at the Class LL meet but fell apart at the state open when he overheated during a long delay at the start of his race. That devastating loss began his unlikely journey through the ranks to the NFL.
“I know that, if I finished in the top 3, it would have changed everything,” he said. “Would that have diverted me from my dream of being an athletic trainer in the NFL? I don’t know. The fact that it was less than ideal, it was probably my best bad race that I’ve ever had. I wish I could go back and do that race over again, but I think that everything happens for a reason.”
The bigger programs stopped showing interest, and Ryan turned his attention to Central CT State University when Mastrianni introduced him to CCSU trainer Karl Klein. Klein had worked at the Olympics. He had contacts that reached into the NFL, and Ryan threw himself into his studies.
“Bob Mastrianni took an interest in me, and he took me to some workshops that really opened my eyes to what was available,” said Ryan. “I had a lot of guys tell me that, if I went to a smaller school, there was no way that I was going to get to the NFL. There were only 28 NFL teams, but I’ve never been one to listen to people and their negative views. Someone said that it doesn’t matter where you are and what you do. If you’re good at it, people will find you. I decided right there that I was going to go to Central to learn from Karl Klein.”
Ryan continued to run track, but he added cross country so that he could train with the best runners. A fractured ankle slowed him for a while with a surgery that required three pins and reattached tendons. Ryan took up swimming to stay in shape, and that led him on a path that culminated in six Ironman Triathlons in Hawaii (1994), New Zealand (1996), Canary Island (1998), Brazil (2000), Idaho (2004) and Austria (2009).
It drove him to compete in multiple triathlons throughout the world. He ran with the bulls in Pamplona, Spain. He raced up the stairs at the Empire State Building. He ran the Boston Marathon and three Escape From Alcatraz triathlons in San Francisco.
“I love extreme sports and any kind of different competitions,” he said. “I’m always looking for different kinds of challenges. I love running, but if that’s all I did I’d be very bored. So I add different events and competitions. It gives you a good reason to do a good vacation.”
Ryan showed the same commitment in his career choice. In the mid-1980s, he joined the NY Giants as a pre-season trainer and physical therapist. That earned him a promotion to assistant trainer for six years with the Giants. When the league expanded to 32 teams in 1994, Ryan was offered the head trainer position for the Jacksonville Jaguars. He continues to be the only one to hold that job for the NFL team.
“Mike Ryan is one of the longest-tenured members of the Jaguars family and that is a testament to his professionalism and his integrity,” said Dan Edwards, a spokesman for the Jaguars. “Mike has earned the respect and trust of countless peers and athletes throughout his career, and he has always kept ahead of changing technology and treatments…As the only head trainer/physical therapist the Jaguars have had, he has had the opportunity to teach and train many others in the profession and has seen many go on to productive careers of their own. Mike Ryan is an example of what a pro is and a great representative of the Jacksonville Jaguars.”
Ryan was an easy choice for officials of the Southington Sports Hall of Fame. For almost four decades he has competed at the highest levels as an athlete, and he had helped hundreds more compete at their best. On Thursday, Nov. 14, Ryan will be honored in an induction ceremony at the Aqua Turf in Plantsville.
“The hall of fame is about honoring the town of Southington from an athletic standpoint,” said Mastrianni. “From both standpoints, he does that. Mike was an outstanding distance runner. He’s been a very successful trainer. He’s represented our town very well, and he’s an outstanding human being. He hasn’t forgotten where he’s come from, and there aren’t a lot of people that have attained what he’s attained that have that sort of memory.”
Ryan said he’ll never forget the influence that Southington sports and Southington coaches have made in his life.
“I’m absolutely thrilled about this. I have so much respect for the town of Southington and that school,” he said. “There isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t reflect upon the benefits of high school sports and what I’ve gained from Southington by learning how to win, how to lose, leadership, and hard work. Those are the things you gain from sports.”
To reserve tickets, contact Jim Verderame at (860) 628-7335. To comment on this story or to contact sports writer John Goralski, email him at jgoralski@ southingtonobserver.com.