Opportunity Knocks; Mike Ryan blazed his own path to the NFL sidelines

By John Goralski

Sports Writer

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.

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