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 you...," 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.