SI Vault
William Nack
August 29, 1994
For Navy kicker Ryan Bucchianeri, last fall was a season of testing on the field and of tragedy off it—a time that helped turn a talented boy into an exemplary young man
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August 29, 1994

A Time Of Trial

For Navy kicker Ryan Bucchianeri, last fall was a season of testing on the field and of tragedy off it—a time that helped turn a talented boy into an exemplary young man

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Ravasio: Ryan! End of discussion!

Ryan was not tugging on Ravasio's leg. He had become, by the end of his senior year, the most accurate kicker in the history of Ringgold High—he kicked 105 of 108 extra points and made 24 of 29 field goals, including a 50-yarder his junior year—and he was among the nation's most ballyhooed kicking prospects. He was all-state, All-America and auld lang syne, a charming throwback to some Jurassic age of scholar-athletes. He didn't drink, smoke or swear. His grade point average hovered near 4. He was a member of the National Honor Society, the Science-Math Honor Society and the Tri-M National Music Honor Society. He was the president of his junior and senior classes.

He organized, often grandly, everything he touched. During the basketball season of his senior year, he orchestrated a 55-minute pep rally that had everything but commercial breaks and dancing bears. There were revolving spotlights and Rocky music, cheerleaders and the school band, coaches giving speeches to the low roll of drums, and all the while, carrying a clipboard and wearing a pencil behind his ear, there was Ryan, signaling the cues. "He was like an assistant principal for me," says Gary Hamilton, the Ringgold principal. "He reminded me of a grownup coming through high school." Indeed, Ryan was so intense that Hamilton often found himself worrying about the boy.

"Would you stop and smell the roses?" Hamilton would tell him. "Ryan, are you having fun?"

He had his times. In fact, what he will be most remembered for at Ringgold is not his kicking but the solo performance he gave onstage his senior year. Bucchianeri is, by all accounts, a superb dancer, and after considerable badgering he agreed to give his French class what he now calls his Michael Jackson Concert-on-a-Whim. He stayed up most of one night watching Jackson tapes, rehearsing and taping his songs. Dressed in Jackson regalia—a white glove, a flowing wig and five costume changes—he performed for what turned out to be hundreds of students in two packed assemblies. (To Bucchianeri's surprise, half the school turned up for the performance before his French class, and then the other half demanded an encore.) Lit by a single spotlight, his clothes blown by a huge fan set below the stage, he lip-synched Billie Jean and Thriller, did spins and toe raises and moon-walked up and down the floor as the crowds chanted, "Michael! Michael!"

"Everyone just howled," Hamilton says.

Bucchianeri looks back upon that day as something of an anomaly. "I'm not a spontaneous person," he says. "I spend most of my time alone. I went home after school that day, and I walked in the woods, down by the creek by the waterfall, to listen to the water and the birds, to get back in balance. This whole thing about intensity: It's natural for me. I balance my bursts of energy with long periods of relaxation and silence."

He learned to play the piano when he was a young boy, and by age 12 he was playing classical music. On many Saturday nights, when his parents and his younger brother, Rodger, were away, Ryan turned off all the lights in the house and sat alone for hours at the piano in the living room, improvising in the dark, now making the keys sound like wind chimes, now making them sound like rain. "I play piano the best in the dark," he says. "It pulls out the sensations. We rely too much on sight. You cut the lights and you play in the dark, and there is no interference. And everything comes from the heart."

When Bucchianeri arrived at the Naval Academy on June 30, 1993, he might have been mistaken for the protagonist of some lost Frank Capra movie: Mr. Bucchianeri Goes to Annapolis. Practically the first thing he did when he arrived at the Yard was to ask his dad to pull over next to the football practice fields. Ryan dug into the trunk and pulled out his right kicking shoe, whose cleats were caked with mud from the Ringgold High field. He said, "I want to put part of Monongahela around here. I want a little bit of something from where I grew up down here with me." So he walked onto the practice field while picking the dirt off the cleats, scattering it about like magic seed.

He had never wanted anything more than to be where he was that day. The summer after seventh grade, enraptured by the U.S. space program, Ryan talked his parents into sending him, at a cost of $525, to a five-day program at the U.S. Space Academy in Huntsville, Ala. After being named Outstanding Trainee in a class of 120, Ryan returned to Monongahela determined to do a real moon walk one day. He saw in the Naval Academy his path toward being an astronaut. "I know it's a long shot, but this is the place to be to get there," he says. "But I would be happy on a submarine, too. I just want to be an officer and serve my country." Scores of colleges made passes at him—Pittsburgh and Penn State courted him at home—but none had a silent prayer. "The Navy didn't recruit him," says Rosemary. "He recruited them."

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