January 4, 1965
In 1965, Mickey Herskowitz of the Houston Post asked Frank Ryan if Ryan could provide a layman's description of his doctoral thesis in mathematics, a 17-page monograph whose title, A Characterization of the Set of Asymptotic Values of a Function Holomorphic in the Unit Disc, was indecipherable to Herskowitz. Never one to shy from imparting his thoughts on geometric function theory, Ryan jotted down an explanation intended to shed light on the subject.
"It concerns a set of complex numbers," Ryan wrote, "which arises as limit values of a certain type of holomorphic function defined in the unit disc when the independent variable is restricted to an arc which tends to the boundary." Herskowitz stared hard at the note. "Thanks a lot," he said before walking away meekly. "That certainly is simple enough."
Such was often the case with Ryan, a man described in 1965 by SI as being "caught between the complexities of his own thinking and the intellectual insufficiencies of his listeners." He entered the NFL in '58 with a bachelor's degree in physics from Rice and during his 13 seasons with the Los Angeles Rams, Cleveland Browns and Washington Redskins earned his master's and Ph.D. from that school. "Football was tough for me," says Ryan, 63. "There is so much extemporaneous development to it. Figuring out how to react extemporaneously is the key to success."
During his first four NFL seasons Ryan looked as flummoxed as a poet at a physics seminar. His fortunes changed when the Rams dealt him to the Browns in 1962. Two years later he threw three touchdown passes in a 27-0 upset of the Baltimore Colts in the league championship game. Six months after that Ryan received his doctorate. "I didn't turn mathematics off during the season, but I tuned it down," says Ryan. "I remember [ Browns coach] Paul Brown saying once, ' Ryan, you sure better sharpen your pencil in football.' "
After retiring in 1970, Ryan spent six years as the director of information systems for the House of Representatives. He then served as Yale's athletic director for a decade before returning to Rice to work in academic administration and to lecture in mathematics. Today, he and his wife, Joan, reside on 78 acres of heavily forested land in Grafton. Vt. Although he says he's "semiretired," Ryan still explores one of his favorite conundrums: the mysterious distribution of prime numbers. "It's an activity thousands of mathematicians are engaged in," he says. "All I need is to look into my mind to do the research."