After Joe Namath signed his $400,000 contract with the show-biz New York Jets, Ryan was quoted as saying: "I guess I'll have to ask for a raise of about $980,000. If a fellow who hasn't even pulled on his cleats in pro ball is worth $400,000, then I must be worth a million dollars." The remark made an interesting second lead on sports pages all over the country, and the net result was that Ryan looked like a blowhard, which is exactly what he is not. What had happened, according to the anguished Ryan, was as follows:
"This sportswriter slipped up on me and Sonny Jurgensen and two or three other players unbeknownst to us, and first of all Jurgensen said something about, 'If Namath is worth $400,000 I guess you're gonna ask for a $300,000 raise,' implying that I made $100,000.
"So I said, 'No, but if Namath is worth $400,000 then I'm worth a million and Unitas is worth $10 million,' which puts a slightly different light on the quote. Then Jurgensen said, 'That means you're gonna ask for a $900,000 raise,' still implying that I'm making $100,000. I said, 'No, I'm gonna ask for a $999,000 raise,' implying that I was getting $1,000. So now it comes out in the papers, and it's got me asking for a $980,000 raise, implying I'm making $20,000, which puts it in a more legitimate area and makes it a more serious quote. The headlines in the Los Angeles papers were RYAN SAYS HE'S WORTH A MILLION.
"So I got on the phone and called the writer up, and I said, 'How could you write such a story?' And I got him to admit that what he did was to make a few notations on his pad and then go home and reconstruct this stuff from his memory, and then he'd put quotes around it. I told him I was thinking about suing him because he had embarrassed me so. He was nice about it, so I didn't. But this sort of thing irritates me. I think sportswriters should have a little more obligation to the people they're writing about and to the public. Sportswriting has become a very easy living; you just sit down and write anything you want. They've got to turn in copy every day, so they are inclined to do it the easiest way. I've got a very low regard for sportswriters."
Says Joan Ryan: "Frank's always mad at anybody that writes about him. He's very particular about being quoted correctly, because he goes to a lot of trouble to sit down and explain things to people." Once Ryan was asked by a reporter if the wind had been a factor in a certain football game. Ryan launched into an explanation based on Bernoulli's Principle, which has to do with the effects of winds on surfaces. The finished newspaper account of Ryan's patient explanation read, in full, as follows:
"How about the game?" someone asked.
"As you know from aerodynamics...it makes Bernoulli's Principle...," Ryan said, and laughed. The answer was one of Ryan's many pranks.
This version of the incident was nettling to Ryan, partially because he had taken pains to explain what had happened and partially because he felt he had come off in the quotes as a wise guy, something he tries not to be. Ryan is only now beginning to realize that he has a special communication problem, and not merely with the press. He is a learned man, but he is learned in a discipline that has its own jargon and nomenclature. A person trying to explain geometric function theory in terms of homeomorphisms and Riemann surfaces and Cantor subsets is going to sound a whole lot more arcane than an equally intelligent person explaining how they come of age in Samoa. "It's the old problem of trying to communicate with somebody," he says ruefully. "You can have the purest thought and you can't get your idea directly across to somebody else because you've got to use words. I've reached the point where, if I can't make my point precisely, exactly how I felt and with no way to misunderstand, then I won't try to explain a point at all." Certain individuals in the Browns' front office wish Ryan would leave it exactly at that: "They've told me not to talk to the press at all, and sometimes I think they're right." Says Joan Ryan: "I know why Frank feels the way he does and I feel the same way, except that I have more fear of the press than he does and I'm the wife and I feel more sensitive to what they write about him, and I feel that he should keep on the good side of them so they don't malign him in print. I've read many untrue and critical things about Frank. I feel that he should be polite and courteous with reporters, and he feels that he should not even acknowledge them."
One sportswriter who has written often about Ryan says: "Frank talks a little too quickly, to show what a carefree, devil-may-care guy he is, because he's always fighting that genius image. But he doesn't stop to realize what it's gonna look like in print. He doesn't realize yet that he's a star, and anything he says is gonna be printed, and he doesn't stop to think how it'll look. The quote in the newspaper doesn't show the wink in his eye or the smile on his face or the gentle nudge in the ribs to show that he's just kidding. Reporters don't always print these subtleties and that's what Frank's gonna have to learn. They're not gonna change all the techniques of journalism just to please Frank Ryan."
Whoever is in the right, Ryan does seem to wind up in the eye of the hurricane more often than your everyday, garden variety doctor of philosophy in mathematics. One reason is that he is a needler, and a skilled one, and another is that he is a practical joker. Once he went to his backfield coach the night before a game and swore with a straight face that he had forgotten every play in the book ("My mind's a complete blank"), while the head coach and others stood outside the door and suppressed their laughter at the shocked response ("C'mon now, Frank, you can do it! Think, Frank! Think!"). It was suspected that Ryan was the brains behind a series of late-night phone calls to members of the Browns by a man who posed as a reporter asking questions right out of Confidential. One summer at the Browns' training camp news photographers were invited to take all the pictures they wanted and, later, when the film was developed, picture editors discovered that No. 13, Frank Ryan, had been passing left-handed to hoax the photographers. "They could have reversed the prints and made you out to be No. 31," someone suggested later.