SI Vault
Jack Olsen
September 27, 1965
Frank Ryan, Cleveland's champion quarterback, is a brain in math, but when he tried to mastermind football he tripped over his intellect. Then he stopped thinking and started winning
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September 27, 1965

Dr. Ryan Of The Browns: How Smart Is Too Smart?

Frank Ryan, Cleveland's champion quarterback, is a brain in math, but when he tried to mastermind football he tripped over his intellect. Then he stopped thinking and started winning

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Frank Ryan of the Cleveland Browns goes through life wearing the Charlie Chan smile of somebody who knows something. He does. He knows how to frisk the opposition secondary on a long, down-and-out pass pattern. He knows how to run with the ball and fake the other guys out of their undergarments. He knows about geometric function theory and linear transformations, complex variables and Cauchy sequences. He knows the probabilities against hitting the case card for an inside straight (though he seldom lets the knowledge inhibit his razzle-dazzle poker style) and how to infiltrate the King's Indian defense in chess and why one kind of airfoil will create efficient lift and another will create morbid statistics.

He also knows about failure. Frank Ryan (see cover) spent eight years earning a Ph. D. in mathematics at Rice Institute (he blew one year trying to solve an unsolvable problem) and 15 years earning a Ph. D. in frustration on the football field. Now he stands astride the world of sport as quarterback of the NFL championship team, an eminence to which every little kid aspires, and the lesson of his life seems clear: if at first you don't succeed, fail, fail again.

Even as a child in Fort Worth, Frank Beall Ryan didn't make it. "I was never very fast or well coordinated," he recalls. "I never played any sport well. I couldn't hit in baseball. I couldn't dribble in basketball or play tennis or golf. I'm not a natural athlete. I pick up a dart and people start running." As a 5-and 6-year-old he spent a lot of his time drawing side-view cutaway sketches of rockets and figuring out how fast a space missile would have to go to break out of the earth's gravitational pull. Somehow he bumbled into football, but he didn't become a bona fide first-stringer till his senior year of high school. At Rice he played about 20% of the time, and a burly Texan named King Hill quarterbacked the rest. On the Los Angeles Rams, Ryan was started and yanked and started and yanked with such consistent inconsistency that he finally announced for everybody to hear that he was going to quit the game if he wasn't traded. He went to the Cleveland Browns, and only in the last few years has he managed to break the pattern of failure that had been thrust upon him. "I'm still sort of amazed that I didn't quit," he says now, looking back on the arid years. An ordinary man would have.

At 29 Frank Ryan is a tall (6 feet 3), perfectly proportioned (205 pounds) specimen of a stage Texan. His eyes are blue and seem to contain somewhere behind the cornea a secret joke on the whole world. He has an Ipana smile and a soft chuckle and, when you get to know him, an infectious little-boy manner. His thick hair is receding at two points, giving a slightly satanic twist to his otherwise pleasant features, and it is as gray as it is black, the result, he says, of too many third-and-10 situations. When he is not blurting signals like a Parris Island drill sergeant, he speaks just above audibility in a sort of refined Texas accent. He says "minny tams" for "many times" and his first-person pronoun is still "ah"; to him, this is the month of "Siptimber" and he was born in "Joo-lah" 1936. On the other hand, he does not refer to Mexicans as "Messicans" or shrimp as "s'rimp," so it is not instantaneously obvious that he is a big old Texas. He prefers to speak in the abstract, as befits a theoretical mathematician whose Ph. D. dissertation bears, by his own admission, not the slightest application to practicality (title: A Characterization of the Set of Asymptotic Values of a Function Holomorphic in the Unit Disc). He likes to avoid clich�s and has declared war on one particular bromide that bedevils him whenever he picks up a newspaper and reads about himself. "I relish a little bit of individuality," he says, "but sportswriters make such a big unnecessary to-do about the combination of mathematics and football, the so-called associated intellect. The combination is a little bit unusual, but people tend to exaggerate the unusual in it. Then they say that I'm a genius and all this sort of stuff; it's easy to say. Sportswriters have groped every time they've been confronted with me for something out of the ordinary that I'm not sure exists."

To hear Ryan tell it, the connection between his mathematical bent and his quarterbacking knack is all but nonexistent. "It's absolutely false to pursue any sort of notion that football and mathematics are related. The thing is, the world outside has no conception of what higher mathematics is about. The heart and soul of modern mathematics is very abstract symbolism. People think mathematicians are concerned with numbers, and they're not at all. Advanced mathematics is unrelated in a casual way to anything else, including football."

But if Ryan expects sportswriters to take him at his word and stop bugging him with questions about the relationship between his mathematics and his football, he doesn't know his sportswriters, including this one. The images are too delicious to resist: Dr. Frank Ryan, star quarterback and acknowledged genius in geometric function theory, strides out on the field, his head crammed with equations, and by astute vector analysis and the law of inverse squares he calculates that he can beat Dick Lynch of the New York Giants on a flag pattern. Poor Lynch stumbles over Newton's first law of motion, just as the wise Dr. Ryan had known he would, and Cleveland Flanker Gary Collins, utilizing the coefficients of friction of his hands and the leather ellipsoid, grabs the pass and stumbles across the goal line to score the square root of 36, the cube root of 216, the logarithm of....

Lately Ryan has taken to fending off questions on his mathematics, not rudely but forcefully. "Don't try to read my dissertation," he told me. "You won't understand a word of it." He was wrong. I understood the dedication: "TO MY WIFE JOAN." When Ryan tells his biographers to lay off trying to understand the math, he is only trying to be kind. Once Mickey Herskowitz of The Houston Post asked Ryan to sum up his doctoral paper. Ryan scribbled a note:

"It concerns a set of complex numbers which arises as limit values of a certain type holomorphic of function defined in the unit disc when the independent variable is restricted to an arc which tends to the boundary."

Herskowitz said, "Thanks a lot, that certainly is simple enough," and walked off blinking his eyes. To spare writers such traumas, Ryan now tries to duck the subject. And there are other reasons for ducking. One is that the constant emphasis on his cloud-nine mathematics and his Ph. D. and his IQ tends to characterize him as a freak, something he definitely is not. A quarterback has to have a rapport with his fellow players both off and on the field, and Ryan seems to make a constant effort to be just another one of the boys who graduated with a C minus in phys ed or mort sci. "He does a lot of horsing around and jollying around," says a Cleveland sportswriter, "and this is for the benefit of the other players, to offset the genius tag he's had put on him. He wants to be considered a regular fellow. He tries to go out with the guys and be one of them; he does a little drinking with them, but I don't think he's too crazy about it. And it's all complicated by the second-string quarterback, Jim Ninowski. Nino's a naturally outgoing guy; I think Frank likes people just as much as Nino, but Nino shows it easier. Frank's a little introverted and shy, and it takes a while to get to know him."

Ryan's public image as an egghead disturbs him partially because he doesn't think of himself as overly bright and partially because he is getting publicity that he thinks should be going to the genuine geniuses in the mathematics department at Rice, a tough school that is to the Southwest as MIT is to the East and Cal Tech to the West. Says his wife Joan, a pretty blonde who is the mother of three boys by trade and a newspaper columnist by avocation: "Frank is in daily contact at Rice with men who are authentic geniuses, men who finished college in two years and wrote textbooks for his classes, men of his own age. It embarrasses Frank that he gets publicity about his scholastic accomplishments when these people don't."

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