Four years ago, senior-to-be Tom Ryan was entering his final year at Father Judge High School armed with some pretty impressive credentials. The multisport star was a returning All-Catholic performer in both football and basketball, and college scouts were taking notice.
The number of recruitment letters was increasing as preseason football camp approached. Despite his prowess on the basketball court, Ryan felt that football was his surest ticket to a full athletic scholarship.
Standing a stout 6 feet 3 inches tall, Ryan was proving to be a difficult matchup for any cornerback on the gridiron. The sure-handed, speedy receiver already had established himself while still an underclassman in the competitive Catholic League.
In fact, his jack-of-all-trades ability forced opposing coaches to account for him every snap. Ryan could beat you in all three aspects of the game: offensively as a receiver, defensively as a safety and on special teams as a return man. As Tom Coyle, Ryan’s coach at Judge, recently pointed out, “Tom was as complete and tough a football player as I have seen on the high school level in my 26 years.” His final offensive output (38 catches for 720 yards and nine touchdowns) paled in comparison to the overall impact that his brand of football had on the rest of the team.
With the help of Ryan’s leadership and exceptional play, Judge finished the 2008 season with a 7-3 record, including a loss in the AAAA Championship Game at the hands of La Salle despite Ryan’s five catches for 72 yards and a touchdown. In his four years at Judge, the football program showed marked signs of improvement, and Ryan’s physical play embodied an attitude change that put the school’s revered football program back on the map.
Ryan’s senior season only enhanced his appeal to the recruiters jockeying for his services. While he garnered interest from the likes of North Carolina State and Maryland at the Division I-A level, it was Division I-AA Towson University in suburban Baltimore that Ryan fell in love with.
“I picked Towson because I liked the campus and the area and I knew the football program was on the rise,” he said in a recent interview on the eve of his senior season. “I wanted to be a part of it.”
To put it mildly, Towson had long been an afterthought amongst the members of its football conference, the Colonial Athletic Association (CAA). Perennial football powers, including Villanova and Delaware, had dominated the league while Towson, languished in the cellar.
When Ryan entered his freshman season, he stepped into a program in transition. Head coach Gordy Combs, who had feverishly recruited Ryan at Judge, was abruptly fired and replaced with Connecticut assistant Rob Ambrose, a former Towson player and receivers coach. Ryan found himself in the unenviable position of being a recruit from the previous coaching regime, and after a brief evaluation, the offensive-minded Ambrose decided to honor Ryan’s scholarship. The decision paid immediate dividends.
Ryan appeared in 10 games as a freshman and made it on the field mostly as a special teams player. He started four of the last five contests and finished the season as the team’s fifth-leading receiver despite limited playing time. The jump in competition was immediately evident.
“The difference in the speed of the game is huge!” he said. “Everything is happening at a totally different level. It took me a while to completely adjust.”
He credited the level of play and caliber of talent in high school as key elements in making him a more resilient player. “You develop a certain toughness from playing in the Catholic League,” he said.
Despite Ryan’s respectable debut, his Tigers ended the season still anchored to the CAA basement. Undeterred by the standings, Ryan headed into his first full off-season with Ambrose committed to turning around the program.
Ryan’s sophomore campaign saw both his receptions and total yards from scrimmage increased as he became a reliable offensive weapon. Towson again finished low in the standings, but the tide was beginning to turn.
Ambrose’s third season at the helm coincided with Ryan’s third year in the program, and Towson took the league by storm, going 7-1 in CAA play to claim their first ever league title and a trip to the playoffs. Ryan was the team’s leading receiver with 39 catches for 560 yards and 3 scores. Dubbed the ‘Turnaround Tigers,’ Towson was the most improved team in Division I football. With an overall 9-3 mark, Ryan was a major piece to the rebuilding puzzle.
As Ryan, an economics major, prepares to enter his final season, the Morrell Park native has lofty goals in mind.
“I want to repeat as CAA champions and win the National Championship,” he said.
His coach concurred.
“Our expectations are higher and we’ve got to keep working the way we did to get to this level,” Ambrose said. “Tom is one of our most experienced receivers and we are expecting him to continue coming up with big plays. He is one of the leaders on this team.”
With the season just a little more than a month away, Ryan is continuing his workouts on campus with his teammates. He occasionally makes it home on the weekend to relax and catch up with his family, including his parents, Mark and Maria. Ryan’s father and brother, also named Mark, coach at the high school and collegiate level. His father helps out with the squad at Judge while the younger Mark is an assistant at Susquehanna University after recently completing his playing days at Lycoming College. Ryan’s sister, Christina, coaches a Northeast Philadelphia women’s rugby team.
The 2012 CAA season is difficult to forecast. It’s a competitive league looking to unseat Towson, but the Tigers are hungry for more. Last season they were able to reach the pinnacle within their conference and hope to stay on top.
An interesting caveat in the non-conference schedule will occur in primetime on Sept. 29, as Towson will travel to Louisiana State University, a national championship contender from the powerful Southeastern Conference.
“I hope they’re still ranked No. 1 by the time we play them,” Ryan said. “How many people can say they played the number one team [in all of college football]?”
Ryan knows he will be tested by one of the most prolific defensive backfields in the country as LSU cornerback Tyrann Mathieu and safety Eric Reid are both future NFL players. After reflecting on the opportunity to play against the best, Ryan commented, “You really get to find out what kind of player you are.”
Just as he did at Father Judge, Ryan hopes his final season at Towson puts the Tigers back on the map to stay. ••EndFragment