Nothing dull about life of Ryan

Michigan's breakout linebacker follows family's footsteps into football

Updated: October 24, 2012, 12:06 PM ET
By Michael Rothstein | WolverineNation

ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- Michigan sophomore Jake Ryan began to discover himself while on the field adjacent to the varsity field at St. Bernadette's in Westlake, Ohio, even if as a fourth-grader he hardly knew it yet.

He lined up at linebacker and focused on the opponent. The ball was snapped. Ryan blew into the backfield, picked up the running back and slammed him to the ground. The crowd stopped, not knowing whether to cheer.

"Just plants him," recounted John Ryan, a cousin. "Everyone kind of stops because it's flag football, and Jake just lights this kid up.

[+] EnlargeJake Ryan
Lon Horwedel/Icon SMIJake Ryan has been terrorizing Big Ten quarterbacks, with all of his 3.5 sacks coming in conference play.
"All the parents kind of stopped and were like, 'Do we yell? What do we do?' "

This has always been the way of Jake Ryan. His family and friends always waited for what came next. With Jake, the unexpected was the norm. When his brothers played wide receiver and fullback, all he wanted to do was hit people.

He loved to hit, a trait he got from his grandfather, Francis Sweeney, who played at Xavier, in the Army, and then with the Ottawa Rough Riders of the Canadian Football League before retiring and eventually becoming an Ohio Supreme Court Justice.

To his coaches at Michigan, Jake Ryan is unorthodox, different, unique and, most importantly, successful. He leads the Wolverines in nearly every defensive statistical category through seven games -- tackles (52), tackles for loss (8.5), sacks (3.5), pass breakups (tied with three) and forced fumbles (two).

To his parents, he is easygoing and a free spirit. To opponents, he is the hard-hitting, steely-eyed, intensely focused linebacker who would just as soon run through someone as tackle him.

"I guarantee you've never met someone like him," said Connor Ryan, Jake's older brother. "Guarantee it. He's out there."

Jake Ryan is ... a daredevil

Susan Ryan looked outside her kitchen window and started screaming. Her son, Jake, was standing on top of the 7-foot wooden fence in the family's backyard. Brothers and cousins watched.

Before Susan could finishing yelling, she saw him jump, do a back flip, and land, successfully, in a snow pile. The whole scene was captured on video, which the family still has somewhere.

"He was the one I guess you could call a test dummy," Connor said.

This became a common description of Jake. If something bizarre happened, often it came from the second of the four Ryan boys.

As a kid, Jake accompanied his mother and Connor on a baseball trip for Connor's little league team to Cooperstown, N.Y. Between games, they went to a movie theater.

Jake noticed that several kids had stuffed animals they had won in an arcade game in the lobby. He put his arm up the drop portal -- the one the toys usually popped out of -- in an attempt to circumvent the system and grab a stuffed animal.

"The guy had to use the butter from the popcorn machine, rub all over his hands, way up there, to get it out," Susan said. "He was stuck up there for a while."

Jake would try anything. He loved doing tricks while snowboarding on a halfpipe or doing flips off a diving board. Skeet shooting became a pastime, going first with high school friends and his father, Tim, and now some Sundays with Michigan offensive tackle Taylor Lewan. Once, Ryan said, he hit 23 of 25 clay pigeons.

Then there was paintball, for which players typically wear full camouflage. The paint pellets sting when they connect with a solid object, so long sleeves make sense. So does extra padding and layers.

Not for Jake.

"There would be pictures with paint all over [his friends]," said his younger brother, Zack Ryan. "Then Jake would be in the picture with his blue Ignatius pinnie with paint and welts all over his body.

"And he'd still be smiling. He didn't feel anything."

Jake Ryan is ... a late bloomer

Jake didn't play much linebacker his junior year at St. Ignatius, the school at which Sweeney, Tim, John and the rest of the Ryan boys all starred before most played in college.

An injury left him replaced by a senior at linebacker, leaving Jake to special-teams work. Not many colleges knew about the latest Ryan, and he received his first scholarship offer, from Toledo, only after doing some drills at a camp.

When he returned for his senior season at Ignatius, he had grown 2 inches and gained 20 pounds. And he still hit hard. By the middle of his senior season, when he compiled his own highlight tape in the living room of the family home, including doing the editing himself, he had blossomed.

"You looked at it and it was like, 'Oh, my goodness,'" John said. "After seeing some of those plays and some of those hits and speed and the way he got after it, that's when I was like, 'Here he comes.'

"When I saw that highlight film, like, 'Criminy, look at that kid.' "

His hard-hitting unorthodox nature caught the eye of a former Ohio Wesleyan football player who lived in the Cleveland are, who called one of his former coaches, Bruce Tall, the defensive line coach at Michigan. He told Tall he needed to stop by Ignatius.

Tall did, and then he went out to his car to call his bosses, former Michigan coach Rich Rodriguez and former Michigan defensive coordinator Greg Robinson.

"I got right back in the car and said, 'Ooh, boy, I've got to show you a guy,' " Tall said.

Soon after, Tall returned to Ignatius with Robinson, and they met with Jake. This was the first big college to show interest in him, and this was in December, after Jake's senior season.

"Jake called me and said, 'Yeah, Michigan was in,' " Tim said. "I was like, 'Western Michigan?' He said, 'Nah.' I said, 'Eastern Michigan?'

"I went through the whole state of Michigan until the University of Michigan."

On Monday, two days after the offer, Jake committed.

"I kind of always told myself, 'Oh, you're a three-star, you're never going to make it,' " Jake said. "But I feel like stars don't matter and it's all in your heart and what you are going to do.

"You would always read all of that crap online. I stopped doing that, but I told myself I would get through it and do something big."

He would be on the verge of that soon.

Jake Ryan is ... a legacy

In seventh grade, Jake started to understand what it meant to be a Ryan. Not yet a St. Ignatius player, he watched Tim's induction to the school's Hall of Fame in 2003 after a standout high school career and a college career at Wake Forest, where he still holds part of a record for the longest touchdown reception in school history, an 85-yard catch in 1982 against Clemson.

Two years earlier, his grandfather was inducted into the same Hall of Fame.

[+] EnlargeJake Ryan
Mike Carter/US PresswireJake Ryan carries with him the legacy of his grandfather, who played in the CFL and told his grandson to 'hit 'em hard every time.'
"It wasn't so much pressure, but I wanted to work as hard as I could to get to where my dad and my brother were, and my grandpa," Jake said. "I felt like I could do it, and if I put my mind to it, I could. Following in their footsteps was always in the back of my head.

"They were always there for me and I'll be there for them. Even now."

Beyond the family Hall of Famers, almost all of Tim's brothers played football in high school and college. Susan's brothers played in high school. Connor played at Ignatius and now Ball State, where he was recruited by Brady Hoke and is now a team captain. John played at Ignatius and then Notre Dame, where he started 22 games for Charlie Weis. Zack is a freshman at Ball State, and the youngest brother, Ian, plays for Ignatius now.

When Ignatius remained in the playoffs on Thanksgiving morning, Ryans upon Ryans upon Ryans would show up at Ignatius practice to watch, with at least one Ryan usually on the field.

Legacies face pressure. One can thrive or be swallowed by it. It is a concept Jake understands well. He grasps his own legacy, which he carries with him every time he steps on the field.

In high school, Sweeney watched almost all of Jake's games. Jake resembles his grandfather, down to the same square jaw and intense eyes. Sweeney would consistently ask his grandson about football and dispense advice, saying, "Hit 'em hard every time."

These are messages Jake uses now, even though the man himself is no longer here. Sweeney died April 10, 2011, the week before Jake's first spring game at Michigan following his redshirt season, so he never saw his grandson play a game at Michigan, where legacy seeps through every part of the institution.

It was fitting then, when earlier this season Jake was bestowed the legends patch jersey of Bennie Oosterbaan, changing his number from 90 to 47. Legacy is part of his life. He added Oosterbaan to the list of people he already plays for -- Sweeney. Tim. John. Connor. All of his other uncles and relatives who played before him.

The same day, after he made 11 tackles and began to establish himself as the star on Michigan's defense, a friend's uncle approached him in the parking lot. He had played against Sweeney and began to tell Jake a story about his grandfather.

"He said, 'Francis Sweeney was the hardest hitter I've ever gone against,' " Jake said. "He doesn't even remember one of the plays he hit him on, he hit him so hard.

"It was funny hearing that and now I'm trying to be like him, do what he did."

He's well on his way, and perhaps beyond. Despite the hall of fame honors, the accolades, the hard-hitting history, none of his family has played in the NFL. But none would bet against Jake getting there.

"I'm just proud. That's the simplest way to put it," Connor said. "I'd like to think I set some sort of foundation or path for him, and he exceeded what I'm even capable of imagining for myself.

"He's doing something everybody dreams they could do."

Michael Rothstein | email

ESPN Detroit Lions reporter