Frank Ryan was the last quarterback to win a championship for the Cleveland Browns. However, his life was much richer than just football. For while he was having a measure of success on the gridiron, he was studying like a madman for his Ph.D. in mathematics. With a doctorate in hand, he set out to make an impression in a far different field.
The Early Years
Frank Ryan was born on July 12, 1936 in Fort Worth, Texas. After starring on the football field at R.L. Paschal High School, he very nearly went to Yale. However, he traveled a different route and went to Rice University, becoming the first in his family not to go to the Ivy League school.
However, he was soon stuck behind starter King Hill, seeing the field sporadically throughout his time as an Owl. While Hill went on to become a consensus All American in their senior year of 1957 and was drafted first overall by the Chicago Cardinals, Frank Ryan mired in the putrid state of the lesser-known, only throwing eight touchdown passes against nine interceptions throughout his college career. He would have to travel the untraveled road in order to achieve his measure of athletic fame.
After graduating from Rice with a degree in physics, Frank Ryan was selected in the fifth round (55th overall) of the 1958 NFL Draft by the Los Angeles Rams. He didn't play a down as a rookie, but the next three years brought a small amount of success for the aspiring professional. In 11 starts spread out from 1959 through 1961, Frank Ryan led his team to a 5-5-1 record.
By 1962 and with highly touted quarterback Roman Gabriel coming into the fold, the Rams traded Ryan to the Cleveland Browns. After beginning the year as Jim Ninowski's backup, the tide began to turn in Frank Ryan's favor. In an October beatdown of the lowly Steelers, Ninowski broke his collar bone after being tackled by Eugene "Big Daddy" Lipscomb. Unfazed, Frank entered the game and promptly completed 11 of 18 passes for 144 yards and two touchdowns in Cleveland's 42-14 romp.
Frank Ryan started the rest of the year and it proved to be the perfect situation for him. Surrounded by talent and under the guidance of Paul Brown, Frank Ryan made the most of his opportunity. Now he didn't have to worry about carrying a team to victory. He had Jim Brown to do the heavy lifting for him.
In his first year as the team's starter in 1962, Frank completed 57.7% of his passes for 1,541 yards and 10 touchdowns. After the season, with the team having finished 7-6-1, team owner fired the organization's namesake, putting assistant Blanton Collier in Paul Brown's cavernous shoes.
Despite the new coach, Frank Ryan was still the Browns starter. While he completed fewer of his passes in 1963, Ryan still managed to throw for over 2,000 yards and 25 touchdowns. In an era still dominated by quarterbacks that routinely threw more interceptions that touchdowns, Frank Ryan threw just 13 picks for the 10-4 Browns.
Having missed out on a shot at the title to the Giants the year before, the Browns came into the 1964 season ready to stake their claim as pro football's best. Led by their indomitable fullback and guided by their brainy signal-caller, the Browns clawed their way to the NFL Championship Game for the first time since 1957. Frank Ryan was a stabilizing force for them behind center that year, completing just over half of his passes for 2,404 yards and throwing a league leading 25 touchdown passes, earning his first Pro Bowl invitation.
In the title game against Johnny Unitas's Baltimore Colts, Frank Ryan and his trusty receiver Gary Collins had a game for the ages while Jim Brown paced the offense to the tune of 114 yards. In the third quarter alone, Ryan and Collins hooked up for 18 and 42-yard touchdown strikes.
By the fourth quarter, it seemed practically inevitable that the two would hook up for a final 51-yard touchdown pass to finish off the Colts, 27-0. When it was all said and done, Frank Ryan had completed 11 of 18 passes for 206 yards and three touchdowns with Gary Collins catching five of those passes for 130 yards and all three scores.
Frank Ryan would never return to championship form. Not when he earned Pro Bowl berths in the next two years and not even when he again led the league in touchdown passes in 1966, tossing a career high 29. Perhaps it was age or perhaps it was the ever changing seasons of the game.
Or maybe the team never fully regained its championship swagger when Jim Brown abruptly retired just before the start of the 1966 season. Whatever the case may be, Frank Ryan's career slowly began to taper out. but what few knew was that behind the scenes, he was already knee deep into the second act of his professional life.
A Different Arena
Frank Ryan always knew that he would enter the world of academia when his playing career ended and had diligently been working on his postgraduate studies throughout much of his time in the NFL. By 1965, he had earned a Ph.D. in mathematics from Rice University.
After retiring from the NFL in 1970 as s member of the Washington Redskins, Frank Ryan decided to stay in the nation's capital. He spent the next several years serving as the director of information services for the U.S. House of Representatives, cutting his teeth in the background of America's political infrastructure.
His biggest contribution to the political realm was when he helped develop the first electronic voting system, cutting the time it took for votes to be processed to a third. Frank Ryan would spread his vast knowledge of mathematics as a professor at both Rice and Yale while also serving as the athletic director in New Haven. He even spread his branches in the business realm, serving as the CEO of Contex Electronics and as a director for America West Airlines, Sequoia Voting Systems and Danielson Holding Corporation.
Frank Ryan died on January 1, 2024 after a battle with Alzheimer's disease. He was 87.