Ohio State Wrestling Coach Discusses Heartache of Losing Son

Coach Tom Ryan is a special man at the collegiate level. The pressure to win, the pressure to get your priorities out of whack is unrelenting ... but as you can read from the story below, he has his perspective very clear.

By Paul Daugherty: Ohio State wrestling coach discusses heartache of losing son

Tom Ryan said, "Ache is my favorite word when it comes to learning something." Nothing comes free, he suggested. Not wisdom, not truth, not success. Not even sadness. Sadness costs.

Ryan is a wrestling coach, one of the best. In six years at Ohio State, Ryan has led the Buckeyes to two second-place finishes nationally. This past season, they beat Ryan’s alma mater and perennial title contender Iowa, in a dual meet. He was at Elder High on Sunday, working a clinic for kids attending the Premier Technique Wrestling Camp.

When it was over, Ryan offered a short talk. There was nothing exceptional about his urgings. Work hard, sacrifice for your craft, strive to be your best. The room was politely quiet. Then he talked about sadness, and everything changed.

Teague died Feb. 16, 2004. He was 5 when his heart stopped suddenly as he ran around the house, this glad presence, playing hide-and-seek with his mom.

Teague was Tom’s son. Or, rather, is Tom’s son. Death doesn’t change that. "I have four children," is how Tom began his talk. Three are alive.

How Tom has ached and what he has learned could fill a star with tears and a library with books. Five-year-olds aren’t supposed to die. They are the definition of life. There aren’t enough Whys in the world to frame adequately that aching question. Some answers, we’re not meant to know.

The ache has spawned learning for Tom Ryan, even as no one should have to learn anything that way.

"I know that the unexpected can happen in an instant," Tom says now. "I know there’s a heaven. I know to live every second."

Teague Ryan was on his back on a coffee table. His dad administered CPR. Tom Ryan tried it for 14 minutes – he remembers now, still, exactly 14 minutes – then he picked up his son and ran out into the street. Nine-one-one had been called. Tom didn’t know what else to do. So he took Teague over his shoulder and down the street, hoping to buy a few seconds.

His wife was in the house, screaming for the paramedics to hurry.

Forty-five minutes later, 5-year-old Teague Ryan was pronounced dead. Six months earlier, he’d had a throat infection. No one knew it had spread to his heart muscle and weakened it severely. Teague had a physical exam just three weeks earlier. "They checked his heart," Tom said. "Perfectly fine. No warning whatsoever."

Teague had spent all of the previous two days by his dad’s side. Tom coached wrestling at Hofstra at the time. Tom said, "It turned out Teague was a time bomb. It could have happened any time."

You can bury a 5-year-old, but that’s purely physical. Everything else remains.

"What kind of kid was he?” I asked Tom.

"Like every dad would say: Best kid in the world," said Tom. "He was magnetic. He would tell girls they were adorable. Had a personality bigger than life."

Teague wore his sister’s one-piece bathing suit to the pool, because he thought it looked like a wrestler’s singlet. He had a pair of woolen mittens he liked so much, he wrestled in them. Wrestling is a clannish sport: Sons wrestle because fathers wrestled. Fathers learn in the rec rooms of their childhood homes. Tom looked at his youngest son and saw a kid who’d go as far as his desire would take him.

"He was full of life. He was an original. Flavorful," Tom called Teague.

Now, eight years later, Teague is the inspiration Tom would give anything not to have. 

Tom has delivered his message of ache and learning hundreds of times. It has helped him heal. He has a platform for impacting the lives of the young. He feels blessed. He really does.

"When I realized that heaven is real and Teague was in heaven and that’s where I’m going to go, that’s when I was OK talking about it," is how Tom explained it. "We all have pain in life. I don’t know too many people who don’t have something that brings them to their knees. But I know there’s something after."

They named Teague after an Oklahoma State wrestler Tom knew, Teague Moore. Plus, they just liked the name. Tom believed Teague meant "warrior" in Irish and/or Gaelic. Actually, Teague means "poet or philosopher." Maybe Teague Ryan would have been those, too.

Maybe he is already, inside his dad. "Nobody caused me to hunger for the truth of life more than this kid has," Tom said. He offered a picture he’d taken when Teague was 5, not long before he died. Teague wore a singlet, arms extended and curled, striking a victory pose.

"That was Teague," Tom said.