Frank Ryan was an all-star quarterback in the National Football League in his 13 years primarily with the Cleveland Browns, and he was also an outstanding mathematician. He received his bachelor degree in physics and his Ph.D. in mathematics from prestigious Rice University. From 1967 to 1971 he was a math professor at Case Western Reserve, often teaching math classes in the morning and going to football practice with the Cleveland Browns in the afternoon. Later, he taught math at both Yale and Rice.
This brilliant athlete suffered concussions on the football field and after a long, very productive professional life, he began to develop dementia in his eighties. Eventually he became unable to care for himself, so he was given hospice care and died on January 1, 2024 from complications of dementia. I have not seen his medical records, but demented people often end up moving around very little and spending most of their time lying in bed. This increases their risk for aspirating food into their lungs to cause a type of pneumonia, and their hearts weaken so much that they often die of heart failure.
An Excellent Football Player
Ryan grew up and played high school football in Fort Worth, then played for the Rice University Owls while studying physics there. He worked on a PhD at UCLA and UC-Berkeley while playing for the Los Angeles Rams. He was traded to the Cleveland Browns in 1963.
At 6 feet 3 inches and 200 pounds, he played in three Pro Bowls, was All Pro three times, passed for 149 touchdowns (more than Johnny Unitas, Sonny Jurgensen or Fran Tarkenton), threw for 16,042 yards, and led the NFL in touchdown passes in 1964, with 25, and in 1966, with 29. He also led the Cleveland Browns to the 1964 NFL championship by throwing for three second-half touchdowns. He played with the Washington Redskins (now the Commanders) for a short time after leaving the Browns, and retired in 1971 after multiple injuries.
- In the 1964 Pro Bowl, he suffered a severe shoulder injury when he was hit by Willie Davis, Roger Brown and Gino Marchette, all at the same time.
- In January 25, 1967, he had an operation that reduced his shoulder pain, but did not give him free use of his arm.
- In the first game of the 1967 season, he sprained both ankles.
- In 1967 he also suffered a severe concussion from a head-to-head collision with Dick Butkus. Ryan stated that that collision also caused a cervical disc injury that figured prominently in his retirement from professional football in 1971.
He met his wife, Joan Ryan, when both were undergraduates at Rice University. They fell in love and married in 1958, their senior year in college. She majored in English literature, and began doing sports reporting when they moved to Cleveland when her husband joined the Browns. In 1969, when Frank joined the Washington Redskins, she became a sports reporter for the Washington Star and then for the Washington Post, where she became one of the first female sportswriters to get her stories in the men’s locker rooms. She also wrote a book on female athletes. In retirement, they lived on a 78-acre farm in Vermont.
Mathematical Career After Football
After leaving the NFL in 1971, Ryan became head of a staff of more than 200 as director of information systems at the U.S. House of Representatives. There he helped to develop an electronic voting system that shortened voting time from an average 45 minutes to about 15 minutes. He then went to Yale University where he was athletic director and a lecturer in mathematics for 10 years. He also became a member of the board of governors at Rice University from 1972 to 1976. He became the vice president for external affairs at Rice University in 1990 and markedly increased the annual donations to the university. He resigned from his academic positions in 1995 and used his math skills to analyze pricing behavior of the futures market and to do basic research on prime numbers.
Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE)
In his early 80’s, Ryan began to suffer from the effects of dementia, probably associated with his football head injuries. His family has reported that Ryan’s brain will be donated to Boston University’s CTE Center, which conducts ongoing studies of CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy). His brain should be of particular interest because of his documented concussions and his extremely high level of intelligence.
The CTE Center researchers recently reported that 345 out of 376 brains they have studied from former National Football League players had signs of CTE (Neurology, 2024;102 (2)). CTE is characterized by misfolded tau protein that is unlike changes observed from aging, Alzheimer’s disease, or any other brain disease. CTE can only be definitively diagnosed after death.
The CTE brains examined in this study had MRI and spinal tap signs of white matter damage, such as blood vessel damage and brain shrinkage. The researchers compared 120 former professional football players and 60 former college football players, average age 57, to 60 men, average age 59, who had no symptoms, did not play football, and had no history of repetitive head impacts or concussion. For my reports on CTE in other athletes, see Gale Sayers, Nick Buoniconti and John Urschel.
Every time you hit your head, you can suffer brain damage. Your brain is made up of soft tissue that is covered by a sack of fluid in a tight box formed by your skull. When you hit your head, the brain bounces around in the fluid banging first against one side of your skull and then the other. The more often you hit your head, the greater the damage. Anyone can suffer brain damage from head trauma. Helmets or other protective headgear are essential for activities that have a high risk of falls or other head impacts, such as cycling, horseback riding or competitive skiing. Sports such as boxing and football cause the most brain damage because they cause the most head banging, even when protective headgear is worn.
Frank Beall Ryan
July 12, 1936 – January 1, 2024