Buddy Ryan’s Lasting Legacy: Leadership by Example

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In the years since my retirement, I’ve spent a lot of time reflecting on the coaches who’ve had the greatest impact on my life. Although there have been many, none stands out more than Buddy Ryan. He was stern, but fair. And he was absolutely uncompromising when he saw unrealized potential.

When people ask me to describe Buddy as I coach, I describe him as having a hard-nosed – almost gangster – mentality. He fought for his players – figuratively and literally. Who could ever forget Buddy taking a swing at Kevin Gilbride for putting his defense in a bad position when they both coached for the Oilers?

Knowing that Buddy had your back made you want to play that much harder for him. The mentality of fighting for his team poured over to each individual team member, and we, in turn, fought for one another.

But despite Buddy’s tough exterior, he had his own, quiet way of injecting humor. One memory that remains strong with me is that of Buddy’s “voluntary” practices during training camp. We players started jokingly referring to them as “volandatory.” The practices were supposedly voluntary, but were essentially mandatory. In other words, “Just wait and see what Buddy does to you if you fail to treat that voluntary practice as mandatory!”

For my first couple of years at Arizona, I didn’t get a lot of playing time. But Buddy saw something in me, and gave me license to do what I did best: make things happen – even under the worst of circumstances. He allowed me to change the way the fullback position was played, and positioned me to become the career reception leader among all running backs.

If you don’t know much about Buddy’s career, he served as a head coach at Arizona and Philadelphia, and as a defensive coordinator at Chicago and Houston. During his time at Chicago, Buddy created and perfected the 46 defense that led to the Bear’s Super Bowl victory in 1985.
Buddy’s health is not good these days. But he has faced cancer as he has all things in life – with grit and determination.
When his son Rex was named head coach of the Buffalo Bills last year, Buddy traveled to see the season opener. And I know he must be particularly thrilled that his sons are back together again now that Rob is serving as Assistant Head Coach for Defense. How much Buddy loves and respects his sons, and how much they love and respect him, is always evident.
The last time I saw Buddy Ryan was in the tunnel running onto the playing field in Houston at the 2004 Super Bowl – the last game of my career, and the game that gave me a cherished Super Bowl ring. I stopped, hugged him, and told him I loved him. And I meant it.
Buddy once said that if he had 11 Larry Centers’ on his team, he would win the Super Bowl. Well…we may never have won a Super Bowl in Arizona, but Buddy gave me something even better. He helped me realize my potential. And for that, I will be forever grateful.

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