Frank Ryan Dies at 87; Cerebral Quarterback Led Browns to ’64 Title


In his 13-year N.F.L. career, Frank Ryan passed for 149 touchdowns, went to the Pro Bowl three times and took the original Cleveland Browns to the 1964 N.F.L. championship, throwing three second-half touchdowns in that victory.

It was the last time the city of Cleveland would have a major pro championship for 52 years, until June 2016, when the Cavaliers defeated the Golden State Warriors to capture the N.B.A. title. Browns fans are still waiting for a Super Bowl win.

But when Ryan died on Monday at 87, he was also remembered for his achievements beyond the football field.

Six months after the Browns’ 27-0 championship victory over the Baltimore Colts, Ryan was awarded a doctorate in mathematics from Rice University in Houston, where he had been a second-string quarterback.

He was a professor of mathematics at the Case Institute of Technology (now Case Western Reserve University) in Cleveland while playing for the Browns and later taught math at Yale and Rice. He introduced the world of computers to the tradition-bound United States House of Representatives and created an electronic voting system there as its director of information systems for much of the 1970s, heading a staff of more than 200. He was the athletic director at Yale for 10 years and later a senior administrator for planning there and a fund-raising executive for Rice.

Sportswriters were intrigued by Ryan’s disparate callings.

Portraying him as the thinking-person’s quarterback, they couldn’t resist citing the title of his doctoral dissertation: “A Characterization of the Set of Asymptotic Values of a Function Holomorphic in the Unit Disc.”

Ryan said he couldn’t explain what that meant to anyone who did not understand advanced mathematics, but he turned aside suggestions that he was a genius whose intellect helped him find weaknesses in defensive alignments on football Sundays.

“An analytical mind can certainly help a quarterback,” he told Roger Kahn of The Saturday Evening Post in 1965. “But people who say that a mathematical mind is important are just not very well-informed about mathematics. What I do at the university has nothing at all to do with what I do on the field.”

His son Frank B. Ryan Jr., who is known as Pancho, said Ryan died of complications of Alzheimer’s disease at a health care facility in Waterford, Conn.

Francis Beall Ryan was born on July 12, 1936, in Fort Worth. He was a high school quarterback while developing an interest in physics and engineering.

He played for Rice in the Southwest Conference in 1956 and ’57, mostly backing up King Hill, who was selected by the Chicago Cardinals as the first pick in the 1958 N.F.L. draft. When Hill faltered early in Rice’s 1958 Cotton Bowl game against Navy, Ryan came in and threw a touchdown pass in the Owls’ 20-7 loss.

Ryan received a bachelor’s degree in physics and was chosen by the Los Angeles Rams in the draft’s fifth round. He pursued a master’s degree in mathematics while playing sporadically for the Rams in his first four N.F.L. seasons.

His football career flourished after he was traded to the Browns in 1962 and became a regular when their starting quarterback, Jim Ninowoski, was injured.

But Ryan wasn’t permitted to do much thinking or improvising in his first season with Cleveland; that was because Paul Brown, the team’s founder and coach, used a “messenger” system in which he alternated guards to tell the quarterback what plays he wanted, with no deviation allowed.

“I didn’t turn mathematics off during the season, but I tuned it down,” Ryan told Sports Illustrated. “I remember Brown saying once, ‘Ryan, you sure better sharpen your pencil in football.’”

Blanton Collier, who succeeded Brown as coach in 1963, allowed Ryan considerable input in game planning, and Ryan took the Browns to the playoffs four times in his seven seasons with them, emerging as one of the N.F.L.’s most accurate passers while capable of unleashing long throws.

After the 1964 championship game, in which fullback Jim Brown ran for 114 yards to complement Ryan’s three touchdown passes to receiver Gary Collins, Ryan took the Browns to the title game for a second successive season, but they were beaten by Coach Vince Lombardi’s Green Bay Packers.

At 6 feet 3 inches and 200 pounds, Ryan had an ideal frame for a pro quarterback of his era, though he was prematurely graying, perhaps giving him the aura of the venerable academic he would become. He studied game films intently but also blended in with his teammates’ camaraderie, though his life off the field was decidedly odd for a pro football player.

Ryan was released by the Browns after the 1968 season, then joined the Washington Redskins (now the Washington Commanders), who had hired Lombardi as their coach and general manager. Ryan spent two seasons as Sonny Jurgensen’s backup, seeing action only briefly, the first year under Lombardi, and the second season for Coach Bill Austin after Lombardi’s death from cancer in September 1970.

Ryan retired with 16,042 career passing yards and a completion rate of 51.1 percent. He was voted to the Pro Bowl each season from 1964 to 1966. And he led the N.F.L. in touchdown passes in 1964, with 25, and in 1966, with 29.

In addition to his son Frank, he is survived by his wife of 65 years, Joan Ryan, a former sports columnist for The Cleveland Plain Dealer and The Washington Post; three other sons, Michael, Stuart and Heberden; a sister, Patricia Ryan; 11 grandchildren; and one great-grandchild, with another “on the way,” his son Frank said. A brother, Robert W. Ryan Jr., died before him.

Ryan had lived for many years in Grafton, Vt., before moving to the Connecticut health care facility.

Ryan donated his brain to the Boston University CTE Center, which studies chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a brain disorder similar to Alzheimer’s caused by repeated head injuries and which has been linked to football and other contact sports. His family said in a statement that it suspected that CTE may have “played a role” in Ryan’s condition.

“There’s a lot of exploitation in football, a lot of misdirection in what are the real values of living, of doing,” Ryan told Peter Richmond for the website Sports on Earth in 2013, reflecting on his dual careers and the world of big-time college football. “I’m not saying we shouldn’t have football and all its glory, but the players should be focused on something more than running a 4.5 forty.”

Bernard Mokam contributed reporting.



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