Tom Ryan remembers well the day a two-word question became the most difficult he had ever been asked.
It was Feb. 16, 2004, and Ryan was in his ninth season as Hofstra’s wrestling coach. Ryan and his wife, Lynette, had just returned from a New York hospital and were greeted by their three children.
Nine-year old Jake posed the question that would change Ryan’s life forever.
Teague was Tom and Lynette’s 5-year-old son. The couple was only minutes removed from being informed that Teague had passed away due to a heart attack.
It took years to discover what triggered Teague’s heart attack, but it was eventually discovered that Teague had ARVC, arrhythmogenic right ventricular cardiomyopathy. ARVC is a hereditary heart disease that causes the muscular wall of the heart to break down over time. This can lead to an abnormal heartbeat and death.
Teague’s death tore Ryan apart. His son Jake’s question pierced Ryan’s heart. He doesn’t remember what he said; he only knows that from that moment on he set off on a relentless pursuit for an answer.
Now, more than 15 years later, Ryan is in a new state and in a new phase of life as the wrestling coach for the Ohio State Buckeyes. He has 270 career wins, 161 of them in 13 seasons at Ohio State. Under his leadership, the Buckeyes have won 76 percent of their duals. But by far the biggest difference in Ryan’s life is that he now has an answer to Jake’s question, which plagued him for so long. And he found that answer through Christ.
“I think my dad, in that season of life, was questioning, ‘My son’s not here, but where is he?'” Ryan’s daughter Mackenzie, now 18, said in The Lantern. “Which led him to open up himself into learning a bunch of different religions, search for the truth all over and ultimately found Christianity.”
Ryan wasn’t looking for God, but God drew Ryan near in his brokenness.
“I didn’t rule out atheism,” Ryan said. “I wasn’t searching for God. I was searching for the truth, and that was simply, ‘Where is [Teague]?”
God began to tug on Ryan’s heart when he witnessed the simple yet selfless acts of the Christians in his life. Things as small as cooking a meal or sending a card left an impression on the Ryan family. In a world shrouded in darkness and pain, a glorious, other-worldly light seemed to burst forth from the believers he knew.
Slowly, Ryan began to realize that Jesus was real and powerful and calling him into a relationship with Himself. At last, he had found the answer: Teague was in Heaven with Christ.
The pain of Teague’s loss is still very real for Ryan. It has morphed and scarred over, but it hasn’t vanished.
“I think time is a healer only because your normal changes,” Ryan told The Lantern. “But in terms of the grief, there are times when I’m driving down the street, I’ll hear a song, something reminds me of him, you fall back into that — whether it’s, ‘Why me? Why him?’ There are a lot of emotions that come into play.”
Yet through the lingering ache of Teague’s absence, Ryan and his family now see the tragic loss with a positive nuance they couldn’t before.
“Teague really saved our family because we didn’t really have a relationship with Christ at the time,” said Jake, now 24. “It stinks that something this tragic is what brought us to Christ, but the positive in the situation is that Teague really saved our family.”
A space near Ryan’s office is named the Teague Ryan and Family Recruiting War Room — a constant reminder for Ryan of the unfathomable pain he’s felt and the healing power of Christ now.
Ryan and his Ohio State wrestling team will begin their season on the road Nov. 2 at the Michigan State Open.
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