By Mitch Abramson
Ten hours later, he was running football practice. By 9:30 p.m. he was home preparing to do it all over again.Time was always conspiring to beat Ryan when he was in the trenches of the public school system. Now, sitting in his lawn chair facing his neighbor's backyard, playing with his Jack Russell terriers, time rarely shows up. Ryan retired from coaching this year, and the pace of his day has slowed considerably.”I really don't have any hobbies outside of football,” he said.In his final day on the job, Ryan, who also coached baseball for 20 years at Campus Magnet, locked up the field house, shook hands with the athletic director, Joseph Cavallo and drove home to Ronkonkoma to begin his new life. He never told his players he was leaving.”I knew it was my final season,” he said. “But I didn't tell anyone. It was too hard emotionally. Maybe I didn't want to hurt anyone. Maybe I didn't have enough courage to tell them. We had such a great football team this year with great senior leadership. It was a tough decision.”Ryan decided, at the relatively sprite age of 55, to call it a day. Citing health concerns related to diabetes, he felt it was time to exit stage left. Besides, there were signs everywhere telling him it was time to go. His long-time assistant, Joe Pepe, who ran his coaching meetings and obtained scouting reports for 17 years moved to Florida after the third game of the season.And his junior varsity coach of 22 years, Jeff Sanders retired last June and also moved to Florida. Cavallo, the school's assistant principal for physical education and the athletic director is leaving to replace the retiring athletic director, Elaine Ruben at Benjamin Cardozo.Over the years, Ryan's diet of football and Phys. Ed took its toll on his body; he hopes to shed close to 100 pounds in retirement. He also wants to tidy up his backyard, which has swelled in recent years.”I go out to a track by one of the local high schools where the track is soft, and I walk,” he said. “Or I ride my bike. Mostly I cut the grass and trim the bushes. I don't play golf. Football was my life.”His priorities will adjust this summer, from working out athletes to being a father to his twin sons, Jimmy and Timmy, 17, and his daughter, Betty, 19, a college student. His wife died of colon cancer three years ago, and Ryan is trying to make the transition from hardened football coach to vigilant parent.”I spent all my time trying to guide a family of players at school,” he said. “It's time I do that at home. I really haven't had time to watch them grow up.”The New York City Coaches Association held a farewell dinner for Ryan at Antun's Caterers in Queens Village June 22. The self-effacing Ryan almost came to blows with the coaches who honored him.Coaches like Bayside's Joe Capuana, John Adams' Jerry Weitzen and Bryant's Carl Brosnan and friends from his childhood gave him a proper send-off. New York State Assemblywoman Barbara Clark honored him with a citation for serving the Cambria Heights area. All the plaudits had Ryan looking for a foxhole to crawl into.”I didn't deserve that party,” Ryan said. “Knowing that I was going to be there kept me up some nights. I told them that I owe them each $20 for saying all those nice things about me. I prefer to fly under the radar. I would prefer that people don't make a big deal over all this.”But under that veneer of modesty was a fiery competitor. Ryan gave 33 years of his life to PSAL football, 22 to Campus Magnet. His teams were always primed with the same hardnosed consistency.Under his tutelage, the Bulldogs won the Queens Championships six times. One of Ryan's best attributes was that he acted the same in defeat as he did in victory, a trait his players emulated. His teams won two Viggiano Sportsmanship awards given out by the referees in the PSAL, and he won six Coach of the Year awards.Ryan never took his profession so seriously that he wouldn't offer advice to opposing coaches. The Bulldogs finished 4-4 last season.”Jimmy always got the better of me, but he would take his time out to tell me to keep working hard, to never give up,” Brosnan said. “Jimmy never forgot where he came from. He had a good perspective on what playing football was all about.”Ryan grew up in Coney Island and played football at Abraham Lincoln. His father was a landscape gardener and his mother worked at a dry cleaners. James Sr. was a big sports fan, but his mother, Betty, tried to discourage him from participating in athletics. Ultimately, she gave up and became his biggest fan, playing hooky from work to watch his games.”My dream, ever since I was in the 10th grade, was to be a coach,” Ryan said. “That's all that I ever wanted to do.”At, 5-foot-7 and 166 pounds, Ryan was too small to play football at Division-I-AA Northeast Louisiana, so he did the next best thing, submerging himself in classes like, Football Coaching. By his senior year Ryan was roaming the sidelines at a junior high school in Louisiana, coaching football.After he graduated, Ryan solicited his high school coach, Vince Gargano for a job, but his staff was full. Gargano told him to telephone St. Francis Prep's football coach, Vince O'Connor, a sagacious figure in the profession. It just so happened that one of O'Connor's former players, a man named Jimmie Brolley, was the head coach at Erasmus Hall and Ryan got a job coaching JV in 1972.Two years later, Brolley was killed rescuing his children from a fire at his home and Ryan was moved up to varsity assistant. Two years later when Mike Weingard, the varsity coach was excessed, Ryan was named the varsity coach. He won the 'B' city championship 22-20 over Andrew Jackson in 1978.That was just the first chapter of his football career. He worked as an assistant at Bayside for three seasons and won city championships in 1980 and 1981 with Kevin and Ronnie Harmon, who both played in the NFL. A vacancy at Campus Magnet opened up in 1983 and Ryan repositioned himself across town as the head coach. The rest is history.He made a point of saying goodbye at the dinner instead of ending his speech with, “see you next year,” his usual send-off. This time he threw the audience a game-ending curve.”I told them goodbye,” he said. “It was time to move on.”Reach reporter Mitch Abramson by e-mail at TimesLedger@aol.com or call 718-229-0300 Ext. 130.