Eye On the Ball: Meeting Captain Ryan


As Shelter Island author John Feinstein once put it when asked if he could go to just one sports event every year: “The answer is simple, Army-Navy. That is not for the quality of the football game but for the quality of the people playing the football game.”

On Shelter Island we have Marty Ryan, one of those quality people who played for Army in some of those legendary battles. One of the reasons I enjoy writing this column is because to me, and maybe you, Marty Ryan, until you have a chance to know him, seems like just a 70-year old man driving around the Island in an overgrown golf cart.
You will find out that Marty Ryan was much more than that in this story about a Staten Island boy born right in the middle of World War II, February 10, 1943, to be exact. A boy who was number seven in a family of 10 boys and one girl, born to a proud father who worked as a manager in the A & P but, incredibly, found a way to send all 11 of his children to college.

The entire family went to St. Peter’s school, a Catholic school that didn’t have a football team in those days. Although Marty’s oldest brother became a priest, Marty spent most of his time playing with his brother Jim, who was close to his age. Marty gives credit for his football career to the fact that he always played with the older and bigger boys. After the 8th grade, this 6 foot, 165 pound, 13-year-old switched to New Dorp High School. That first season, New Dorp went undefeated with Marty playing center on the varsity squad.

As a sophomore, Coach Sal Somma had him calling the plays as the team’s center. Marty was elected team captain in both his junior and senior years with the team going undefeated in his junior year and dropping only one game the following season. Marty was also switched to a blocking back as he finished his high school career, leading the team to an 28-4 record. A few years ago, a book titled, “Thanksgiving 1959,” was written about this fabulous New Dorp team that lost a Thanksgiving Day championship game to their Staten Island rival, Curtis. Featured on the cover of the book was none other than Marty Ryan.

After graduation, Marty was accepted at West Point. Like most players in those days, Ryan played both offense and defense. Even though the Black Knights’ coaching staff liked him as a center because of his expertise at long snapping, Marty anchored the line as a guard his junior year.

He played in the Army-Navy games in both his freshman and sophomore years. But playing his junior year against Penn State he was hit behind the ear and could not raise his arm. Ryan was out for the season and his football career was over. In his senior year at West Point he coached the freshman squad.

Ryan was proud of West Point. He recalled a beating that he and his teammates received from Nebraska, 77-7. The Nebraska coach told his West Point coach that he didn’t have a single player on Army that could play for Nebraska. The West Point coach answered, “That’s funny, I don’t think you have a single player that could get into the Academy.”

Ryan graduated from West Point as a 2nd lieutenant and was sent to Sandy Hook, New Jersey. His next stop would be Fort Hancock and in April of 1966 he was sent to Viet Nam, returning in November 1967.

Just before being deployed to Viet Nam, Marty, now a captain, met Mary Heffernan, and they married two years later. In 1970 he was named an “outstanding officer” and was honorably discharged from the service. Marty and Mary have one son, Tim, who also now lives on Shelter Island with his wife, Candace, and their two children, Molly and Jack. Tim and Candace are the reason the Ryans came to Shelter Island over 20 years ago.

One consistency I found in his life is that no grass will ever grow under his feet. After being discharged, Marty worked for two years for Exxon as a sales representative. Then it was off to Wall Street where he worked for three more years before going to Interactive Data for almost a decade. Marty finished his career with Russell Investments in Tacoma, Washington and retired in 2002.

The one thing that he stayed true to  his entire life was 44 years of marriage before Mary passed away on April 14, 2011. They had a great and busy life and enjoyed the last several years in both Arizona and on the Island. Mary did get to see her little boy grow up, get married and have two wonderful children that brought such enjoyment to her life.

Today, at 70, Marty still moves fast and doesn’t miss a thing. Last year, he met a schoolmate named Joyce Howe at a Staten Island reunion. Joyce, a nurse, had just lost her husband and they made an instant connection. They married on April 21 and are now living in Shelter Island and Maryland.

Quite a life for one of the men that John Feinstein called the ”quality people.”

Editor’s note: We received comments on the last Eye On the Ball column from some people who were offended by the portrayal of the individual profiled. It was never the intention to offend anyone, and for those who were, we apologize.