Most homeowners would consider a few loose bricks in the chimney a minor blemish in need of a quick repair. But to Ross Ryan’s parents, K.C. and Heather, the wobbly stones carry a bit more weight.

Eston Bond
Ross Ryan (3) celebrates with linebacker Chris Graham after recovering a fumble on his own punt late in the second quarter last Saturday against Northern Illinois. It was the first career punt for Ryan, whose father, K.C., played at Notre Dame in the 1970

“That’s from Ross kicking the ball over our house,” K.C. Ryan says of the damage to the family’s home in Franklin. “It might be a (bad) omen to fix them. I think we’re going to keep them loose until he graduates.”

Why the superstition? It might have something to do with the recent achievements of Michigan’s new starting punter and kickoff specialist.

In the first game action of his career — against Northern Illinois last week — the redshirt junior boomed the ball down the field on seven kickoffs, recording an impressive five touchbacks. On his lone punt of the afternoon, Ryan kicked the pigskin 41 yards downfield before Darnell Hood stripped the Huskies’ Shatone Powers of possession. But rather than letting his teammates fight for the ball, Ryan raced toward the pile and emerged with the fumble recovery. The sequence left many fans impressed, as evidenced by the scores of autograph requests after the game. It’s pretty clear that, after three years of standing on the sidelines, Ryan is finally getting some time in the spotlight.

“I thought Ross Ryan had a wonderful debut here,” coach Lloyd Carr said after the game. “I think he’s one of those guys that really is a weapon. And imagine a punter running down the field 40 yards or so and recovering a fumble. Ross Ryan is a competitive guy.”

Praise wasn’t the only compensation Carr gave his specialist. When the team assembled on Sunday, the former walk-on was thrilled to hear that he’d been awarded a scholarship.

“You know what?” K.C. muses, jokingly. “Now that he’s on scholarship, maybe we can get those two bricks fixed.”

 

But there’s more to this story.

You see, it would be nice and neat and simple — not to mention logical — if Ross, who has lived in southeastern Michigan his whole life, grew up bleeding Maize and Blue.

Just think about it: Local kid dreams about playing for big state school, manages to make the squad as a walk-on, moves up the depth chart, becomes a hero in his first game playing for the team he always loved, roll credits. Sounds like a movie, doesn’t it?

In real life, things are often a little bit different. And in Ross Ryan’s story, a twist must be inserted into the aforementioned plot. A pretty major twist.

“I grew up the biggest Notre Dame fan there was,” Ross says, knowing most of his teammates would cringe at his words. “No one was ever watching Michigan (at home on Saturdays). It was only Notre Dame. I had all the Notre Dame clothing. The shorts. The shirts. Michigan was just another team to me.”

Ross put up with some good-natured abuse from an early age for his choice of allegiance. He even remembers being teased at Meadow Lake Elementary School by his fifth-grade teacher, a loyal Michigan fan.

But there was a good reason for Ross to love the Fighting Irish. It had everything to do with a son’s admiration for his father.

K.C. Ryan went to Notre Dame on a full football scholarship in 1976. He saw action on special teams and as a backup linebacker under coach Dan Devine during his freshman year. Yet before his sophomore season began, K.C. blew out his right knee defending an option play during spring practice. He would never see the field again. Though he was a member of the 1977 Joe Montana-led national championship team and remained a part of the program until he graduated in 1980, it was bittersweet to watch the action from the sidelines. Still, K.C.’s love for his alma mater and his fond memories remained, rubbing off on Ross in the latter’s formative years.

Father and son would take trips to South Bend once or twice a year for games or 1977 title team reunions. The highlight was always a trip to the Notre Dame Bookstore, where K.C. would buy Fighting Irish souvenirs for Ross and his two younger brothers, Charlie and Kenny.

“Like every other kid, I wanted to be just like my dad,” Ross says. “I looked up to him more than anything. He’s got a national championship ring, and that’s something that I’ve always admired and want to earn for myself.”

The ring is a fixture on K.C.’s finger.

“He wears it every day,” Ross says. “(Basically) as much as he wears his wedding ring. All the time. It never comes off his hand.”

 

For Ross, that ring lost some of its luster when he was denied admission to Notre Dame out of high school. He was accepted by Michigan and came to Ann Arbor with no plans to play football despite a successful gridiron career at Brother Rice High School in Bloomfield Hills, where he won the Division II state championship in his junior year while handling kicking and punting duties and playing safety. He also started at linebacker his senior year. His transition to living in Ann Arbor was an easy one.

“Once I stepped foot in the classroom here,” Ross explains, “I’ve been a Wolverine through and through.”

But while he originally intended to concentrate on school, the fact that he was turned down by Notre Dame “kind of fueled me to really go out there … and play football. It really inspired me to pursue my kicking career at Michigan.”

Although he didn’t attract any initial interest from the Michigan coaches out of high school, Ross tried out for the Wolverines and made it through cuts in freshman camp.

So as he was discovering that the business school probably wasn’t for him, Ross educated himself in both the sciences — he’s now a biopsychology major and plans on attending dental school when he graduates — and the legendary Wolverine program, something he knew little about while cheering for the gold helmets and shamrocks of Notre Dame.

“I can’t imagine being anywhere else than where I am now,” Ross says. “(But) I really didn’t know about the Michigan tradition until I came here. Just seeing Bo (Schembechler) around the (football facilities) is unreal. There’s no better place to play than the Big House. You have to be careful not to get caught up in all the hoopla and the band and the crowd. You just really have to keep your eye on the ball and keep your head in the game.”

And nobody could be happier about Ross’s situation than K.C., who certainly isn’t accustomed to seeing anything Michigan-related in a positive light.

“My loyalty is with my son on the field,” K.C. says. “Yes, I still love Notre Dame. There always will be a special spot in my heart for Notre Dame. But as far as this Saturday goes, I hope Michigan kills them.”

 

It appears that Ross has put himself into a dream scenario. In just two days, he will play an important role for the team he loves in a contest against his childhood favorite. Never mind the rankings. Forget the national media hype. Ignore the talking heads and highlight reels and television cameras. For at least one player, this game is about something more. And it has as much to do with the past as it does with the present.

But there’s one detail he feels he must attend to first.

“I’m going to make (my dad) take his ring off for this game,” Ross says, somewhat unsure about whether he can make it budge from its hallowed territory.

“If Ross wants me to take it off, I’ll take it off,” K.C. responds when hearing of his son’s request. “I will not being wearing my national championship ring this weekend.”

Out of sight, not exactly out of mind.

It’s safe to say that the Ryan household, loose bricks and all, will be pulling for the home team on Saturday.

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