Harvard Football Program Feature Story: Richie Ryan

Photo by Gil Talbot
Photo by Gil Talbot

By Scott Sudikoff

Harvard senior defensive tackle Richie Ryan grew up in the football hot-bed of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, but it was not love at first sight when it came to the game for him.

"I didn't like the helmet, I didn't like the pads," Ryan remembered.  "I did it as a social thing, that's how it started to be honest."

Ryan, a government major at Harvard, started his organized playing career in fifth grade.

"I played most of the sports, basketball, soccer, swimming, a little bit of baseball," added Ryan.  "My friends started playing [football] in fifth grade, so I played just to have something to do with them."

Of course, growing up in Pittsburgh Steeler country, Ryan was surrounded by the game at almost every turn, but the Steel City is also known for being a great area for high school football as well.

"Every bar, every restaurant has at least a Steelers helmet or a [University of] Pittsburgh or a Penn State helmet," said Ryan.  "But the high school football players were the heroes growing up.  You'd go to see your local public-school players and they were superstars in the community!"

For Ryan, after a couple of years playing the game, he learned to embrace football and found his new passion.

"The first year that it really started clicking would've been seventh grade," described Ryan.  "I played for my public-school team, and we went undefeated and won our Super Bowl."

Ryan also found success the following year winning another championship on the field.

"I had a lot of success at a young age level," said Ryan.  "I had great teams, and I loved the team mentality and camaraderie the most."

For high school, Ryan moved onto the well-known Central Catholic in Pittsburgh, which has produced many professional football players including Hall of Famer Dan Marino.

"Central Catholic is a special place," said Ryan.  "It was never about an individual player, it was about the [past and present] teams."

While at Central Catholic, Ryan played his entire freshman year on the freshman team, but sophomore year was when he'd find his stride.  Ryan saw the field for both the junior varsity and varsity and started to get the attention of his high school coaches and college coaches.

"I never really thought about scouts," explained Ryan.  "They'd come to practice more often, but I never figured I'd be recruited by a huge Division I school, but the program never really focuses on individual achievement."

Ryan's junior season at Central Catholic saw him start every game for the varsity team and that's when colleges started to contact him.

"I thought of football as a way to get into a better school than I could just academically," said Ryan.  "Then I also just loved the game, so I knew that I wanted to play more after high school."

The summer leading Ryan's senior season at Central Catholic was when the first official offers started to roll in from the likes of Georgetown and Penn.  Ryan can still re-call the story that led to his first contact with Harvard though.

"I was on a family vacation to Florida, sitting in my hotel room, and Coach Bandy messaged me on Twitter," Ryan explained.  "He said 'you're a beast, send me your contact info, Harvard would love to talk to you'"

That started the ball rolling towards Ryan coming to Cambridge.  In the end it was between Harvard and Penn, and Ryan had a decision to make.

"Harvard actually had Brendan Bibro from Central Catholic and a two-time captain," said Ryan.  "It was a great boost for Harvard, and in the end, it came down to Coach Murphy, he really sold me.  Great coach, great guy, and I really wanted to play for him."

When Ryan arrived in Cambridge for his first fall semester, he adjustment wasn't too tough for him on the field.

"They really threw us freshmen into the fire against three guys like [Anthony] Fabiano, [Adam] Redmond and [Cole] Toner, all who have made the NFL," said Ryan.  "My play style is run full speed into the man in front of me.  Those guys didn't love it, but they grew to respect me."

"Richie is a tremendous leader and football player," said Tim Murphy, The Thomas Stephenson Family Head Coach for Harvard Football.  "He gives us everything he has every time he steps on the field."

In his time at Harvard, Ryan has been a solid contributor.  He saw action in 19 games through his first two years, with a break-out season coming in 2017 when he earned All-Ivy League honorable mention with 41 tackles, three sacks and 4.5 tackles for loss for the Crimson.

"Central [Catholic] was 100% how I was able to work my way quickly into the lineup," said Ryan.  "The mentality it teaches you, the intensity of practices and coaching."

Coming into the season, Ryan had on specific part of his game that he was hoping to improve upon.

"This year I've been really focusing on my pass rush," said Ryan.  "Aaron Donald [of the Los Angeles Rams] is my hero, I watch his training, everything he does, that's my focus this season."

As of press time, that focus is paying off for Ryan.  Entering week seven of the Ivy League season, Ryan has already amassed a career-high in quarterback sacks with three-and-a-half.

What will Ryan remember the most about his time at Harvard?

"The Dartmouth comeback victory when we blocked the field goal at the end," said Ryan.  "I'll never forget that because we worked so hard for it and it came to fruition."

"I'll also remember singing 10,000 Men of Harvard and even the tough ones like losing to Yale two years in a row," added Ryan.  "Football teaches you the most unbelievable lessons, and my teammates are brothers for life."