Wrestling Coach Struggled with Death of Young Son
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“The sport of wrestling is about chosen suffering. It’s choosing the hard thing time and time again, being able to execute under the toughest conditions,” said Tom.
Ohio State wrestling coach, Tom Ryan, knows wrestling. He’s a two-time NCAA coach of the year, and in 2015 led the Buckeyes to the National Championship. He's also well-acquainted with suffering.
In 2004, Tom was the wrestling coach at Hofstra University in New York. At the time, Tom and his wife had four children. Their five-year-old son, Teague, was a healthy boy who loved to wrestle and loved his family. On February 16th, everything changed.
“We were at the dinner table,” recalled Tom. “We were laughing and talking about the day. Teague got up from the dinner table and he starts running around. My wife starts chasing him and we’re laughing, ‘Get him! Get him!’ and she hides behind a wall, and he comes around again. She startles him and picks him up and within seconds she was screaming. So, I take him, I put him on the coffee table and I check his pulse. My wife calls 911 and see he’s unconscious. He’s not breathing. And I started to do CPR on him.”
Still in shock, the Ryans followed the ambulance to the hospital where they would receive the heartbreaking news.
“I’ll never forget when the doctor comes walking out of the emergency room and we’re waiting and his head is not up and he’s looking down and we knew, right? We knew. And he just said, ‘Hey we’re sorry. We’re just sorry.’ I was lost. Yeah,” Tom emotionally recalled.
Teague had suffered a fatal heart attack due to a genetic anomaly. Now the Ryans had to deliver the news to their other children. That’s when Tom’s son asked him a pointed question. “Jake asked me a commonsense question. When my wife and I opened the car door he was right there and he said, ‘Where is he? Where is Teague?’”
The question caused Tom to think deeply about what happens after death. “The fact that I couldn’t answer a simple question like that. It rocked me. And it became the start of my journey. And it wasn’t necessarily to find God. It was just really for me the search of the truth. What is the truth?”
Still grieving, Tom considered every option. “I took a piece of paper. On side one there is God and on side two, there is no God, that we are here by chance. There is divinity or there is chance. And, and that was the approach I took to answering the question my 8-year-old son wanted to know where he was. I have average intelligence. Right? So, let me go to the smartest minds on the planet. What do they think? I studied evolution. I got deep.”
Tom began reading Christian authors as well. "The Case for Christ was one of the first books I read, and I read The Case for a Creator and The Case for Faith, and A Purpose Driven Life. And ultimately, the facts. The facts were overwhelming on the side of God!"
While in his car, eight months after the death of his son, Tom prayed. “I knew that Jesus was real, so I just in my car I just prayed the prayer that, ‘Jesus, I cannot do this without you. I need you and I know you are who you say you are.’”
Tom found comfort in his bible, specifically the Gospel of John. “When I read John I fell in love. Ultimately, it was love that drew me. I felt the deepest love I had never experienced before in reading John.”
For years the grief still remained. However Tom began experiencing a new peace in place of the suffering. “There's no way, there's under no circumstance would I have ever sacrificed a child. Right. And the fact that our God did. That was something that really drew me even further to the faith. Like you took the most precious thing and you gave it for ransom. For what? For someone you didn’t even know.”
Today, as Tom leads one of the nation’s best college wrestling programs, he takes in joy being able to confidently answer the question his son asked him so long ago.
“The good news and this is a love story, that's the good news. I know exactly where he is and I know without question, I'll see him again. There's no...there's no doubt in my mind. And I would say to anyone that lost a child that's struggling, ‘Yeah, it's hard, and it's painful, and it's not going to go away. And it's 19 years removed. I can drive down the street, think about a time we had in the restaurant, and I'll just break down crying. It never gets easy, but God's real. I mean, God is real. Who am I? Look at all the blessings I have. I have so many blessings. I'm so grateful for what I have and He's been the center of all of it.”
Tom Ryan is the author of, "Chosen Suffering," a guide to how to become great through "unchosen suffering."
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