Ryan Pedon still remembers the exact seats he sat in for Ohio State men’s basketball games in St. John Arena with his father, mother and sister when he was growing up.
Section 7A, row 14, seats 1, 2, 3 and 4.
For nearly 15 years of his childhood, Pedon sat in those seats next to his father, Felix Pedon.
Ryan, hired to be an assistant coach for the Buckeyes in June, remembers the time spent in that arena as well as anything else from his youth. His mind often wanders back to those seats, especially now — now that he could be close to losing his best friend.
Felix has battled Lewy body dementia since his diagnosis eight years ago. At age 86, after years of watching Ryan’s games as an athlete, and now as a coach, he is nearing the end of his battle.
Ryan, who departs Thursday for the Big Ten tournament in New York City, is unsure if his father will be alive when he returns.
“My gut says about a week, but I don’t know,” Ryan said Tuesday. “I don’t know what to base that off of. I’m not a doctor. Just kind of watching him, looking at him in his hospice bed right now. He’s peaceful. I don’t think he’s having trouble breathing at the moment, so maybe a week or two.”
On most road trips, Ryan has been able to effectively compartmentalize his feelings. He said he is always trying to balance his roles as a coach, father, husband and son.
But given the health of his father, Ryan’s trip to New York for what could be several days will be different.
Felix has always had a family member by his side since his diagnosis. Now that his health is beginning to fail him, Ryan might not be there at the end, something with which he has made peace.
“At this point, I think I know my dad would want me to be with the team,” Ryan said, breaking down in tears. “And as much as I’d like to be there for him at the end, you put your faith in the man above and you’ve just sort of got to let the chips fall where they may. Sort of, you leave him in the Lord’s hands. I think that’s probably the best thing I could say.
“I’ve got to be there with our team and hope I’m around when it happens, but if I’m not, then I know we’ll have other family that will be here.”
If there was a golden child in the family, it was Ryan, said Dean, his second-oldest half-brother. Felix was always heavily invested in sports, having played tennis until a knee operation in 2008, as well as coaching basketball, baseball and football at St. Catherine’s high school for several years.
Dean said Felix knew once Ryan, his fifth son, was born, he had a future basketball player.
“My dad came out and he was so proud that he had another boy,” Dean said. “He said, ‘He can dribble with both hands and he goes right to the basket.’ And that truly is how he introduced Ryan to me.”
From an early age, Ryan’s parents encouraged him to play basketball — to a certain extent. Ryan had a basketball “bigger than he was,” said his mom, Sally. He took it with him wherever he went, until his mom found it deflated in the trunk of the family station wagon one summer.
While Sally expressed concern that her son was becoming too “one-dimensional,” Felix encouraged the habit, building a basketball hoop in the backyard above the garage and frequently playing with Ryan. He even put lights around it so Ryan could continue playing until midnight, often keeping the neighbors awake.
When they couldn’t play in the backyard, they went to a local community center.
Ryan and his dad were so close, Ryan made him the best man at his wedding in 2010. It was, as Felix shuffled down the aisle, that the family doctor — who was a friend and neighbor in attendance at the wedding — noticed what he believed to be symptoms of Parkinson’s.
His disease was originally diagnosed as a form of Parkinsonism, Sally said, but around a year later was identified as Lewy body dementia after Felix underwent multiple tests at Ohio State.
“I didn’t know a lot about Lewy body, and I certainly did a little bit of research, but it was something that we found out would be a gradual, you know, sort of a gradual progression,” Ryan said.
Given that it is a slow-moving disease and his dad still seemed to be in relatively fine condition — though he began to lose motor skills — the family felt fortunate in some respects.
“I don’t want to make it seem like in 2010 it was a death sentence either, because it wasn’t,” Ryan said. “The last eight years, it was probably a blessing that we could see it coming a little bit, too, as opposed to — when it’s a loved one, I think we’re all different with how we respond to death of loved ones. Everybody’s different, but I know our family, we were appreciative that we were able to say our goodbyes and sort of see it coming.”
For a while, most of the Pedon family was away from Columbus. Four of the five sons lived out of state, as did Ryan’s sister, Amy. However, Ryan was hired to join head coach Chris Holtmann’s staff at Ohio State in the summer, bringing him back home to his father.
Having grown up the son of a Buckeye fan and raised as one, Ryan felt pride at the chance to be able to tell his father that he would be coaching at Ohio State. It had always been a dream of the Pedon family for Ryan to be able to return to Columbus.
The dream, unfortunately, was met with a morbid moment.
“When I told him I was coming to Ohio State — I’m sorry I’m getting choked up a little bit here,” Ryan said, “But he said, the night I told him I was coming to Ohio State, he said, ‘I can die a happy man.’”
Shortly after being hired, Ryan took his parents and his high school basketball coach on a tour of the Schottenstein Center. The group ventured throughout the arena, seeing where the shoes are kept in the locker room, the coaches’ offices and the court with empty seats.
Sally said Felix was so proud and that it felt like a dream come true for him to receive a tour of the Buckeyes’ home arena by his son — one of the coaches.
Felix was in better shape during the tour of the arena, but as the season neared, his health declined. Ryan said he is unsure if his dad was even able to comprehend or fully watch a game with Ryan as an Ohio State coach on TV given his current mental state.
“The saddest thing is he was looking forward to — that was his goal in rehab this fall was to get better and stronger so he could go to that [Nov. 5 matchup against Wooster],” Sally said. “It was sad that he did not get to make that game or any this season.”
Ryan visits his dad as frequently as he can. Often, he goes by himself when he can find the time. Whether it’s on the way home from games, before a road trip or just some free time, Ryan tries to spend time with his dad whenever possible.
“It’s been pretty cool to be able to go, and with the season we’ve had and go there and tell him that, ‘Dad, we just beat the No. 1 team in the country. We beat Michigan State,’” Ryan said. “You go after games, and sometimes I’ll go real early in the morning. Sometimes I’ll go real late at night. But I just go and sit there and just talk to him.”
Ryan has not opened up about his father’s disease much with his fellow coaches. In fact, Holtmann said he asks Ryan about his father more often than Ryan brings him up.
Holtmann said he knows Ryan has gone through a lot and encourages him to take time off should he need it.
“He needs to know he has my blessing to do that and more than anything, I’m encouraging him to do that, if that’s what he feels like he needs,” Holtmann said. “But he also may feel like, hey, like he told me, ‘My dad would want me to be doing this.’”
Even with Ryan having said it has been nice to have the eight years with his father rather than an unexpected loss, Ryan will be losing the person he calls his father, his role model, his best friend.
Sally, who has spent countless hours watching the two play pickup basketball outside and going with them to play golf, knows it will be hard on Ryan. It will be hard on everyone in the family.
“I’m proud of my kid,” Sally said. “It’s the end of an era. Ryan and his dad have been the closest of all the children.”
When he steps onto the team bus that will take him to the airport to board a plane for New York City on Thursday, Ryan won’t know for certain whether he will see his father alive again.
But he will forever see his father in his memories, always in that same row, always in the same seats.