Ohio State wrestling coach Tom Ryan lost his son, Teague, to a sudden heart attack at the age of five on Feb. 16, 2004. Credit: Courtesy of the Ryan family.

The phrase “I’m sorry” delivered softly by a surgeon in a New York hospital room confirmed Tom and Lynette Ryan’s worst fears.

Their son, Teague, was dead at the age of 5 on Feb. 16, 2004.

“I think time is a healer only because your normal changes,” Ohio State wrestling head coach Tom Ryan said. “But in terms of the grief, there’s times when I’m driving down the street, I’ll hear a song, something reminds me of him, you fall back into that — whether it’s, ‘Why me? Why him?’ There’s a lot of emotions that come into play.”

Teague suffered a fatal heart attack in the arms of his mother in the Ryans’ home in Hauppauge, New York, after playfully avoiding his turn in the shower by running through the living space. 

It took years for doctors to pin down the exact cause, but eventually genetic testing revealed it to be arrhythmogenic right ventricular cardiomyopathy, or ARVC, Teague’s older brother Jake Ryan said. ARVC is a hereditary heart disease that causes the muscular wall of the heart to break down over time. This can lead to an abnormal heartbeat and death.

Several hours earlier, Tom Ryan’s heart filled with joy watching Teague sleep on then-9-year-old Jake’s shoulder through the rear-view mirror of his vehicle.

“I remember that visual of him sleeping there, and I remember thinking, ‘Man, that’s really cool,’” Tom Ryan said. “He’s shot; he’s quiet; he’s tired, which is really cool, but he just really admired Jake.”

After Tom and Lynette Ryan arrived home from the hospital, Jake ran to his father with his older brother Jordan, then 12, and his younger sister Mackenzie, then 3, and asked the toughest question Tom Ryan has ever received in two words: “Where’s Teague?”

“I don’t even remember what I said to him. I just remember I couldn’t answer,” Tom Ryan said.

Tom Ryan’s search for the answer shaped his life and family from that point forward. In it, he discovered his faith, his truth and the real meaning of love after losing the son he called the most influential person in his life.

The loss also shaped Tom Ryan as a coach, giving him a new outlook on how he teaches his athletes.

Ohio State wrestling coach Tom Ryan watches on during a match against Minnesota on Feb. 6, 2015. Credit: Lantern file photo

In high school, an injury stopped Tom Ryan’s run at a potential New York state wrestling title. He lost in a national championship match a few years later and has seen relationships end that “ached his heart.” None of them resonated through his life like losing Teague.

“My girlfriend breaking up with me didn’t cause me to drop to my knees and assess the meaning of life,” Tom Ryan said. “It caused me pain. For some reason, this caused me the deepest pain, and also it was the question from my son. Me wanting to find this answer.”

In his mind there were two options: There was a God, and Teague was with that God, or there wasn’t, and he was gone.

His grief created a desperation for the truth.

“I think my dad, in that season of life, was questioning, ‘My son’s not here, but where is he?’” Mackenzie Ryan, now 18, said, “which led him to open up himself into learning a bunch of different religions, search for the truth all over and ultimately found Christianity.”

Tom Ryan said he approached different faiths with an open mind, but in the months following Teague’s death, far more people came into his life from the Christian faith than any other.

In gestures as simple as cooking a meal so Lynette Ryan didn’t have to, sending cards or telling him what to research, Tom Ryan said he saw the love of humanity and gravitated toward Christianity.

“I didn’t rule out atheism,” Tom Ryan said. “I wasn’t searching for God. I was searching for the truth, and that was simply, ‘Where is he?’”

Grief is life’s strongest right hook, knocking even the closest companions apart sometimes.

But the Ryans instead saw a light that cut through tragedy’s black night. It brought them closer together.

“Teague really saved our family because we didn’t really have a relationship with Christ at the time,” Jake Ryan, now 24, said. “It stinks that something this tragic is what brought us to Christ, but the positive in the situation is that Teague really saved our family.”

That her parents could stay together through such a tragedy, Mackenzie Ryan added, is an example of the strong will the family found through Teague’s death.

“If I could go back and change it, I would,” Mackenzie Ryan said. “But his passing has taught us so much about strength, about perseverance, and getting back up even when you feel like you’re dying, and you’re never gonna get better.”

Jake Ryan said the experience gave him a perspective that many people don’t have. Any complaint he could make in the 15 years since pales in comparison to what he and his family went through.

Tom Ryan carried that perspective with him into his coaching career at Ohio State. He said it taught him how to coach with more humility and gratitude and realize that his job is bigger than winning championships: It’s about helping people become the best version of themselves.

It also taught him how to love harder. Senior 197-pound wrestler Kollin Moore said he sees this love expressed through Tom Ryan’s selflessness. If Moore called him at 5 a.m. for a workout, he’d be there, the team captain said.

“He understands the shortness of life, so he might be a little more understanding of certain things people do,” Moore said. “Maybe if he knows we need an off day to go enjoy ourselves or something like that. You can definitely tell there’s a deeper love for what he does and a deeper love for those around him, just because he’s experienced that tragedy.”

Tom Ryan said love isn’t as simple as being kind to somebody, that sometimes it’s about being stern, taking someone’s car keys when they’ve had a few drinks or delivering a hard truth. Moore said it’s a concept Tom Ryan applies to the Ohio State wrestling program: “Truth in love.”

“If he notices something, he’s definitely not shy about telling you,” Moore said. “Sometimes people can take it in a negative way, like he’s a jerk or something, but I’ve just known him so well the past couple years, and I understand where he’s coming from. It’s never malicious.”

Finding your faith and your truth is the most important search a human being can embark on, Tom Ryan said. He compared going through life without the answer to playing a baseball game without knowing the rules.

Raised Catholic, Tom Ryan said he never connected with God or Jesus — never prayed with his wife until they waited to hear whether Teague was alive in the hospital that February evening.

Discovering his faith took research and an open mind, he said, all because he needed the answer to a two-word question posed by a 9-year-old.

“I don’t care if we’re talking about repairing an engine, running a wrestling program, being a good runner, being a good writer,” Tom Ryan said. “Until you’ve really dug into and studied the topic and deeply looked into each, then you have no ground to stand on.”

Teague’s legacy lives on through even more than the impact his death brought upon his family members. Two donors to the wrestling program, Jack and Deb Miller, whom Tom Ryan “barely knew” made a donation to the team’s new facilities in Teague’s name.

An office space dubbed the “Teague Ryan and Family Recruiting War Room” now sits near Tom Ryan’s office in the Covelli Center.