With a grandfather and father who both played on national championship teams at Notre Dame, Ryan Leahy probably didn't need much of a nudge when it came to beginning his own career as an offensive lineman at Notre Dame. His grandfather is Irish playing and coaching legend Frank Leahy, who played for Knute Rockne, and his father, James Leahy, who played on the 1966 national championship team. Frank Leahy won four national championships at Notre Dame and had six unbeaten seasons.
Ryan Leahy arrived in South Bend from Washington's Yakima River Valley eager to carve his own slice on the family tree. Brother Pat Leahy was already playing baseball at Notre Dame, so the brothers were at South Bend together. Ryan Leahy was twice elected co-captain of the Notre Dame football team (1994 and 1995) and he also received the Edward "Moose" Krause Lineman of the Year Award, which is named after the Notre Dame legend and one of his grandfather close friends.
After a brief career in the NFL, Leahy now lives in the Chicago area with his wife and two daughters.
As the grandson of a legend, was there a point you thought you'd go to school elsewhere?"I did take three other visits (Washington, Oregon UCLA).Notre Dame was my first visit and to me I really felt at home there. Even though I am a grandson of Frank Leahy, growing up in Washington State I felt pretty removed from Notre Dame. My older brother Pat was there when I was in high school. He played for the baseball team, and while he was there my parents flew me up for a two-week visit, which gave me a good impression of what Notre Dame had to offer. Frank Jacobs and Irv Smith played baseball with my brother but were also members of the football team, and they helped recruit me.
"On my official visit to ND, I took my host (Bernard Manly) to a baseball get-together and introduced him to the guys that I knew on the baseball team. I never felt any pressure from my family.
"Washington was my second choice, but Notre Dame was so far in the lead it was not even close. USC did call me a few times and sent some recruiting letters. After I received the first couple recruiting letters, I got a call from one of the USC coaches. His first question was to inquire if I was related to Coach Leahy, and after I said yes, that was the last call I got from USC. Notre Dame was not just like family to me, it was the best place for Ryan Leahy.
"The two coaches who came out to Washington to recruit me were Jay Hayes and Joe Moore. Coach Moore was selling me real hard on Notre Dame. ‘The University of Notre Dame is the University of America. You go to any state and they know Notre Dame. Just like here in Wisconsin.' And then Coach Hayes says, ‘Coach Moore, we're in Washington.' And Coach Moore says, ‘See!' When I decided to go to Notre Dame, my dad told the coach, no special treatment. Treat him like the other players, or even worse. Coach Moore made me crab 500 yards just for being related to Coach Leahy.
What is your favorite Notre Dame football memory?"The play that stands out the most in my mind was the reverse in the ‘93 Florida State game. Everything surrounding that game was quite memorable, though. The campus turned into a zoo the week before the game with all of the media frenzy, but of course you still have to go to class because you have academic requirements. Coach (Lou) Holtz told us, ‘yes it's a big game, but we still have to do things the way we always do things.
"Missing class to go to an interview is not an excuse.' The RVs were already showing up on campus on Monday. I had just come back from a knee injury, and the FSU game was my first game back. When Adrian Jarrell ran that reverse play, Todd Norman, Aaron Taylor, and myself were all up on the line, with Jarrell behind us. The entire FSU defense bit on the reverse play except for their defensive back, Clifton Abraham (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Clifton_Abraham). All I can remember is seeing Abraham's eyes get really big as he saw the three of us coming at him. Then you hear the crowd light up and you knew that it was going to be a big play. You just pray there are no flags.
"The year we played FSU, my brother Pat had left Notre Dame early to go into the baseball draft (he later came back to finish his degree). He couldn't sign up for football tickets because his minor league baseball season ran into the first week of school. Our family had run out of tickets for that game, and we didn't have a ticket for Pat.
"There was a stadium usher by the name of Bob Schultheis, who used to mow my grandfather's lawn when he lived in South Bend. He and I had gotten to know each other, and so I asked him if by any chance he would be able to get Pat into the FSU game. Not only did he get my brother a ticket, the ticket was one of the seats down on the field. (Back then they had benches down on the field in between the boxes.) I'm coming off the field after a play and I look up to see my brother sitting on the sidelines. It was such an exciting win.
"After the game I snuck Pat into the locker room with the rest of the team and we got sang the Notre Dame fight song together. ‘Notre Dame, Our Lady, Queen of Victory… pray for us!' Being able to sing the fight song with my brother was a huge moment for me. When we were kids, my Grandmother Leahy would give us ice cream money if we would sing the fight song for her."
How would you describe playing for Coach Joe Moore?"I had such a deep respect for him. He was hard as hell on us. Over the years, no matter what team he coached for, he made offensive linemen who were aggressive and physical. He always got his players to achieve their absolute best. I was lucky enough to run into him while he was coaching at Iowa (after Notre Dame) somewhere around 1999. He and (strength coach) Chris Doyle were leading a football clinic at Iowa with about 500 in attendance. I am watching from the sidelines in a suit and a tie.
"Coach Moore sees me and yells, ‘Damn it, Leahy. Go show those offensive linemen how to double-team (how to snap the ball step and do a double team between the guard and the center). When Coach Moore was on the field, for him it was not about anything but football. The most important thing to him was line play. It was all about blocking people. This was how he taught us to win and be physical.
"Coach Moore understood that the other players on the field cannot perform if your offensive line is not blocking to the best of their ability. He was so hard on us in practice. I got called for holding in a scrimmage and Coach Moore made me stand on the side of the practice field with my arms straight out for an hour and a half."
How do you remember your NFL experience?"I was a free agent and so I didn't get chosen in all of the draft day craziness. I had good coaches at Notre Dame. I felt that Coach Moore had us very prepared to play in the NFL. I played for a year with the Arizona Cardinals and was mentored under Coach Carl Mauck, and further developed my skills under his instruction, but my knee surgery slowed me down. Unfortunately, I didn't have the talent level to be able to slow down.
"Then I played over in NFL Europe with guys like Jake Delhomme, Jay Fielder and Kurt Warner in Amsterdam. I remember that my teammates were just like me. They wanted so badly to make it back to the NFL. I remember Warner saying to us, ‘I just can't go back to bagging groceries.'?
"I didn't earn a huge sum of money playing football professionally, but it was a great experience, and I'm so glad I got the chance to play at that level. I feel very fortunate that I got the chance to play and had a lot of fun doing it."
What was the highlight of your NFL career?"There was a three-week period where I got the opportunity to play against three all-pros. Because of injuries to other players on our team, I got the start and that was definitely my NFL highlight. I was able to hold my own, have some fun and actually really compete.
"The NFL is weird. It does not have the atmosphere that a college game does. No marching band. No student body. It is definitely more of a ‘job.' And then there is that moment when someone tells you, ‘Coach needs to see you, and bring your playbook.' Having disappointments like that helped me become the person that I am today. I was always among the last to be cut, and at that point in the selection process all of the NFL teams already have their rosters pretty much set, which makes it almost impossible to find a spot somewhere else. It just forced me to figure out where life was going to take me next."
Where did life take you after the NFL?"Immediately after retiring from the NFL, it was very challenging for me to figure out what the next chapter of my life was going to be. I studied to take the GMAT to possibly get a graduate degree in business. I had also taken some graduate classes when I was still at Notre Dame, but it was definitely a struggle for me to figure out exactly what I wanted to do. I knew that things were no longer happening for me in the NFL.
"I moved to Iowa to get into the finance field, and my first stop was working for ABN Amro. I then worked eight years working the municipal bonds trading desk, which I found out is as close to a locker room as I can get not playing sports. It's great; I get to hang out with a bunch of guys. We compete against one another. There is constant competition, communication and interaction. It's a life filled with competition which I very much enjoy.
"Then I went back to Northwestern Kellogg School of Management and received my MBA in Finance and Marketing. Most people don't combine marketing with finance, but somehow I felt that marketing would be helpful because eventually all financial products need to be marketed.
"Currently I am the Vice President at Incapital LLC in Chicago. I work in the fixed income department focusing on municipal bonds. The president of our company is Tom Ricketts, whose family owns the Chicago Cubs. All of the White Sox fans in our office are "encouraged" to root for the Cubs. Being in Chicago is great. I have a family in the Chicago area, and I have been going to Cubs games since I was 13, so this is a great place for me."
What is your favorite Lou Holtz memory/story?"Definitely all of the motivational stories from Coach Holtz. ‘When your wife leaves you, or your kid is sick, you have to have the confidence to carry on when life throws you that curve ball. You always have to believe that momentum will carry you forward. You've got to be able to pick yourself up and fight to figure it out.' Coach Holtz was such a great motivator. He made sure that we did things the right way. That we went to class, went to practice. He was a huge disciplinarian. That's what he did.
"Some of the funniest parts of Coach Holtz were the sayings and stories that he told about my grandfather. He would get so mad at me at practice. Would look straight at me and say, ‘There is no way you can be related to Frank Leahy.' Then we would look up to heaven and say, ‘I'm so sorry, Frank. I can't teach your boy the offense.'
"There was this fundraiser in New York for an organization that I belong to called "Lou's Lads." They had me up at the podium and were asking me about being a Leahy and playing for Coach Holtz. After I gave my response, I finished with my Coach Holtz impression, singing the Mickey Mouse Club song with a lisp. The crowd goes wild. Then Coach Holtz says, ‘Every time I hear you talk like me, I realize how bad my lisp is.'
"This, however, is my best Coach Holtz memory of all. One day, we were at practice and we were a sweaty, muddy mess. It was late summer (or) early fall, and the season had just begun. Coach Holtz had his grandson, Trey, at practice. He had Trey with him on his golf cart and they were sitting off to the side watching practice. He was pointing out players to Trey and explaining to him what they were doing.
"That moment was pretty remarkable to me. There was no jealousy or contempt on my part. I just thought it was really great for him to be able to share that with his grandson, and for his grandson to see him coach. That is something that I did not get to do with my grandfather, as he passed when I was only 13 months old. But seeing Coach Holtz with Trey like that is an image that I won't ever forget."
Author's Note: Thank you very much to Ryan Leahy for spending some time with me and talking Notre Dame football. Next week's interview: Former Irish wide receiver Bobby Brown.