By Peter Richmond
GRAFTON, Vt. -- "So why Oppermann's Conjecture, of all conjectures?" I asked Frank Ryan. I was still a little uncertain about what a mathematical conjecture was. All I knew was that Frank had told me he was spending a lot of time with Oppermann's.
"Well, it's enticing because it's so simple to state," he said, at his dining room table in Grafton, Vt., "and yet people can't resolve it." (This is how simply 19th-century Danish mathematician/semiotician Ludvig Opperman's conjecture from 1882 can be stated: "There exists a prime number between N-squared and N-squared+N, where N is an integer.") "And yet people can't resolve it. It's a very fundamental conjecture in the range of problems known as prime number distribution -- problems concerning the sequence of those integers that are prime numbers," he explained, doing his best not to sound professorial.
* * *
Grafton is a quaint village that features the requisite general store porch where a woman coming up the wooden stairs will say, "Getting' a little warm, isn't it?" and a man going down them will answer, "It's tryin'," and that will be the end of their discourse. Frank doesn't live in one of the white clapboard village houses, but in a spacious home northeast of town designed by one of his four sons. The library, off the south side of the house, is septegonal. Frank likes his prime numbers. His wife Joan's reading room off the north side is octagonal. One of the first female sportswriters to ever grace a locker room, formerly syndicated by The Washington Post, she's been married to Frank since their senior year at Rice, 55 years ago.
At 76, totally immersed in his numbers, Frank Ryan seems to be at his peak. During our afternoon together, if he wasn't smiling, he was always on the edge of a smile, and frequently he laughed out loud. If there were an encyclopedia entry for "In Touch with the Things You're Supposed to Be in Touch With," I think there'd be a picture of Frank Ryan. He seems to be leading something of a dream of a life.
Why did he choose Prime Number Distribution as a retirement pursuit? Well, he sure wasn't about to revisit Geometric Function Theory and spend all his time mapping points from one Riemann Surface to another. (Frank's Ph.D. dissertation at Rice, "Characterization of the Set of Asymptotic Values of a Function Holomorphic in the Unit Disc," pretty much used up his taste for geometric-function work.)
Frank earned the sheepskin about six months after he'd quarterbacked the Cleveland Browns to a rout of the Colts in the NFL championship game of '64. The final was 27-0, which is not a prime number. But he threw three touchdown passes, which is. The Browns haven't won it since -- but they haven't had any other Ph.D.s. Then again, no other teams have, either.
And it was three years later when, scrambling from the pocket, he butted heads with Dick Butkus. Frank's neck crunched. He left the game. The doctor cleared him to return for the second half. Well, the chiropractor cleared him. Art Modell, the Browns owner, didn't have an actual M.D. on the payroll.
Frank didn't mind going back in. After all, he'd already been having recurrences of those "bright slashes of lightning-looking things" in one eye that started when he was hit in the head in high school. Just part of the game he has long left behind.
* * *
There's nothing in the rooms of the Ryans' house, with its Asian art, its world-travelled aesthetic, to suggest that the man who lives here had led a life outside of academia. (Frank taught at Rice, Yale and Case Western after the NFL.) To glimpse his past, you have to walk down a hitherto-unseen hallway, to a stairway landing leading up to his office, where hangs a white sign with careful red lettering: What you see here, What you say here, What you hear here, Let it stay here when you leave here.
"That was in Lombardi's locker room," Frank says. He played for Vince in Washington. He was "a really good guy. When Joan was back in Cleveland with the kids, he used to ask me over sometimes."
But wait, Frank: You stole his sign?
"Yes, I did. A reminder of a past life. That's not a part of my life at all. But it's all a nice memory. Time marches on."
* * *
In the office, a notebook lies open in front of two flat screens. A couple of boxes full of math books sit on the floor, awaiting donation to Yale or Dartmouth. In an adjacent room, the bookshelves sag. Yet another tome arrived today, about the Antikythera Mechanism of ancient Greece ("possibly the first computer in the history of civilization," Frank says). On one screen, he pulls up a file containing 1,350 lines of code. (If they were scrawled on a whiteboard, I figure that it would have to be the size of a drive-in screen.)
On the walls hang black-and-white photographs of two of his mentors: Sir Edward Collingwood, an expert in meromorphic function and the theory of cluster sets, and Jack Lohwater, the former editor of Mathematical Reviews, who allied with Russian mathematicians in the '50s, in the hopes of thawing the Cold War.
Another photograph, in color, taken in the championship game, shows Ryan surrounded by rushing Colts, having just released a form-perfect bomb.
So he hasn't put it completely behind him. Looking back, what did it mean to him?
"Well," he says, "we were pretty excited about it," unconsciously switching pronouns. "I don't feel any braggadocio about it at all. I was already starting to sour on football. There was so much else out there to do."
A pause. "The truth is, I'm not sure I ever liked football that well," he says. In part this was because of the constant fear that he would perform poorly. Just as worrisome, of course, to a man embarking on a life of the mind, was the fragility of the brain, being hunted every week by the likes of Deacon Jones -- especially after the Pro Bowl game following his title. During the championship game, with 11 seconds to go and fans pushing onto the field, Colts captain Gino Marchetti had asked the ref if he could just call the game now. No way, said Frank. His final pass into the end zone, trying to get a touchdown for his friend John Brewer, was incomplete. "My behavior against a very credible foe," he says now, "was, at the end of that game, immature."
Marchetti publicly vowed revenge. Two weeks later, in the Pro Bowl, Marchetti, Willie Davis and Roger Brown simultaneously sacked Ryan, mangling his shoulder. That's a lot of flesh. At the time, the Lions had to weigh Brown on the scale down at the Railway Express Agency in Detroit.
* * *
The shoulder recovered. The lightning abated. The neck pain didn't. By 1975, the pain had grown so intense in Ryan's neck and arms that doctors took a piece of his hip and used it to replace a neck vertebra. Today that hip-neck bone is arthritic, but he shrugs it off. It's not as if his mathematician's brain was ever slowed down; "I'm excited about the things I'm trying to solve," he says. "They're giving me fits, but it's extraordinarily exciting to me. Just when I think that I'm stuck, I get a new idea. Right now, I'm on a very promising track."
This is fairly obvious.
"I'm very surprised," he says, "that I'm actually in such good shape, mentally and physically. I feel good. I feel great. I have no qualms about my age, about facing death."
This was not the case with his old right guard, the late Gene Hickerson -- Jim Brown's main man -- who, with advanced Alzheimer's, had to be wheeled to the stage for his Hall induction in 2007. That still angers Ryan. "I thought they exploited him terribly."
It's not the injuries that bother him. It's exploitation -- not of the old, but of the new -- by colleges who teach their football players virtually nothing other than blocking techniques. Knowledge is Frank Ryan's stock in trade. His professors literally opened up new universes for the man. Not his coaches.
"There's a lot of exploitation in football -- a lot of misdirection in what are the real values of living, of doing. I'm not saying we shouldn't have football and all its glory, but the players should be focused on something more than running a 4.5 forty."
It didn't used to be so. On Nov. 16, 1957, when Ryan the undergrad was laying the foundation for the Ph.D. in his classrooms, his Rice team met the nationally top-rated Texas A&M Aggies of Bear Bryant. The scholar-athletes of Rice won it, 7-6.
Six decades later, as a rule, college quarterbacks generally don't lead their teams to upsets of the top-ranked team on their way to Ph.D.s.
* * *
After more than two hours away from his computers, his scrawled notebook, I can sense Frank itching to get back upstairs to his lines of code.
On our walk to my car, the birdsong is pitch-perfect. The Vermont air is like a pure hit of something. In the distance, I can hear the rippling of a stream, below the property. He promises to let me know if he cracks through that conjecture.
Back in Grafton, with its frozen-in-invisible-aspic, white-clapboard homes, and the 213-year-old Grafton Inn, I stop into the general store for a copy of the New York Post. The sports pages are full of Aaron Hernandez news.
And I think of the man back up the hill trying to find a prime number. And wonder why the ways of the past can't coexist with the present. Not that we should hope or expect that every kid on draft day should want to spend his downtime reading about the Antikythera Mechanism. Or that he should even have his degree -- not today, not when as soon as the final Pac-10 game is done, our future Pac-Men have to start getting ready for the combine.
But a man can dream, can't he?
* * *
Peter Richmond has written for five newspapers, been featured in 14 anthologies and spent 13 years on staff at GQ. He has written about everything from sports to murder to movie stars to vasectomies, and has published six books, including a New York Times bestseller. His most recent, Badasses, a history of the Oakland Raiders of the 1970s, has been released in paperback.