Navy cut his promising football career short, but Michael Ryan remembered for so much more

Michael Ryan, who was a member of the first Fresno City College football team in 1948, has died. He was 89. Ryan also played at Fresno State before enlisting in the Navy during the Korean War.
Michael Ryan, who was a member of the first Fresno City College football team in 1948, has died. He was 89. Ryan also played at Fresno State before enlisting in the Navy during the Korean War. Special to The Bee

Michael Ryan, a member of the first football team at Fresno City College and starting quarterback of the 1950 Fresno State Bulldogs, died July 15 of complications from Alzheimer’s disease.

He was 89.

Ryan stopped playing college football after that junior year, called like many to military service. But he returned to Fresno for a successful business career and a 68-year marriage.

At Fresno City, Ryan played halfback his freshman season and quarterback as a sophomore.

In that inaugural season, 1948, he returned a punt 75 yards for a touchdown in a 21-13 victory over Bakersfield en route to a 7-2 season. As a quarterback in 1949, he led the Rams to a 6-2 record.

His biggest accomplishment? It might’ve been off the field.

“We had a ram the second year and we were chasing him after football practice and somehow Mike had him corralled,” Ryan’s teammate Mike Kilijian said. “I don’t know where he kept it for the night. Maybe in his yard.”

Ryan was inducted into the Fresno City Football Wall of Fame in 1999.

He went to Fresno State for one season before enlisting in the Navy during the Korean War. Ryan was stationed in San Diego for his entire enlistment (never set foot on a ship, but played football for Navy teams). After he got out of the service, Ryan turned down an opportunity to try out with the San Francisco 49ers and focused on family instead.

Ryan’s son Mike said there are a lot of great memories of his dad, but the one that resonates with him most is when they both started playing tennis.

“As I grew up, we played every so often against each other,” he said. “There was that psychological edge of trying to beat your father in a sporting event, and I was probably playing better than him but it took a long time before I can beat him because of the mind. That’s my dad. I can’t beat my dad.”

Ryan was a Union Oil Company petroleum distributor, farmer, real estate broker and businessman, including opening the Earth Shoe stores at Fresno’s Fig Garden Village and in Carmel in the 1970s with his friend Steve Blumberg.

Former Fresno City College sports publicist Woody Wilk said Ryan’s loyalty to his friends is what stood out.

“He and those first group of guys (the Fresno City football players from 1948-49) used to meet regularly for breakfast at Coney Island by Fulton Mall,” Wilk said. “He and Kilijian kept tabs of the guys and were very supportive with their money. ... His guys were just a really special group.”

Kiligian echoed what Wilk said about his longtime friend, describing Ryan as “just a great guy to be around and very dedicated to his family.”

Ryan was born in Fresno, sharing a birthdate (Jan. 11) with his mother. He attended St. Therese Elementary School in Fresno but graduated from St. Ignatius High in San Francisco where he was a two-time All-City player.

Ryan returned to Fresno with his family from San Francisco in 1947 when he was 17. He met his wife Jodell Lord and they were together for 71 years, married 68.

Michael Ryan

Born: Jan. 11, 1930

Died: July 15, 2019

Residence: Fresno

Occupation: Farmer, self-employed investor and real estate broker

Survivors: Wife of 68 years, Jodell; children Mike Ryan, Sean Ryan and his spouse Claudia, Kelly Ryan Molthen and her spouse Mark “Mo”, Kevin Ryan and his spouse Willa, and Patrick Ryan and his spouse Katie; 15 grandchildren and five great-grandchildren; brothers Mayo and Greg Ryan and sister Tookie Appelbe

Services: Visitation Wednesday, July 24, 5 to 7 p.m. at The Shrine of St. Therese Catholic Church with recitation of the rosary at 7 p.m. Mass of Christian Burial will be celebrated on Thursday, July 25, 10 a.m. at the Shrine of St. Therese.

Donations may be sent to St. Ignatius College Preparatory, 2001 37th Avenue, San Francisco CA 94116

Anthony Galaviz writes about sports for The Fresno Bee. He covers the Oakland Raiders, high schools, boxing, MMA and junior colleges. He’s been with The Bee since 1997 and attended Fresno City College before graduating from Fresno State with a major in journalism and a minor in criminology.