LAWRENCEBURG, Ky. -- It is a beautiful part of the world here where the celebration of the life of James David "Buddy" Ryan played out with laughter and stories and love on Friday. The caravan of cars from the airport to this rural town carried a generation of football legends who paid tribute to a man who meant so much to them.
One of the great defensive minds and a larger-than-life personality was again the center of attention from the legions of men who said goodbye to a mentor, to a friend and to a coach who made such a difference in the lives of so many. Ryan passed away at the age of 85 on Tuesday and was properly celebrated in his land of the horses.
"People talk about a lot of success that we had on the football field, but what people maybe don't know is that when you're a young man and a player, you really have times when you aren't so sure of yourself," former Eagles cornerback Eric Allen said. "Buddy gave me the confidence to be the player I was on the field and also the person I became after the game. He told me he believed in me. He told me I was going to be the starting cornerback of the Philadelphia Eagles when he drafted me (in the second round of the 1988 NFL Draft). That was beyond anything I could comprehend at the time.
"I attribute so much of my success to that growth spurt I had in Philadelphia, and to Buddy Ryan for believing in me and for knowing how to bring out the best in me."
Allen was one of dozens of former players who honed their craft under Ryan. Some of the men played for Ryan when he started his coaching career at Gainesville High School in Texas. Some were with Ryan at the University of Buffalo and then, of course, most of those who attended on Friday to pay their final respects worked with Ryan on the sidelines and in the locker rooms of the NFL.
Allen, former defensive end Clyde Simmons, former linebackers Seth Joyner and Britt Hager, defensive back William Frizzell and tight end Keith Jackson were among the former Eagles to attend, along with former Eagles coaches Dan Neal and Ronnie Jones. Former Bears head coach Mike Ditka and former Chicago linebacker Mike Singletary and former Chicago safety Gary Fencik were there. The great Richard Dent, the Hall of Famer, made sure to be there to show his love.
Among the hugs and the laughter and the claps on the back was the realization of just how much impact Ryan had in his 35-year coaching life. There was a sense of Six Degrees Of Separation, Buddy Ryan Style, here.
"A special man who was just the best defensive coach ever," said Leslie Frazier, a defensive back with the 1985 Super Bowl champion Bears who then coached with the Eagles under head coach Andy Reid. Frazier is now a defensive backs coach in Baltimore. "So much of what the NFL is all about defensively is because of what Buddy believed in, and that was attacking the offense and bringing more players than the offense could block."
Simmons and Joyner, along with former agent Jim Solano, visited Ryan at his home during Father's Day weekend and, while they didn't know it at the time, shared their love for Ryan one final time while he was alive.
"It was very special," said Simmons, who is the defensive line coach with the Los Angeles Rams. "His hearing wasn't too great, so we just slowed it down and talked and really enjoyed it. His mind was still very sharp. He still remembered everything about our days in Philadelphia and then in Arizona. Buddy's body was failing on him, but his mind was still sharp.
"He was someone who meant a great deal to me, not just as a football coach and as a mentor, but as a friend. I loved him. He took a chance with me as a player and he was loyal to me until the very end. Being here today, there was no way I would miss this chance to see him one last time and say goodbye and to celebrate all that he accomplished in life."
Solano met Ryan, of course, when Buddy became the head coach of the Eagles in 1986, fresh off the Super Bowl win for Chicago. At the time Solano represented about 20 Eagles players and he walked into Ryan's office at Veterans Stadium and introduced himself and the two became lifelong friends.
"Maybe it was because when I left Buddy's office Harry Gamble (the former Eagles president) said, 'That Jim Solano, maybe you don't want to have him around. He's a so and so ...' Buddy probably picked up on that and wanted to do something to agitate the Eagles, I don't know. He was like that. He did things his way," Solano said. "He had fun, he loved Philadelphia and obviously Philadelphia loved him. The town needed his toughness and his confidence. Those were some tough years for the Eagles before Buddy came along. He really turned things around."
He turned things around and around and upside down and we all loved the bluster. There weren't enough wins in the end, and the Ryan era in Philadelphia lasted about only five years, but the impact is still felt. Ryan created a culture of us against the world, and he helped revitalize the football franchise and make the Eagles relevant again.
"To this day, I meet fans and they talk about those days of the Gang Green defense and we always talk about, 'If we could have just won one Super Bowl ... that's the only thing missing from what Buddy did in Philly," Allen said. "Those years, I'll tell you, anybody who was part of it -- the players, the fans, everyone -- they were special times. They lasted a lifetime, those memories. Today, I'm glad to be here to share with so many other guys who shared what Buddy meant to them. It's inspiring the legacy that he leaves in the game of football and with so many people."