It wasn't the biggest victory of his New York Jets' coaching career, not even close, but it was one of the most emotional.
It was Dec. 14, 2014, and Rex Ryan had just won an ugly game against the woeful Tennessee Titans. It was the Jets' third win in a four-win season, and everybody knew he'd be fired in a couple of weeks. Ryan, still beloved by his players despite the miserable year, was presented the game ball in the locker room. It wasn't his for long. A few minutes later, he walked into a private hallway -- away from cameras and reporters -- and approached a sickly old man in a wheelchair.
Ryan leaned over and gave the ball to his father, Buddy, completing the best handoff of the Jets' season. Family members watched with sad smiles. Rex didn't have much time left in his dream job, and Buddy, his body filled with cancer, didn't have much time left, period. There was an air of finality in the room.
"I've got a lot of these," Buddy said of the game ball, summoning a blast of his legendary bluster.
Rex laughed through the tears.
"I learned more football from him than anyone else," he once said of his father, who died Tuesday at the age of 85.
The father is supposed to brag about the son, but the roles were reversed during Rex's six-year run as the Jets' coach. From his first day on the job to the bitter end, Rex never missed an opportunity to laud his dad's accomplishments. In Rex's eyes, Buddy always was the baddest dude in the room -- and the most revered -- whether it was in a football stadium or a battlefield on the other side of the world.
Rex noted on several occasions that his father was a master sergeant for the U.S. Army in the Korean War, pointing out how troops always volunteered to be in his platoon because of his strong leadership traits.
He often hailed his dad as the greatest defensive coach in NFL history, noting how he became the first coordinator to be carried off the field by his players after a Super Bowl victory. That, of course, occurred with the iconic 1985 Chicago Bears, who turned Buddy's vaunted 46 defense into a revolutionary scheme. It was an incredible team and an incredible season, but what moved Rex more than anything was how Buddy was hoisted on the shoulders of his players.
Rex inherited the same trait -- the desire to be loved by his players -- and it might have contributed to his demise with the Jets. He so badly wanted to win a Super Bowl in New York, in part because of his father's connection to the team.
Buddy was a defensive assistant for the Jets in 1968, the year they won Super Bowl III. Rex and his twin brother Rob worked as ball boys. Some of Rex's earliest memories were formed around that team; he remembers frolicking on a Fort Lauderdale, Florida, beach as a 6-year-old during the run-up to the Super Bowl in Miami. Some of the team's stars -- Joe Namath, Winston Hill, Gerry Philbin et al. -- became his childhood idols. During his tenure as head coach of the franchise, a Philbin jersey hung in his office at One Jets Drive.
On the day he was introduced as head coach in 2009, Rex received the gift of a lifetime. The equipment staff dug up Buddy's old warmup jacket from the '68 season, and it was presented to Rex. On the inside, it had "RYAN" written in black marker. Rex was moved by the gesture.
A few months later, Buddy showed up for minicamp, walked into the media room and did his thing, entertaining reporters with his bravado.
"I think you can near guarantee yourself a Super Bowl if they stay healthy," Buddy said boldly, unwittingly turning up the heat on his son.
Rex didn't mind; he embraced the pressure. In most every way, he is his father's son -- confident, fearless and blustery. That first year, he damn near delivered on his father's prediction, leading the Jets to the AFC Championship Game. On the eve of the game, Buddy arrived at the team hotel in Indianapolis and received a loud roar from the hundreds of fans that had gathered in the lobby. It was as if Elvis had entered the building; the crowd parted to make room for Buddy as he walked to check in.
Naturally, he predicted a Jets win.
Rex was a young defensive coordinator for Morehead State in 1993, when his father earned a place in NFL infamy by punching fellow Houston Oilers assistant Kevin Gilbride in the face during a game against the Jets. Rex was horrified as he watched on TV. Years later he made light of the incident, saying he feared he and Rob would be blackballed from the NFL because of Buddy's actions on the sideline.
That didn't stop Rex from climbing the coaching ladder, eventually winning four playoff games with the Jets -- four more than his dad won as a head coach. Buddy's coaching record was spotty, but if you ask his sons, he was every bit as good as Vince Lombardi, George Halas and Don Shula. He was the most innovative defensive coach ever. The most revered by his players.
The baddest dude in the room.