Ryan Wood covers a football team whose legendary coach once famously told his players, “Gentlemen, we are going to relentlessly pursue perfection. We will not catch it, because no one is perfect, but we will capture excellence in our attempts and that will be enough.”
Long before he was the beat writer for the Green Bay Packers, Ryan knew what it was like to work for a demanding pain in the ass like Vince Lombardi. He was a sportswriter and a sports editor for me with the Daily News at Ball State University. Although you’re not allowed to pick favorites as an instructor or adviser, I can honestly say I broke that rule when it came to Ryan.
Even as he grew from the freshman who was scared to death about an open-records story about a recalcitrant basketball coach to an award-winning writer who covered an NFL team, he remained trapped in my head as a college kid. He rarely shaved in those days and made some “questionable clothing choices,” like the Mets jersey he practically had glued to his torso every time he was in the newsroom.
(I once got a phone call from an athletic director who asked me to talk to “that kid” about dressing appropriately in the press box for football games. Seems a pair of ratty cargo shorts Ryan donned for a big MAC game had a rip in the crotch, which several professional beat reporters made a note of. We managed to get him some “work attire” at a local thrift store so he could look the part without going broke.)
I always admired his writing, as I followed his work from small-town papers in the south to the Press-Gazette in Green Bay. He had a knack for finding flecks of gold within a game and shining a verbal light upon them. He managed to gain trust from people who reticently dole out confidences in paltry amounts.
From time to time over the last decade, we’d touch base about a story or an idea or even a word choice in a story. He had long outgrown a need for me, but for him it seemed that my confirmation of his choices provided him with solace. For my part, reading anything Ryan wrote felt like slipping into a favorite worn flannel shirt: It was familiar and welcome, reassuring and comfortable.
None of those things was true of this story he published yesterday, where he unveiled his family’s multi-year struggle with mental health problems. And it was by far the best thing I’ve ever read. Ryan and his wife, Kelly, provided an inside look at her bipolar, borderline personality disorder, severe depression and severe anxiety, which nearly cost Kelly her life on multiple occasions.
In a blog post she wrote about this story, Kelly noted that she wasn’t a fan of the term “brave” in relation to the struggle to work through and discuss mental illness. If that’s the case, perhaps “courageous” would be an apt substitute here: “having the mental or moral strength to venture, persevere, and withstand danger, fear, or difficulty.” That seems to capture my sense of who they are and what they faced, something Ryan showed me with an incomparable writing prowess.
I read the piece from start to finish, top to bottom multiple times and each time, the emotions it evokes are indescribable. I can feel my throat tighten, my eyes well with tears and my lips purse as I follow along word by painstaking word.
I always tell my students that a good description in a story would let me see the scene in my mind’s eye and would place me next to the writer in the scene itself. In this piece, I can see the tubes weaving into Kelly, as she lay in her hospital bed after an overdose. I can hear the screams Ryan emits and feel the tears on his face to the point that I literally want to grab him and hold him and tell him it’ll be OK. I can sense in every raw nerve in my body the tentative rebuilding of their life after each problematic episode.
The stunning helplessness… The blind desperation… The words envelop me and sink into every pore. I can feel this story in every tightening breath and moment of ache.
This isn’t a case of a sad story creating impact, as I’ve read and written pieces about death and damage. It isn’t a case of knowing the people involved, either, as I have helped write eulogies and obituaries for some of my closest family members and friends.
It is the rare confluence of writer and story, told in a way that defies all expectations, that allows every element of people, places, things and ideas to align in a way that grabs the reader and doesn’t let go. The honesty and emotion pair with a structured narrative about a wildly unstructured series of events. I can’t think of another story I have read in 20-plus years of teaching that ever did this for me in the way Ryan and Kelly did.
I would consider it, and them, to be courageously perfect.