Every time Morgan Ryan prepares to disembark from his ship, he stops before the gangplank, turns solemnly toward the American flag and slowly salutes it, his hand steady at his brow for what seems like an eternity.
Every time he returns to his ship, he repeats the routine. It’s not a reflex, and it’s more than just protocol.
Old Glory means the world to a U.S. Navy seaman. Its place is permanent in his heart. It stands for respect, honor and commitment to his country, one he will defend with his life, without reservation or regret.
Petty Officer 3rd Class Morgan Ryan looks like a slice of apple pie, but there’s a mean slice of sharp cheddar cheese on top of it. He holds true to his commitment, focused on his role as an electronics technician whose specialized work involves surface search radar and landing radar for jets on the USS Ronald Reagan, where he has served for 1-1/2 years. He hopes to someday join the special forces unit.
Serious stuff for a serious young man; he doesn’t turn 21 until next month.
And Ryan is also serious about his football.
Ryan hails from Minden, Neb. — a town of 3,000 nicknamed the "Christmas City" because of its 95-year-old December tradition of illuminating the local courthouse with more than 10,000 lights.
Like most Nebraskans, Ryan maintains an allegiance to the University of Nebraska football team.
Of course, as a serviceman, Ryan rarely has a chance to watch the team in person. But as luck would have it, his beloved Cornhuskers came to him.
On Dec. 28, players for both Nebraska and the Washington Huskies had lunch on Ryan’s ship as part of the teams’ activities for the Bridgepoint Education Holiday Bowl in San Diego.
It would be one of the best days of Ryan’s life — partly because of a promise made by Nebraska coach Bo Pelini.
Cmdr. Thom Burke called the visit a huge morale booster for the crew before they embark on a seven-month deployment. But it would mean even more for two sailors, because Huskies coach Steve Sarkisian and Pelini came bearing gifts.
Sarkisian went first, giving a field pass and a Huskies jersey to a crew member from Seattle. And then it was Pelini’s turn.
Pelini matched Sarkisian’s field pass and jersey, then announced he would allow a chosen sailor to call one play during the Holiday Bowl. The luncheon attendees went wild with hoots and applause; someone was going to live out a dream.
And then Morgan Ryan’s name was called. His day had been made. Make that his year.
"I was just real shocked," Ryan said with a smile. "(Pelini) told me, ‘Congratulations, we’ll see you on Thursday (game day).’ "
Ryan didn’t spend a lot of time devising a special play, although a couple of his buddies suggested the "Fumble-rooski."
Instead of focusing on a play he might call, Ryan studied "Washington’s defense, looking for a weakness." And while he didn’t tell any of his friends back home about his swag, he did call his mom in Minden to make sure she was going to watch the game. He wanted her to be surprised, so he didn’t tell her he was going to call a play.
On game day, Dec. 30, Ryan didn’t wear his Navy-issued dress blues to the Holiday Bowl. This young man, whose homespun roots and commitment to the military are as blinding as the gleaming steel hull of the nuclear-powered, super aircraft carrier on which he is stationed, was a civilian — a civilian with a huge love for his Cornhuskers, a Midwest football fan jacked up on Big Red football.
"I had on jeans, my Converse Chuck Taylors, a Nebraska shirt and hat," he said, grinning.
The Holiday Bowl didn’t go well for Nebraska, and when Washington took the lead for good in what became a 19-7 victory, Ryan had a feeling he wasn’t going to call a play.
Did he think to approach Pelini and ask for his shot?
"I kinda stayed away from him . . . he wasn’t happy," Ryan said. "I did not ask (to call a play)."
Unfortunately for Ryan, he never got the opportunity. Nor, as it turns out, did Pelini ever intend to honor his commitment.
"It was a joke, ma’am," the sour head coach barked at me in his Holiday Bowl postgame news conference.
That was news to Ryan, who told me this week that no one told him he had been punked by Pelini. In fact, Ryan said numerous Nebraska assistant coaches and some of the players had talked with him after the luncheon. "A lot of players, maybe 15, asked me what play I would call," Ryan said.
I asked Ryan what his reaction would be if he had found out Pelini had no intention of letting him call a play?
"I would understand," Ryan reasoned. "It’s a bowl game. It’s not just a regular game."
When I informed Ryan that Pelini told me the whole thing was a joke, his face fell.
He sat in front of me, looking a bit stunned. He displayed no anger, just sat there, staring into space.
Finally, he spoke: "I would’ve thought something else if I had asked him about it (calling a play).”
Ryan looked upward, searching for words, when his trained discipline kicked in. "I would rather not think about that," he said firmly.
It was a gut-wrenching moment to witness. Ryan had been let down by the head coach of his favorite team. In front of his peers. But Ryan kept his emotions in check. He was not going to dishonor Pelini.
After all, it’s not every day you get to meet your favorite team’s players and coach, are given an authentic jersey, a field pass and, you’re led to believe, the chance to call a play.
Ryan emphasized he’s a Cornhuskers fan, and he stands behind his team. No matter what.
And if he weren’t a Cornhuskers fan?
"I probably would’ve spoken out a little bit," he acknowledged.
A Nebraska spokesman said the situation was simply a misunderstanding.
"It was pretty apparent to those in attendance at the luncheon that Coach Pelini’s comments were made in a lighthearted manner, as he mentioned after the game," media relations manager Keith Mann told FOXSports.com on Wednesday. "The Nebraska football program was honored to have Morgan Ryan as a guest on our sideline during the Holiday Bowl game, and we appreciate everything that all of our military members sacrifice for this country.”
Despite Nebraska’s loss and the turn of events he experienced, Ryan would love another opportunity to attend a Nebraska football game with a field pass, preferably in Lincoln.
"If we were still in the Big 12, (I’d want to see) Texas at Nebraska," Ryan said with a smirk. "Texas at Nebraska . . . so maybe we can get some fair calls."
But since Nebraska is now a member of the Big Ten, Ohio State at Nebraska would be his dream game to attend.
The Buckeyes will visit Lincoln on Oct. 8, and, coincidentally, Ryan will have just returned from seven long months at sea, in waters not as friendly as the confines of Memorial Stadium. A trip back home, watching his Cornhuskers play the Buckeyes from the sideline, in front of his family and friends, might just make Ryan forget the disturbing details of Pelini’s generous-turned-disingenuous offer.
But the unsettling and awkward fallout remains.
A football coach tried to one-up an opposing coach, to make himself look like a hero, then failed to follow through.