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Veteran kicker Olindo Mare rates Jon Ryan as the best holder he has ever had, and Ryan has been perhaps the Seahawks’ most consistent player this season in his other role as the punter.
But his first foray into each chore was less than stellar.
“The first time I held was when I got to Green Bay,” Ryan recalled Thursday after practice of his first NFL training camp with the Packers in 2006. “I’d never done it before, and I was terrible. It was really bad. There were three kickers in camp and they used to argue about who had to go with me that day.”
As for Ryan the punter, his second punt after being signed by the Seahawks last September was blocked.
“It’s hard to get on a roll after that,” Mare said.
Yet here Ryan is, on a roll as the punter and holder for the Seahawks’ vastly improved special teams as they head into Sunday’s game against the Texans in Houston.
Odd doesn’t begin to describe Ryan’s rise to his current status. He grew up in Regina, Saskatchewan, where hockey is king and football is a summer activity before the big freeze moves in.
But Regina also has the Roughriders of the Canadian Football League, if little else to occupy the imagination of a young boy. So Ryan began playing football when he was 7, and has been punting ever since.
“It became almost an obsession,” he said. “It was just something where you try to get better and better at – kind of like golf, where you’re just against yourself. I really became obsessed with it at an early age. I just loved it.”
Ryan, however, is not just a punter. He played running back and returned kicks and punts as well as kicking and punting at Sheldon-Williams Collegiate in Regina – where he also participated in lacrosse, hockey, basketball and track. He was then a wide receiver as well as the punter and kicker at the University of Regina.
“I like to consider myself an athlete,” he said. “I’m not sure if the other guys in here see it like that, but I consider myself a little bit more than just a punter.”
Mare definitely is in his corner, and that’s not just a reference to their adjacent cubicles in the locker room.
“He’s just one of those genetic freaks – to be able to be that strong and that fast,” Mare said.
But it is Ryan’s ability to punt the ball – in all venues and any conditions – that has paved his way to the NFL. After kicking for the Winnipeg Blue Bombers of the CFL for two seasons – he had a league-record 50.6-yard average on 118 punts in 2005 – he signed with the Packers in 2006. Ryan got off a 72-yarder in 2007, and his 44.5-yard average in 2006 is the third-best in the long history of the Packers.
Released by the Packers last year, Ryan signed with the Seahawks on Sept. 9. The rest is becoming the stuff that will fill the team’s record book. Last season, he averaged a franchise-record 45.6 yards and his net of 37.9 ranks second all-time to Rick Tuten’s 38.7 in 1992.
“One thing just led to another,” said Ryan, who also had offers from the Cincinnati Bengals and New York Giants when he decided to sign with the Packers. “Now, here I am. Being released by the Packers was kind of a blessing in disguise. I was devastated at the time, but I’m very happy to be here playing in Seattle.”
This season, Ryan currently ranks fourth in the league in average (47.1) and ninth in net (39.9), so both club records are in jeopardy. In Sunday’s three-point win over the 49ers at Qwest Field, six of his season-high nine punts were downed inside the 20-yard line – giving him 24 for the season.
“Ryan is unbelievable,” said defensive coordinator Gus Bradley, whose unit benefits from Ryan ability to pin opponents near their goal line as well as kick the Seahawks out of poor field position. “You can’t credit him enough. It’s been great.”
Again, Mare is there to agree, and then some.
“Our special teams wouldn’t be where they are without Jon – holding, punting, his attitude,” Mare said.
Ah, holding. That’s the element of Ryan’s game that Mare’s really appreciates, for obvious reasons. What makes a good holder?
“Good hands,” said Mare, beginning with the apparent. But there’s more to it. “Being calm,” he added. “You don’t want anybody being jittery, it just makes you nervous. When I get to the ball, I don’t worry about anything. And that’s what you want. Because the easier Kevin makes it for Jon, the easier Jon makes it for me, the more likely we’ll succeed.”
Kevin is Houser, the snapper and third part of the equation. Overhearing part of the conversation, Houser chimed in with, “Jon has great hands – great hands.”
It’s a combination of skills that prompts Mare to offer, “He’s having as good a year as anybody in the league. I think he has Pro Bowl written in him.”
Ryan’s father, Bob, died of cancer in 2006, so he hasn’t been around to see all the good things that have happened to his son.
“It is a little tough not to have him around,” Ryan said. “He was the biggest role model in my life, along with my mom. So for him not to be able to see everything I’ve accomplished now, it’s kind of hard at times.
“But just him knowing that I made to the NFL and to be able to see most of my first season that means a lot to me.”
His mother, Barb, attends three or four games a year and was at Qwest Field on Sunday to witness what Ryan labels “one of the top two or three games of my career.”
“I had to have her here on Canada Day,” he said. “So I brought in my mom and both my grandmothers.”
Just another hard-to-believe chapter from Ryan’s too-good-to-be-true story.
“When was the last time you read a story about a guy doing well in football and he’s got a good life?” Mare said. “Nobody wants to hear that. That’s not going to sell papers.
“But with Jon being such a great holder, punter and guy, I’m glad someone is going to do a story on him.”