A long time ago DeMeco Ryans was an All-American middle linebacker for Alabama and I was a sports anchor at the FOX affiliate in Lubbock, Texas.
A few days before the Crimson Tide squared off with Texas Tech in the 2006 Cotton Bowl, I spent about 10 minutes interviewing Ryans. The SEC's Defensive Player of the Year that autumn, he was the heart-and-soul of the nation's top-ranked scoring defense. We talked about their strengths, what they'd need to do to limit Tech, and much more. He was clearly a smart guy, and his credentials were impressive.
The Red Raiders, under head coach Mike Leach, were 9-2 and second in the NCAA in scoring offense. On gameday, Ryans looked like he was shot out of a cannon. He dropped quarterback Cody Hodges for 1.5 sacks, led the Tide with seven tackles, and was named the game's defensive MVP. Ryans and company would limit the Red Raiders to 10 points in that Cotton Bowl. 'Bama won, 13-10, with a field goal that saw the kick helicopter a foot over the crossbar and a foot inside the left upright as time expired.
Four months later the Texans used the first pick of the second round to take Ryans. I was in the bowels of the United Spirit Arena, about to do some voicework for the Red Raider baseball coach's show. In a dark room the NFL Draft was on a lone television. Houston took Ryans, and I smiled.
"That's the guy who smoked Hodges in the Cotton Bowl," I thought to myself.
Ryans quickly took over as a team leader, running the show on defense for the next six years. An achilles injury in 2010 saw the Texans fall from 4-2 with him in the lineup, to 2-8 with Ryans out of it.
He returned in 2011 and helped Houston to the playoffs, but in March of 2012 was dealt in stunning fashion. The Texans were up against the salary cap, and on March 20, Ryans went to Philadelphia in exchange for a fourth-round pick. The teams also flip-flopped their third-rounders that year.
I'd tuned into NFL Network the night of the trade, because defensive ends J.J. Watt and Antonio Smith were on their nightly news show to talk about optimism for the 2012 season, and also the fun they'd had with Shaun Cody the previous fall shooting "On the Nose". But the Ryans trade news broke while they were live on the air, and each of them looked like they'd seen a ghost.
"It's a big surprise to me," Smith said at the time. "I don't know what is going on at this moment, but DeMeco is a great player, a leader. Our defense is going to miss him."
It didn't look like the Texans missed Ryans for much of 2012, but Smith's words rang true in December and January of that season. After roaring out to an 11-1 start, Houston won just a game the rest of the regular season and then a Wild Card playoff in January. No Ryans, and no Brian Cushing after Week 5 handicapped what had been a menacing defense the year prior.
Ryans hung it up following the 2015 season and after taking a year off, he became a quality control assistant with the 49ers. The clock started ticking immediately on his ascent to becoming a head coach.
Over the last month, the news he was a candidate, and willing to interview with the Texans, followed by the headlines he was the favorite to get the job ceded to the news that he was, in fact, the hire.
Seeing this happy turn of events has taken me back to that sunny January day in 2006.
I shook my head in wonder back then, watching a young man who was clearly head and shoulders better than everyone else on the field.
I shake my head in wonder now. I'm excited for a future with Ryans as the head coach and happily stunned by the way it's turned out for the organization.