How did it come to this?
This should have been a joyous, if bittersweet, moment. A chance for these 50,000 people to show their appreciation for their hometown hero.
Not long ago, he was the heir apparent, the rising star, the face of the program. But on this day, he was a forgotten man, an afterthought. His teammates hadn’t seen him in weeks. He was broken physically and mentally, addled by injury and addiction.
Senior Days are for remembering years of big plays and big wins. Instead, there was the pain of what could have been. Instead of goodbyes, there was indifference.
A fitting end.
* * * *
The kids are going through drills, running plays, and learning the game, most chasing dreams about one day playing college ball and making it to the NFL.
Their coach once had those same dreams. Now, Ryan Kealy hopes his players can learn from his mistakes.
Years ago, Kealy had the near-impossible task of replacing a college football legend, and he nearly pulled it off.
But while the world saw a career on a fast track for greatness, he battled his own demons. As injuries ravaged his body, he pushed it even harder. His growing fame clouded his mind and obscured his sense of self. Drinking and pills took over as he struggled to somehow hold on.
Inevitably, he lost his grip. Years of struggles followed. Attempts to break free of his addiction failed.
Until he found his purpose.
He met the love of his life and raised a family. He knew they deserved the best version of himself, something he eventually realized he too deserved. Now day-to-day, week-to-week, year-to-year, he moves forward.
Ryan Kealy has a good life, as well as the scars to remind him of his struggles.
He's a happily married father of four. He’s found success in business. And he's returned to the game he once loved, helping to guide the next generation. He hopes that the kids improve as players, but more than anything, he wants to help develop their character.
For some, putting the mistakes and pain of the past behind them is the best way to move on. Bury it deep and go live your life. Kealy is different. He speaks openly of his past, the squandered potential, the lowest of the lows, and the lessons learned. He’s seen the generational mistakes that have run through his family and has vowed to end them once and for all. He doesn’t want his children to think of Dad as an infallible man, but as someone to guide them away from the mistakes he has made.
It is why he shares his story.
“This is what happened, this is why, and this is the reason why you can’t let this happen again.”
Ryan Kealy was destined to become a Cornhusker.
His father Joe was born in Hastings, Nebraska before moving with his wife Jan to Scottsdale. He brought Husker Radio and the Go Big Red way of life to the Valley. Whenever Nebraska came to town for a game, legendary head coach Tom Osborne would drop by the Kealy house.
"Football wasn’t a choice, it was a lifestyle," Ryan Kealy said.
As a kid, he idolized Nebraska quarterback Steve Taylor and soon followed in Taylor's footsteps as quarterback of the Huskers. The Pop Warner Huskers that is, under the stern hand of head coach Joe Kealy.
At that time, Scottsdale was looked at as having softer competition, so Joe had his team play in Phoenix. Joe had an “old school approach” and pushed his players hard, none harder than Ryan.
Often, fathers who coach their sons are able to bounce back from coach to dad depending on the circumstance. Not Joe.
“He didn’t have a switch, and I wish he did,” Ryan said. “He was just tough, and when we’d get home, it’d get worse. At times, he’d be rough on the field, but it would get louder as we got closer to the car.”
Other parents would sometimes step in and offer to drive Ryan home. The toughness never crossed a line and became physical, but the hard approach left a lasting mark on the young quarterback. There were expectations and standards to uphold. There was a defined structure. Do not miss those marks.
“There were sides to him that were really awesome,” Ryan said, “but with sports and football, if he thought you were not doing what you were supposed to, then that was a problem.”
Ryan learned to live and play with that weight on his shoulders. He knew that compliments weren’t coming, just a hard push to get better. On a youth team with several future Division I players, Ryan stood out, but Joe made sure it didn’t get to his son’s head.
When Ryan was in junior high, the family ran into major financial hardships. The family's cars were repossessed, and Ryan walked the halls in borrowed shoes. Originally slated to attend Chaparral High School, Ryan tried out Brophy High School before landing at St. Mary’s in Phoenix. Coming from Scottsdale, his new St. Mary’s classmates assumed Kealy was just a snobby rich kid.
“It disgusted me to no end,” Ryan recalls. “Being called one and not having it was like holy f**k.”
He pushed back on that perception as hard as he could.
At St. Mary’s, freshmen football players were not allowed to play on the varsity or junior varsity teams. To help with the acclimation process, the school paired the new football players together. The first few months were hellish, and as a newcomer with a rich-kid rep, Ryan set out to work harder than anyone else.
Over time, it won over his teammates, and word got back to the varsity head coach that “a pretty good quarterback had arrived.”
Pat Farrell had built a powerhouse at St. Mary’s. His Knights had won the state title in 1984, 1985, and 1991 and were primed to add another trophy.
As Farrell set out to defend the title in 1992, a freshman quarterback gave him confidence that next championship would be coming soon.
“Watching games, you knew he had some magic," Farrell said, "not only arm-wise, but he had an advanced instinct to playing the game as a 14-year-old freshman. All I tried to do is not ruin him.”
Kealy showed off his natural talent in leading the St. Mary’s freshmen to an undefeated season. While Farrell had never seen such accuracy in a quarterback, it was Kealy's approach that stood out most. Kealy was a tireless worker. He never questioned his coaches, and he set the standard his teammates had to follow. Pretty soon, that Scottsdale kid baggage went away.
“I don’t think you can play and start for Farrell and be claimed as a rich kid or spoiled,” Kealy said.
He took over as the varsity starting quarterback as a sophomore and led the Knights to deep playoff runs during his first two years at the helm. In Farrell’s Wing T offense, the run game was the key. Kealy was not asked to pass too often, but when he did, he excelled. So Farrell adapted.
“We were able to expand the offense further than I had ever done with a quarterback before because his instincts to the position and to the game were so good,” said Farrell.
By his senior season in 1995, the passing game took center stage. With former Pop Warner Huskers teammate Tariq McDonald emerging as his go-to target, Kealy led the Knights to a historic season. Most Friday nights, Kealy and the rest of the starters were on the sideline in the second half, enjoying their insurmountable lead.
By the time St. Mary’s won the state championship, Kealy’s place in Arizona high school football history was secured. Kealy was named to multiple All-America teams and set state records for touchdown passes in a season (41) and a career (83).
“It was a dominant team led by a dominant player,” Farrell said.
He was one of the most sought after quarterback recruits in the nation, yet to that point, he had not given his recruiting much thought.
Kealy’s first scholarship offer came when he was eight years old...sort of. During one of Nebraska’s trips to Arizona, Tom Osborne had stopped by for a visit and made a comment to the young Pop Warner quarterback and Cornhuskers fanatic that there’d be a scholarship waiting for him when the time came. Whether it had any sincerity behind it or was simply just a kind thing to say to a friend’s son, the words made an impact.
“It was the first time anybody gave me acknowledgement,” Kealy recalled. However gifted he was as a passer, Kealy’s running ability was not an ideal fit for Nebraska’s triple-option offense.
“I was assuming I was going to pick up five-tenths of a second in my 40 or I wasn’t going to make it for Tom,” Kealy said.
Years later, after Kealy had started to make a name for himself at St. Mary’s, Osborne called.
“You know you can still take the scholarship if you want,” Osborne said. Knowing the situation, Kealy kindly let Osborne off the hook.
While playing college football had long been a dream for Kealy, the family’s financial woes added an extra layer of pressure to earn a scholarship. Joe and Jan never told Ryan or his sister Shelby—a promising basketball player—that they had to get a scholarship, but the siblings understood the situation.
“We knew my dad would do whatever it takes (to get them into college), but we didn’t want him to do that,” Ryan said. “I needed to be able to help the family.”
Shelby would go on to play basketball at the University of Denver. Meanwhile Ryan, given the money troubles, tried to make as much of a name for himself at free football camps as he could. During a camp hosted by Arizona State his sophomore year, he performed well and received his first scholarship offer.
“He resembled what we wanted to do on offense,” said ASU offensive coordinator Dan Cozzetto.
The recruiting landscape was much different then than it is today. There were no on-campus photoshoots, top 10 lists released by recruits, or televised commitments. In fact, Farrell didn’t even give his players the recruiting letters they received from schools until after the season. The focus for Kealy and the St. Mary’s team was always on the next game.
Once the state title had been won, it was time to figure out where he’d go next. USC, UCLA, and Penn State were near the top of his list. He considered Notre Dame and Miami as dreams. As a kid, he had always looked forward to schools courting him, and now that it was happening, it was surreal.
Following their initial offer, ASU quarterback coach Hue Jackson continued to go hard after Kealy. During an in-home visit, he brought Kealy a Sun Devil jersey with his name on the back.
“I wasn’t expecting sh*t like that,” Kealy said. “That stuff mattered. ASU being first mattered.”
Arizona State wanted to sign both ends of the Knights’ dynamic aerial duo. So the program brought Kealy, McDonald, and their families in days before the start of their official visits. The extra time paid off.
“The idea of staying home, making a difference, and being together, was tough to beat,” Kealy said.
Following the visit, Joe told his son, “If you do it right here, there’s not much else you need to do.”
Ryan felt a connection with the ASU staff. The prospect of staying close to home—along with some fear of going out of state—was also appealing.
On February 7, 1996, Ryan Kealy signed his letter of intent and officially became a Sun Devil.
The good vibes lasted a little over four months.
* * * *
On June 22, Kealy played in the Arizona Coaches Association All-Star Game with other top high school players. In the third quarter, he got caught up in a pile of players and stayed down.
"I thought I was going to have to resuscitate (Joe Kealy)," ASU head coach Bruce Snyder told The Arizona Republic. Farrell, who attended the game with Joe, remembers a near-silent drive home from the game.
The diagnosis was bad, but it could have been worse: Kealy had partially torn the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) in his left knee just weeks before he was to report to Arizona State.
Although he had been likely to redshirt that fall behind senior Jake Plummer, Kealy was beginning his college career facing an uphill battle back.
“This is next year’s quarterback, huh?”
J.R. Redmond, a fellow incoming freshman, remembers seeing the highly-ranked quarterback hobbling around during their first meeting. Kyle Murphy, a junior offensive lineman, didn’t think much of the new quarterback at first, other than just being another freshman for the upperclassman to make fun of during training camp. The veteran-laden team had their focus squarely on making a run to the Rose Bowl, not swooning over a hot-shot newcomer.
Following Kealy’s injury, the staff at Arizona State had determined that he would not undergo surgery. Murphy had suffered a similar injury and played through it earlier in his career, and with a possible need for a backup quarterback, the staff believed rehabilitation would be the best course of action. So in the weeks leading up to camp, Kealy began rehabbing his knee.
John Pettas, who had recently taken over coaching the team’s quarterbacks, saw the young freshman take to the task aggressively.
“The one thing about Ryan is he was never afraid of work,” Pettas said. “If they told him to do 10 things, he’d do 20.”
As the team opened their preseason at Camp Tontozona, nestled in the woods outside of Payson, Kealy took to the field with his damaged knee in a brace.
* * * *
At Tontozona, the upperclassmen slept in cabins while the younger players stayed in trailers a little lower on the hill. Over the years, it had become something of a tradition for the veterans to pelt the trailers with rocks at night. The newcomers took it in stride, often putting mattresses against the windows to protect against the occasional shattered pane.
But rather than just endure the night’s barrage, Kealy decided to fire back. He and a teammate snuck out of the trailer, grabbed some rocks, and let loose. They heard their throws hit.
THUD THUD THUD
But then a scream cut through the night.
Despite being a newcomer, Kealy knew that voice. Kealy and his teammate immediately ran back inside.
"The entire door comes off its hinges.”
In walks a blonde ball of anger, his long hair flowing free.
“I’m reading a f**king book!" he yelled to the trailer full of terrified freshmen before storming out.
“And that was my first interaction with Pat Tillman.”
* * * *
Even on a wobbly knee, Kealy was coming along and starting to fit in with the team.
“He wasn’t arrogant, but he had a cockiness to him. He was confident,” Murphy said. And perhaps most importantly, “He was never a dick.”
During his first weeks as a Sun Devil, Kealy continued to strengthen his knee while learning the offense and adapting to the speed of the college game. He also had the benefit of working with one of the nation’s best quarterbacks in Jake Plummer.
“Jake completely embraced being that mentor,” Kealy said. “It was amazing to see how he approached games. He was brilliant. He was also extremely athletic, so it was a great combination of feel and understanding everything on the field.”
“I think he looked up to Jake and saw everything Jake did and just wanted to do the right thing all the time,” said Pettas. “Whatever Jake told him to do, he did.”
Kealy watched as Plummer led ASU to a 2-0 start to open the season. The Sun Devils had risen to No. 17 in the polls, setting up a huge home matchup the next week with No. 1 Nebraska. Add in his family’s history with the Huskers, and it made for a week filled with palpable excitement.
Until disaster struck.
In practices, the team’s quarterbacks would often have a competition in which one would run a route while another would try and cover him. As Plummer threw the passes, Kealy took his turn in the rotation. During one route, his partially torn ACL fully tore.
This time, there would be no avoiding surgery.
Days later, as he was recovering from the procedure at his grandparents' house, Ryan watched as his teammates upset the top-ranked Cornhuskers 19-0 in one the greatest wins in program history. Kealy’s family was in the stands to take in the win—Joe wearing ASU gear over Nebraska apparel, Jan wearing Sun Devil colors, and the rest in Husker red.
Kealy would remain on crutches for the rest of the season. Although he couldn’t physically practice nor travel for road games, he still wanted to learn as much as he could. He was in Pettas’ office every day, participated in meetings, and watched the home games from the press box. He saw up close how Plummer, who had become a national star and Heisman Trophy finalist, expertly led a team full of veterans with big personalities.
“Those were some of the coolest experiences of all,” Kealy said. “Some of the leaders on that team were unbelievable. Guys that, looking back on it, as we progressed, we didn't realize the value that leadership had outside of talent. The intrinsic value of character and leadership.”
The team continued winning and rising in the polls, winning the Pac-10 championship and ultimately falling just seconds short of winning a national championship in the Rose Bowl. Even though Kealy was severely limited during the team’s memorable run, Murphy still saw something special in him, a drive that bode well for the future: The kid desperately wanted the experience of leading a team through a season like this one.
With the sting of the season's end still fresh, the question was when Kealy could have that chance. After all, he was a redshirt freshman coming off a severe knee injury, one that often took a year or more to fully heal. With Plummer off to the NFL, ASU would need to find its next quarterback. Prior to the injury, the highly-touted Kealy may have even been considered the frontrunner. But heading into spring practices in early 1997, with his rehab and recovery still ongoing, and a full four years of eligibility remaining, it would have been understandable to focus on healing up for the future. There was plenty of time ahead.
Instead, Kealy had a different mindset.
This was make or break.
There were no days off.
Ryan Kealy had been relentlessly working to position himself in the upcoming quarterback competition. He spent months rehabbing and strengthening his repaired knee as best he could.
“I think the one thing that bailed me out of more situations than not was my physical work ethic,” Kealy said. “I was pretty determined that way, and I wasn’t scared of that stuff and probably did too much.”
Heading into the competition, Cozzetto made it clear he did not want to juggle quarterbacks during the season. He wanted one guy to win the job and bring stability to the position.
Kealy’s primary competition was Steve Campbell, who had backed up Plummer for the prior two seasons. While the staff had a great sense of what the 6-foot-8 Campbell brought to the team, Kealy remained a wildcard.
“We really don’t know what Ryan can do because he had never played,” Pettas said. “We never saw him in fall at all.”
They’d get their chance sooner than anyone thought. Improbably, just under four months from his surgery, Kealy was in full pads during spring practices.
Despite losing many key players to the NFL, the 1997 Sun Devils still had a wealth of talent on the roster. The prior year’s run to the Rose Bowl was looked at as the start of a new era for ASU football, so most of the players had one opinion on who they hoped won the battle: Whoever is going to help us win.
Murphy and the rest of the offensive line made sure to help Kealy acclimate to the offense, although the redshirt freshman’s skill was apparent.
“He was the most talented quarterback on the roster,” Murphy said. “He had some of the same skillset that Jake had.”
Once practices got underway, Kealy put on a show.
“It didn’t take long in springtime to say, ‘Uh, I want that guy,’” Pettas said.
However, the staff did not want to rush a decision, so the competition would extend into fall camp. While many competitions can breed angst and ill will among the participants, there was no such acrimony in this battle. Although he was a veteran with a young kid on his heels, Campbell remained a welcoming and supportive teammate, and Kealy credited Pettas for setting that tone in the quarterback’s room.
Once the team opened camp at Tontozona, Kealy’s play continued to impress. His accuracy, poise, and confidence stood out. Pettas saw how Kealy’s teammates rallied around him and were impressed by his toughness.
It wasn’t long before the result was clear.
“Ryan had a different element when it came to throwing the football,” Cozzetto remembered. “Hands down, coming out of Tontozona, it was going to be Ryan Kealy.”
* * * *
John Pettas had to have a conversation coaches dreaded.
Steve, I know you’ve been waiting for your turn. But Ryan is just better.
To his credit, Campbell handled the news with class. For Kealy, the decision took a while to sink in.
“I honestly didn’t think I was going to get it,” he said. “I think the only reason they rolled the dice was that they felt they had enough support around that I could make some mistakes, and they could override them and I could get better as we went.”
For the rest of the Sun Devils, they had confidence the staff had made the right pick, despite Kealy’s lack of experience. For a team with lofty expectations, they needed a quarterback who wouldn’t hold them back.
“It wasn’t a thing where we need to wait for you to get ready, you’re the guy,” Redmond said. “You’re supposed to be ready. That was the expectation, and he stepped up right away.”
Cozzetto wanted Pettas to develop Kealy in a similar fashion to Plummer. With the benefit of several veterans on the offensive side of the ball, they did not have to put too much on his shoulders at first. They were also concerned with the state of his knee and didn’t want to place him in harm’s way too often.
The Sun Devils opened the 1997 season by hosting New Mexico State. In the locker room, Kealy was anxious and felt tight. In front of his locker, he made sure to complete one of his pre-game rituals: spitting in a circle and not stopping until the circle was complete.
The offensive line took it upon themselves to make sure they protected their rookie quarterback and calmed his nerves as best they could. They aimed to shift the burden from his shoulders to theirs.
Hey man, you got this. We got you.
As he ran onto the field, the noise was staggering. That changed as soon as the game began.
“Once it starts, you don’t hear anything,” said Kealy. “For me, once I said ‘hike,’ everything kind of went away. That was always a safe place for me.”
Pettas made sure to scheme up an easy pass to get Kealy in rhythm. As his former high school coach looked on from the stands, Kealy made a completion along the right seam.
“I think I got stuck in the rafters above me from my reaction,” Farrell said. “I came out of my chair. I was absolutely jacked.”
Kealy led the Sun Devils to a field goal on the first drive of the game. By the end of the first quarter, ASU held a 10-0 lead. Redmond did his part to help that night, rushing for 176 yards, including a 93-yard score. In the third quarter, Kealy tossed his first collegiate touchdown pass, a 4-yard strike to, appropriately, Tariq McDonald.
“It was one of the most fun things in our lives,” said Kealy, who still has a photo of the play on his wall today. “We just had a weird connection.”
Kealy completed 11 of 19 passes for 107 yards in the 41-10 win. The warmup victory pushed ASU to No. 24, but things were about to get serious in a hurry. The next week, ASU traveled to Miami to face the 12th-ranked Hurricanes.
* * * *
Holy f**k, this is a whole other level!
On one of the early plays in the game, Redmond ran the ball and was met by a slew of ferocious Miami defenders. The hit was so fierce, it broke his facemask.
“The whole side of my face stung like somebody smacked the sh*t out of me,” Redmond remembered.
That’s when Kealy realized this was a much different game than a week before. Just minutes prior in pregame warmups, Kealy was laughing and loose. This is going to be fun, Coach he told Pettas.
Now he was in the middle of a brawl. The Sun Devils managed to scratch and claw their way to a 6-3 halftime lead. After Miami had tied it in the third quarter, Kealy connected with Ricky Boyer to take the lead back.
“I think Ryan did a really good job, particularly early on, in making really good critical throws,” Murphy said.
“We didn’t ask him to do anything out of the norm for him,” Cozzetto remembered. “He was just beginning, but we started to feed him more.”
The touchdown pass proved to be the difference as ASU held on for a 23-12 win. Kealy finished the day having completed 18 of 26 throws for 239 yards with one touchdown and one interception.
“That Miami game was when everything changed,” Kealy said. “When we went to Miami and beat Miami in Miami, that was the time that I thought we could be a really good team.”
It was a statement win for the young quarterback, one that helped solidify his place as the new leader of the Sun Devils.
“I don’t think we could have gone there with anyone else but Ryan,” Cozzetto said. “If you’re going to be the best, you have to play the best. We beat the best that day.”
“That was a good measuring stick for Ryan and us as a team if we can play ball, if the ‘96 team was the end of ASU, or if this is the beginning of a run,” said Redmond, who rushed for 105 yards and a touchdown. “He showed up, and he showed out.”
The win vaulted ASU up to No. 14 in the polls, and dreams of a Rose Bowl return took hold. However, the positive momentum ground to a halt over the next three weeks. The Sun Devils lost the next week to BYU, narrowly beat Oregon State, and then fell to No. 10 Washington to drop completely out of the rankings. ASU’s offense struggled, scoring 10, 13, and 14 points over that span.
To that point in the season, Cozzetto and Pettas had leaned hard on the run, not wanting to overwhelm Kealy. Now with USC coming to Tempe, Cozzetto felt it was time for a change.
They decided to open up the offense and put their trust in Kealy. They devised a gameplan heavy on four-wide-receiver sets to spread out the defense. Pettas warned Kealy that being spread out, any blitzers will get a clean run at him.
Get rid of the ball before he hits you.
Wise words that Kealy took to heart.
Before the game, Kealy received an injection to help loosen up an ankle issue that had been bothering him. Once he got onto the field, he loosened up the Trojan defense in a hurry. With Plummer—now an Arizona Cardinal—watching from the sidelines, Kealy threw for 109 yards and a touchdown in the opening quarter, and the rout was on.
“There was nothing he couldn’t do that game. He was on fire,” Murphy said.
By the end of the game, Kealy had thrown for 281 yards and three scores. Seeing the final touchdown to Lenzie Jackson, Pettas though, That’s the type of throw we can buy into.
On the national ABC broadcast, Brent Musburger said after the strike, "Jake the Snake who?"
If the Miami win signaled that Kealy could be a quarterback who wouldn’t lose a game, the USC win showed that he was one who could win them.
“From then on, we said that we got a guy,” Pettas said. “We can do whatever we want.”
The next week, Kealy and the Sun Devils put up 31 points in a road win over No. 25 Stanford. A week later, ASU—now back in the Top 25—hosted No. 10 Washington State and future No. 2 pick in the NFL Draft Ryan Leaf. Kealy outdueled the Heisman finalist, throwing three of his four touchdown passes in the first half as ASU won 44-31.
“He had more fun in the tough games than the easy ones,” Pettas said. “The bigger the game, the better he played.”
Kealy’s Sun Devils then beat Cal on the road before demolishing Oregon 52-31 to improve to 8-2 on the season and No. 12 in the polls.
Next up: ASU’s hated rival Arizona. A win over the Wildcats could send the Sun Devils to the Fiesta Bowl.
There were some indirect comments at first.
C’mon, man. You don’t need to go out.
But why not? He was the starting quarterback of a team on a roll. It’s college. It’s ARIZONA STATE, for crying out loud. You’re supposed to go out and have fun.
So he did. A late night out left him exhausted, so he’d cut class to try and catch up on sleep. Pressed for time, he’d fast forward through film sessions. Teammates caught him dozing off in meetings. It was a vicious cycle of fatigue and falling further behind.
“It was bleeding into everything,” said Kealy. “It became more of a lifestyle.”
As the 1997 season progressed, the effect of Kealy’s off-field activities became more noticeable to his teammates. Some of them gave mild prods to get back on track, but there was always someone on the team down to go drinking. And besides, they were winning.
Kealy also was dealing with the burden of leadership. He was the guy after the legendary Jake the Snake. Those were nearly impossible shoes for anyone to fill. Given the program’s recent success, that level was becoming the expectation. This was now his program, and he dared not drop the ball.
“I never felt like I needed to be Jake,” Kealy said. “I felt like we needed to continue being good because they had shown us how to be good. We needed to carry that flag, and more importantly, we needed to grow the seed that they had planted with us with others.”
Pettas could sense his young quarterback dealing with that weight, and Kealy's teammates saw it too.
“He felt a pressure to send us out the right way,” Murphy said. “Nobody wants to be a quarterback who comes in and your team goes from the Rose Bowl to dogsh*t.”
Kealy was also trying to navigate a level of personal freedom he had never had. He was no longer living in the Kealy household where his dad's structure and discipline reigned. Outside of those constraints, he started testing the limits.
Sometimes, he’d drive his car backwards all the way to and from practice. He’d purposely mess with the media. Pettas sensed Kealy was pushing things, leaning into the “cool guy” persona too hard, but it was nothing too bad.
Ryan, really? You don’t have to be goofy like this!
As the freedom, fame, and pressures mounted, he found increasing comfort in the party life. He desired the fun his friends who weren’t football players were having. He thought he could have it both ways.
“I was drinking in football at the end of a firehose and doing the same with life,” Kealy said.
He felt that the talent around him was so good, he could get away with slacking off.
“A lot of those great plays freshman year were a collection of an OK-thrown ball, but more importantly, an amazing play by a player,” he said. “It’s guys making plays for you.”
He showed up to practices, did the workouts, checked the boxes that were required of him. But the extra work, the hours of study and preparation that ultimately make the difference? No time for that. Bad habits became set in stone.
“The little things I skipped are the big things in life,” Kealy said. “I capped my growth by not learning and picking up on nuances and tendencies and things like that.”
But in 1997, it was working well enough. The drinking and partying were increasing, but so were the wins. It was an untenable situation, but the cocky young quarterback didn’t know it yet.
* * * *
The Sun Devils had fallen behind the Wildcats 14-0, but there was plenty of time left. With a Fiesta Bowl berth on the line, ASU would surely make a run and win this thing.
Early in the second quarter, Kealy went down.
He felt the pain in his knee.
The world stopped.
Kealy had torn his ACL, this time in his right knee.
It was a crushing end to a promising debut season.
He had set new ASU freshman records for completions (162), attempts (297), yards (2,137), and touchdowns (15). He had been named a freshman All-American. After the magical 1996 season, he had given the Sun Devils legitimate hope for continued high-level success for years to come.
Now it was all in doubt.
With Steve Campbell now at the helm, Arizona State prepared to face Iowa in the Sun Bowl. Murphy, who had battled serious injuries of his own, knew the harsh reality of football. If you’re out of the lineup and can’t help the team, you become an afterthought.
Out of sight, out of mind. We’ve got a game to win.
“Ryan emotionally needed to be picked up. Ryan needed to be cared for,” Murphy said. “Nobody took care of Ryan. You’re a product. You’re a commodity. The team had to get ready for the Sun Bowl, so for a month, you’re just a guy.”
Kealy tried to keep a positive mindset. While his off-field preparation had suffered during the season, no one had ever questioned his physical work ethic. He had already beaten the recovery timetable once before, and he was determined to again—because the alternative terrified him.
“The injuries gave me that work ethic,” Kealy said. “I just learned how to shorten recovery times and get back on the field, because I was scared of who I was without football.”
It's a fear so many players have dealt with over the years.
“We’re so consumed with our identity being the football player," said Murphy. "That’s something we do, not something we are. You don’t rehab to get healthy. You rehab to play.
"You’re feeling incredibly isolated and alone. How do you escape that pain? You start looking at other things.”
So aggressive was Kealy in his rehab that ASU trainer Perry Edinger told Pettas to slow his quarterback down. Given that the injury happened so late in the season, they targeted a full return in fall camp.
In the aftermath of the injury, Cozzetto wanted to make sure Ryan Kealy the young man and student would be OK before even thinking about the future of Ryan Kealy the quarterback. And Kealy made it clear he would be back soon.
“Ryan went out on a limb and played with a knee that he could easily have said, ‘I’m not going to play anymore,’” Cozzetto said. “But he wanted to give it all. He left it all on that field.”
Kealy relentlessly worked his way back into the lineup. With a year under his belt, key returning pieces and some talented newcomers, the Sun Devils were ranked No. 8 in the preseason poll. Kealy was even mentioned as a Heisman Trophy darkhorse candidate.
The excitement for the season ahead was palpable.
That ended in the span of a few seconds.
Kealy had connected with McDonald for the go-ahead touchdown late in the season opener against Washington. With 28 seconds left, the Huskies faced a do-or-die fourth-and-17 in which Brock Huard found an open Reggie Davis for a miraculous touchdown to steal the win for Washington.
“The air left the balloon. People changed,” Kealy said of the loss. “We never got the mojo back.”
Pettas saw Kealy—who passed for 305 yards and three touchdowns in the loss—unnecessarily take the blame.
“He took that hard like he lost us the game,” Pettas said. “I remember having to talk him off the ledge. That was part of the burden he was carrying to be the next Jake Plummer, to do everything he can to win.”
The Sun Devils lost their next game to BYU and dropped out of the polls. Wins over North Texas and Oregon State got ASU back to .500. However, a loss to USC—during which Kealy was knocked out of the game with a concussion—stalled any momentum before No. 22 Notre Dame came to town.
During games, Cozzetto coached from the field while Pettas was up in the press box. Following Kealy's third interception against the Fighting Irish, Cozzetto called up to Pettas.
We need to make a change.
“I think (Kealy) had lost a lot confidence,” Cozzetto said. “Sometimes you need to reel him back.”
Kealy was a player who took a team’s entire burden on his shoulders. Whether it was his fault or not, Kealy felt any failure deeply.
“You could tell that Ryan had taken so much responsibility for us not having success in the early part of that season that you could see it wear on him,” said Cozzetto. “You gotta get him out of that. We had to build his confidence back.”
Pettas aimed to keep Kealy’s spirits up despite the benching.
I want you ready. I want you to keep fighting. This isn’t the end.
While Kealy put on a brave face, the benching hurt. So much of his identity had been tied to his status as the starting quarterback, and that had been taken away.
In the week after the benching, Cozzetto’s goal was to restore the swagger that had been a key part of Kealy’s success. The physical talent was still there, he just needed to make sure his young quarterback didn’t let that get lost.
“We could not have Ryan lose confidence in the system or himself,” Cozzetto. “I don’t want to go into this game without Ryan Kealy, so where is he at mentally?”
Chad Elliott got the start in the following game against Stanford. In the third quarter, ASU was struggling and on the way to a third straight loss trailing 31-24. That's when Cozzetto made the call.
OK, you’re up. Let’s go again. We got a lot of football left to play.
Kealy entered the game and played like his old self. He brought the team back to force overtime, and in the extra frame, connected with McDonald for the game-winning touchdown.
“It got pretty dark after the Notre Dame game,” Kealy said. “Being able to come in and win that, it re-lit the fire. It really did.”
It was a breath of fresh air for Kealy and for a team enduring a difficult season. For his coaches, it was a sigh of relief.
“Great competitors respond, and he’s a great competitor,” Cozzetto said.
“OK, we’re back. Ryan’s back. We’re good,” Pettas said.
For a while, they were. Over the next two games, both wins, Kealy completed 66 percent of this passes with five touchdowns and no interceptions as ASU scored a combined 93 points. Unfortunately, a scope on his right knee kept him out against Oregon, in which ASU was blown out 51-19.
It had been a long fall from preseason top 10 to 5-5. But Kealy was back in the lineup as ASU looked to book a bowl bid and take back bragging rights in the season finale against Arizona, now ranked No. 8 in the nation. It was a chance to salvage something to build on for the future, and to get some revenge on the Wildcats.
For someone who put everything on his shoulders, it was all he could ask for, and he took advantage.
What followed was one of the greatest performances ever put on by an ASU quarterback.
“I felt like I couldn’t miss,” Kealy said. “It felt like a video game.”
Kealy aired it out as ASU jumped to a 15-7 lead at the end of the first quarter. Arizona running back Trung Canidate ran wild to get the Wildcats ahead at the break 26-22.
Kealy. Candidate. Kealy. Canidate. Back and forth they went, a duel of individual brilliance.
“That was the most fun game I’ve ever played in for me,” Kealy said. “It was coming down to me, and we were just flinging it.”
Kealy’s fourth touchdown pass of the game with 1:52 left cut Arizona’s lead to 50-42. A key stop got ASU the ball back with under a minute left, but Kealy’s final pass was knocked down. On the night, Kealy had completed 33 of 56 throws for 511 yards and the four scores. He had once again given everything he could on the field, but had fallen short.
It was a fitting end to a turbulent year.
“We had talent out of our ears,” Kealy said of 1998. “Jake and those guys planted a seed and we took it for a year. But then we dropped it.”
Sure, he’d been a heavy drinker. It had taken a toll on his first season as a starter, but he’d gotten by. Back then, people didn’t think guys like him had drinking problems, he was just “undisciplined.”
In retrospect, it was just the tip of the iceberg. Kealy had an addictive streak in him. At times, it had proven advantageous. His work ethic during rehab, after all, was praised by coaches and teammates. But Kealy also knew that alcoholism was a vein that had run in his family, and looking back, he feels that if he wasn’t an alcoholic, he was perilously close.
Following his knee surgery after the 1997 season, a dangerous new element took over.
“I felt better after using painkillers than I did drinking all night,” Kealy said.
The pills he was given following surgeries became something of a cheat code. As he pushed his recoveries harder and harder, they helped numb the pain...and the fear.
“I never gave (my knees) a chance to heal,” Kealy said. “I was just so scared to lose my job.”
Kealy was so terrified of losing the starting role that he never gave his knees sufficient time to properly heal. By popping a few pills, he could grind through another day.
Drinks. Pills. Practice. Repeat.
“The way I took care of myself was building on itself,” said Kealy. “We lived hard. We never took a chance to take a break. We became examples of what that looks like.”
As the 1998 team was falling apart around him, he was falling further under the control of the pills.
“The hold it has on you, it keeps you in those moments where you don’t feel anything,” Kealy said. “It gets really scary.”
The dangers of painkillers weren’t widely known at the time. They were just another tool to get back on the field. The team’s drug testing program focused on finding marijuana and steroids, and over time, the players figured out the testing cycles. Worst case, they would smuggle in clean urine.
If someone else on the team had surgery, Kealy would soon be hitting them up for any extra pills. He and some friends would also make runs across the border into Mexico to secure more for their stash. One time, Kealy thought he was suffering from severe constipation, so he went to the student health center and was given Valium. Only later did he realize he was experiencing withdrawal symptoms.
“It starts out harmless in your mind, but you don’t realize you’re hooked,” said Kealy. “I was in a dark place, and I wasn’t in the right place mentally. Because of that, I started to tear myself down physically.”
Kealy hid his growing addiction as best he could. He suspected his mom knew what was going on, and attempts were made to help, but he resisted. With money coming in from his scholarship, they couldn't exert much control over him. Over time they pulled back, so Kealy sought out anyone who could help enable his actions.
“You find the people that say ‘yes,’” he said. “You slowly move away from those that are critical of what you are doing. There were enough dumbasses at ASU that would be stupidly happy to say, ‘I had a beer with the quarterback!’ I thought that these were my people.”
His personal life suffered. His grades suffered. His play suffered.
After his breakthrough redshirt freshman season, his follow up campaign did not show the expected signs of improvement.
“Slowly, your talent just doesn’t matter as much,” Kealy said. “As everyone is getting better, I’m regressing.”
* * * *
The house was a little gross. OK, maybe it was quite gross.
Beer cans were littered around. The floor covered in peanut shells they had taken from the stadium. A boa constrictor once drowned in the tub.
But Kealy’s place was the hangout.
After practice wrapped up, the guys would rush over and the tournaments began on the Nintendo 64, where GoldenEye and Mario Kart were the games of choice. Kealy was really good at GoldenEye, so being the competitive type he was, Redmond once came over and didn’t leave for two days straight, watching intently as Kealy and others played. He copied those techniques and became a formidable foe. Meanwhile, Redmond still claims dominance over Kealy in the other game: “I used to kick his ass in Mario Kart!”
They often subsisted on cold pizza and warm beer.
“I’m surprised we survived those times,” Kealy said.
Kealy and Redmond came from very different backgrounds, but they were teammates. They were friends. They were brothers. The pair hung out often and even visited each other’s families.
For Kealy, Redmond was a key voice that tried to keep him away from his self-destructive tendencies.
“I was the teammate he didn’t do those certain things around,” Redmond said. “I was the one to say, ‘Hey, knock it off. Let’s get this sh*t together.’”
You’re my quarterback. I got your back no matter what.
Redmond made it clear that he wouldn’t let Kealy engage in that behavior, and for a while Kealy seemed receptive.
“We had a good system for that,” Kealy said, "but I spun out of it."
Redmond couldn’t babysit Kealy all the time, and as close as they were, Kealy was still able to hide the extent of his problems.
“It wasn’t obvious that he had the struggles that he had,” Redmond said.
Being a local player, Kealy had no shortage of people he could find at a moment's notice to enable him.
“You just hold on too long and don’t understand why people are your friends,” Kealy said.
HELL ON WHEELS
"'99 was a f**ked up year. Period," Redmond remembered. “‘99 was hell on wheels.”
If the 1998 season staggered the Sun Devils, the following season delivered a haymaker.
Kealy enjoyed the rare benefit of an offseason without extensive knee rehabilitation, but his body was still straining. Just days before the season opener against Texas Tech, Kealy underwent a procedure to remove the meniscus in his knee. He made the start, but was knocked out of the game with a right knee injury in the first quarter of the 31-13 win.
Kealy returned the next week as ASU hosted lowly New Mexico State. The Sun Devils were 26-point favorites in game that would serve as a tune-up for the start of Pac-10 play the next week.
ASU started the game slowly, but they would turn it on eventually. At some point. Right? Hey...uh...guys?
Even as Kealy and the Sun Devils headed into the locker room down 7-0 at halftime, there was a prevailing belief that the vastly more talented squad would pull it out.
A 21-point third quarter by NMSU ended those beliefs. Kealy wasn’t sharp, completing just seven of his 17 throws for 90 yards and an interception. Two other ASU quarterbacks—Griffin Goodman and John Leonard—were put into the game, but to no avail. The Sun Devils gained just 234 total yards while allowing the Aggies to run for 363 in a stunning 35-7 loss.
"This is the most embarrassing thing I have ever been a part of," ASU linebacker Adam Archuleta said after the game.
“I don’t know what the hell happened,” Pettas said. “We were awful.”
The loss remains one of the most infamous in program history.
“As a player, as someone who is proud of the school they go to, the last thing you want to do is lose a game you know is going to be on people’s minds for a hundred years,” Kealy said.
It also was the manifestation of a program that was tearing itself apart from the inside out.
“The inmates started running that place for a few years,” Kealy said.
Since the troubled 1998 season, internal issues had taken the bloom off the Rose Bowl afterglow. The team dealt with drug and disciplinary issues, academic suspensions, indifference, injuries, and more. The team chemistry was becoming more toxic, and the lack of strong leadership on the team was only hastening the downfall.
“That was the last straw,” Kealy said. “You don’t lose to teams like that unless something is really off.”
With his addiction consuming him and the team around him falling apart, Kealy’s play continued to regress. Despite being a third-year starter, Kealy wasn't making the plays someone of his skill and experience should have. The night before the team’s road game against Notre Dame, Kealy went out drinking in South Bend. He threw three interceptions in ASU’s 48-17 loss the next day.
“I felt like we could have won a lot of games if I would have just done the right thing,” Kealy said. “Everything was done to such a level that was disgusting.”
* * * *
Watching the game in the stands that day was Kealy’s 92-year-old great aunt. She was a huge Notre Dame fan who had made the trip over to South Bend, Indiana from her home in Nebraska. On that day, she finally got to see a Kealy play in the hallowed Notre Dame Stadium.
Thirty minutes after the game ended, she was waiting by ASU’s bus with Joe Kealy. Still sulking after his performance in the loss, Ryan walked right past her and onto the bus. Joe immediately boarded the bus—something family members did not do—and confronted his son. The coaches, seeing the look on Joe’s face, did not intervene.
As Joe escorted Ryan off the bus, the younger Kealy had a meltdown. He exited the bus and looked into the eyes of his great aunt. He then gave her a hug.
In the moment, he saw how much he had changed as a person. He was not raised to act so childishly, and yet, here he was. It was a realization he had felt creeping in the back of his mind, but purposefully “didn’t pull on that thread too hard.” He was not in a place to face that truth that he would have found.
“It was representative of how infected my mind was at the time,” Kealy said. “I was losing it.”
* * * *
Over the course of two seasons, the drive for his football career had devolved from carrying on the legacy of Jake Plummer and a Pac-10 championship team to just hold on. Don’t lose this. The thought of a life without being the starting quarterback terrified him. Instead of focusing on the goals and achievements sprawled out ahead, his addiction had him feeling as if the walls were closing in.
One night, Kealy was driving down University and glanced over as he passed Sun Devil Stadium.
I’m not going to drive this very often being the quarterback anymore.
“If you’re thinking that, it’s probably over.”
* * * *
Perhaps in a testament to the raw talent on the team, the ‘99 Sun Devils managed to get to 5-5 as they hosted Arizona. For Kealy, it was another chance to make up for the prior two losses and salvage something from the lost year.
Before the game, Kealy addressed the team. This was unusual, as he had shied away from being more vocal as he felt he didn’t have the character to back up his words. So when he got in front of the team, he just let his emotions flow .
Freshman quarterback Jeff Krohn was in awe of what he saw.
“I’ve never seen a more passionate speech,” Krohn said. “Football was so indicative of life. I had never seen a player so invested in his program and his team and the passion that he brought.”
Riding the emotional high, Kealy came out firing. Nearing the end of the third quarter, he had thrown for 287 yards and two touchdowns as ASU held a 28-20 lead.
With two minutes left in the quarter, he was sacked and felt an all-too-familiar pain.
* * * *
Ryan Kealy had torn his ACL in his right knee.
After he left the game, ASU had held on to beat Arizona and earn a trip to Hawaii to play in the Aloha Bowl. A meaningless bowl game with a team that had barely held together was a recipe for shenanigans. With their bowl game stipends, players on both teams drank and partied hard throughout the week, with the game as a distant afterthought. During one practice, Snyder figured out why his team was so lethargic and unloaded.
Alright, we’re going f**king run this sh*t out of you right now!
He had his players line up for sprints. By the third run, players were dropping left and right. The trainers went to work curing the hangovers...err, hydrating the players.
“I’m surprised nobody died,” Kealy said.
Kealy watched all of it as he slid further into “a pretty dark place.” As he had many times before, Kealy prepared to push his body harder than was healthy. The pills would mask the pain and help keep the fear at bay.
It was the only way he knew to move forward as he fell behind.
It was just before midnight on July 23, 2000. A university police officer was sitting in their parked vehicle when they noticed a car rolling back and forth, apparently trying to trigger the traffic light. The officer pulled the car over and asked the driver to step out of the vehicle.
Ryan Kealy then refused to take a breathalyzer test and was taken into custody.
In the years since he went to junior high in borrowed shoes, Kealy’s father had found great success in business. Now, Ryan Kealy was telling police officers that his dad would get him out of this trouble. A lost young man overwrought with machismo, he felt humbled after being manhandled by a female officer.
“It was the pinnacle of my insanity,” Kealy said. “It was the pinnacle of the mistakes I had made. It was God’s way of saying, ‘Enough is enough.’”
The blood test found three painkillers and THC in his system. Kealy would later be indicted on two misdemeanor DUI charges.
* * * *
“God, it got this far?”
John Pettas had been close with Kealy since the moment he became a Sun Devil. He had been the team’s quarterback coach, and heading into the 2000 season, he was replacing Cozzetto as the offensive coordinator. Through Pettas' eyes, Kealy was a talented player and hard worker cursed by bad injury luck. Sure, he had some rough edges, but he was a guy that he could count on. When he heard the news of Kealy’s DUI arrest, he was shocked to learn of the true scope of Kealy’s issues.
“I was maybe overprotective of the guys I coached,” said Pettas. “When it gets that far as a coach, you feel responsible that you weren't paying attention, and you need to get him back on the right road.”
Looking back, Pettas believes the way the program was run under Snyder—who died in 2009—helped to mask the issue.
“It fell more on Bruce, because he probably knew way more than us as assistants,” Pettas said. “I think that’s the way he wanted it. He wanted us coaching, and he wanted to handle the other stuff.”
Snyder had a saying that he used to hammer home with his staff: Trainers train, doctors doctor, coaches coach. Don’t cross over.
“We just didn’t do a good enough job with Ryan,” Cozzetto said. “We needed to get him more help. We did a bad job.”
Kealy’s family, unsuccessful in their prior attempts to help, were hoping the arrest would serve as a turning point.
“My parents were so excited I was getting it,” Kealy said. “I think everyone who was close to me was excited that it was affecting me. Because finally, I was being punished. Finally, things were being taken away. At the time, it was welcome because they knew I had a big problem.”
Kealy was suspended and Joe Kealy brokered a deal with Snyder that included a probationary period that outlined a path back to the team. During that summer, the man who had more starts under his belt than any other active quarterback in the nation was made a ball boy. He held Snyder’s clipboard, fetched water, and collected loose footballs.
It was a humbling, if not humiliating, turn of events, but to Kealy, it was preferable to the alternative. Without football, without that sense of identity, what did he have?
“My overriding fear of losing this was more than anything, so the last thing I wanted to do was walk away,” said Kealy. “I was more scared of how I looked quitting than just pushing through.”
* * * *
Jeff Krohn woke up to the phone ringing.
Did you see what happened?
He hadn’t. Then he got a call from John Pettas.
Get ready, you’re the guy.
Just like that, the walk-on redshirt freshman quarterback was now the Sun Devils’ starter. Overwhelmed by the sudden turn of events, he drove out to California to hang out with a friend while he processed everything.
“I don’t know if I was upset or disappointed, but I felt thrown into the fire prematurely that I don’t know if I was ready for at the time,” Krohn said. “It was tough, because it was a guy that I looked up to. I was scared sh*tless.”
Krohn had looked up to Kealy since his title-winning run at St. Mary’s. In 1999, Krohn had been offered a preferred walk-on spot at ASU. After accepting, Krohn was asked by Kealy to come workout with him in the summer before camp. Being a newcomer and technically not part of the team yet, Krohn found himself lost in the locker room and without gear. Kealy found him, procured him clothes and shoes, and included him in the day’s 7-on-7 workouts.
Krohn watched Kealy and tried to act like him. He adopted similar mannerisms and tried to emulate how the veteran carried himself and led a huddle.
The team’s quarterbacks were a close-knit group. When one threw an interception in practice, the other quarterbacks on the sideline would run out and chase down the defender. Kealy had seen Pettas and Plummer create a loose and supportive environment, and he aimed to be the same type of mentor for the next generation of quarterbacks.
Yet for as close as the group was, Krohn had no idea of the extent of Kealy’s addiction issues. He had seen a “drastic difference” in Kealy’s physique, but that could have been due to the latest knee injury and rehab. Over the years, Kealy had gotten better and better at hiding the truth. It wasn’t just the coaches he had been able to fool.
Even with the suspension and issues that had come to light, Pettas still had faith in Kealy but had to prepare Krohn for the season opener. During the weeks leading up to the game, Kealy was supportive in helping to get Krohn ready.
Krohn and the offense struggled in the opener, but the Sun Devils still topped San Diego State 10-7. Another underwhelming performance followed against Colorado State, yet ASU improved to 2-0 on the year.
Heading into the third game against Utah State, Kealy’s suspension was lifted. Although Krohn would start, Kealy would see action. Krohn opened the game with touchdown passes of 72 and 70 yards in the first quarter. He would finish with 248 yards and four touchdowns in the blowout win.
Kealy made his return midway through the second quarter as some boos were heard in Sun Devil Stadium as he made his way onto the field. He was rusty and missed some easy throws, but he finished the game by completing four of his nine passes for 89 yards and one touchdown. The darkness that had been enveloping him became a little brighter.
The following Monday, Snyder gave Pettas a directive.
“You will not start Ryan," he said.
“But Ryan’s the best,” Pettas pleaded.
“You won’t start Ryan," Snyder stated. "Ryan cannot start.”
Krohn was named the starter, and the first congratulatory call he received after the news was from Kealy.
The next day, Krohn was diagnosed with mononucleosis. Kealy would now start against UCLA, but he still called Krohn, “Get healthy, (the starting job) will be here for you when you get back.”
Back at the helm, with lots of friends watching in the Rose Bowl stands, it was like 1997 all over again. Kealy and the Sun Devils jumped out to a 21-0 lead over the 15th-ranked Bruins.
“It was surreal,” Kealy remembers. “We were clicking on all cylinders.”
It would be the last hurrah.
As he walked to the sidelines after a series, he felt a familiar squish in his knee.
Oh no. Not again.
In a sense of denial, he felt he could play through it. He went out there early in the second half, planted his leg to throw...and he couldn’t. The errant pass was intercepted and his day was done.
Kealy had torn the ACL in his right knee yet again.
The final play of Ryan Kealy’s Arizona State career once seemed destined to be memorable, a clutch first down run or a game-winning touchdown pass. Instead, it was a bad pick on a bum knee.
Just like that, it was over. It was just too much, so he simply left everything behind.
“He all but disappeared,” remembered Krohn.
* * * *
“I completely cratered after that,“ Kealy said. “I didn’t deserve a fairy tale season, to pull things out. That was the dream, but I didn’t put in the work.”
The team gave him time to figure out what he wanted to do. Snyder publicly stated that he wanted Kealy to remain with the program. Kealy wanted no part of that. He stopped showing up to team activities. Krohn only saw his one-time mentor once more while walking to class.
Five weeks after the injury, ASU hosted USC in the final home game of the season. Senior Day should have been so much different, a celebration of an accomplished career. Instead, Kealy showed up, but there was no fanfare. No hugs. No goodbyes. He wasn’t even totally lucid.
“I definitely partied a lot, but I always took pride in being a good teammate,” Kealy said. “I totally bailed on the team, and that’s one of the things I have to live with for the majority of my life.”
To this day, he never received the photo and plaque given to the outgoing seniors. He knew he didn’t deserve it.
“What better way for an immature child to put a stamp on his immature, childish career at ASU," he said. "It’s so fitting and stupid.”
FINDING A LIGHT
“I was really in a dark place.”
His greatest fear had come to pass. He had lost his job and status as a starting quarterback.
And with that, he had lost his identity.
After the 2000 season, Snyder and staff were let go, with Dirk Koetter hired as head coach. Koetter briefly entertained having Kealy back for a sixth season, if he could earn a medical waiver from the NCAA. Kealy had surgery, rehabbed yet again, and threw for the new coach. However, ASU ultimately did not pursue it.
Kealy left ASU without a degree (he remains just a few credits shy). He moved back in with his parents, who were unsure of what to do or how to help. In an unexpected silver lining, Kealy’s drinking and pill usage dwindled without a job or access through the football program.
Eventually, Kealy went to work as a salesman at a Just For Feet location. After a few months there, one of Joe’s friends pulled up to the store and asked Kealy if he wanted to make some money.
The offer was an entry-level research spot for a real estate brokerage firm, but Kealy suspected he was looked at as manual labor too. The boutique firm didn’t yet have an office, so he spent time in a construction capacity. As his driver’s license was still suspended, he would make the two-mile walk to-and-from Home Depot hauling lumber and other supplies.
With a mind slowly clearing from the fog of the pills and alcohol, he was finding a new purpose in his life.
“I was willing to do whatever it took to get back to my roots,” Kealy said.
A year later, he was made an associate. A year after that, he was brokering land deals.
“It was off to the races,” he said.
Following the economic downturn in 2008, he co-founded Quantum Capital, where he remains a partner today.
* * * *
When surrounded by darkness, one light can show you the way out.
Over five years had passed since Kealy left ASU. Things had been slowly improving. He was having success professionally and was rediscovering himself. But he still wasn’t functionally well, and he had a difficult time meeting people.
So a friend set him up on a blind date with a girl named Danielle.
“I had already started the trajectory, but she made it all worthwhile,” Kealy said. “She changed everything.”
For years, Kealy had been self-absorbed. It was about his game. His team. His rehab. His burden. The further he fell into the addiction and into that version of himself, the more cut off he became.
But not with Danielle.
“She was the first step to realizing there’s a lot to this life that is a lot more important than myself,” Kealy said.
He had a partner, someone who was not afraid to hold him accountable.
They married a year later and eventually Danielle gave birth to a daughter.
* * * *
Some time had passed following the painful divorce Kealy had from football. His old coach thought it was time for a reconciliation.
Pat Farrell had stayed close with the Kealy family and wanted to help his former quarterback. He had long thought that the structured atmosphere of the St. Mary’s program could help Kealy get back on track. After a time helping Farrell with the varsity squad, he was given the reins of the freshman team.
The results were...mixed.
“I had no kids at the time, so I’m coaching them like my kids,” Kealy said.
Much like how Joe brought an intensity to coaching Ryan, that approach was applied to the St. Mary’s freshmen. The tenure had a rocky start.
“He is an intense guy, and there is a certain attitude you need with freshmen,” Farrell said. “You can intimidate freshmen pretty easily. He already had their respect, so I hoped he learned he needed to be more of a teacher than a drill sergeant.”
The new coach needed some coaching. Farrell had seen former players run into similar issues when transitioning to coaching, and over time, he was able to get Kealy to pull back and “sand off the rough edges.”
The coaching stint lasted a few seasons, and Kealy grew through his experiences. Perhaps most importantly, getting back to St. Mary’s allowed him and Joe to strengthen their bond and create wonderful new memories together.
Once Ryan had stabilized his life professionally and had success, he found that he earned more respect from his father. From that foundation, they grew closer. He would attend St. Mary’s games with him, often times with his mother and Danielle.
On October 8, 2008, Ryan and Joe were set to go to another game together.
They’d never get there.
Although his substance abuse tailed off, the specter of addiction was never fully exorcised. Kealy suffered a relapse in 2005 that resulted in a stint in a rehabilitation facility in Tucson.
With his success in business growing, Kealy had given himself the greenlight to drink more. At one point, Joe Kealy and Pat Farrell, along with some of Ryan’s business partners, staged an intervention.
Joe's sudden death on Oct. 8, 2008 was a devastating blow.
“I unraveled,” Kealy said.
Kealy fell into a serious relapse. The substances helped to dull the pain. Since those around him had known of his past, he had to go to “certain extremes” to get pills. As he had in his darkest years, he withdrew. His focus turned to feeling sorry for himself.
Kealy’s business partners were being let down, and by that time, Danielle and Ryan had a second child—a son—on the way. This was not the way Danielle wanted to live, and Ryan was not in the place he needed to be for his family.
Danielle gave him an ultimatum. He still remembers the look she gave him. He saw the sincerity and felt it’s over.
The things he held most dear had fallen apart before, and he had been the one to tear it down.
But not this time. This time was different. It had to be.
I have to fight for my family.
“This isn’t just me anymore. I’m not just affecting myself,” Kealy said. “You have to start feeling life.”
The recovery process was not immediate. He couldn't just try to get better in the usual day-to-day. He took three months away from work, focusing on bettering himself and becoming the man he and his family deserved. He had to rebuild his mindset and his way of thinking from the ground up. How he saw the world evolved. He found what he truly, deeply valued, and his priorities in life changed forever.
It was hard. It was messy. It was worth it.
“The only time I was able to make that decision was when I was able to show myself that I had things that were worth losing,” said Kealy. “I was always OK hurting myself, but once I had kids who would be hurt by my actions, I’ve got to really figure out how to not let that happen.
“That’s when it all came together.”
* * * *
He has survived his addiction so far, but he knows the danger never fully goes away. It’s always lurking, waiting to take advantage of a moment of weakness. He’s known many people over the years who simply didn’t make it.
“It’s a nasty, nasty disease and a nasty drug,” Kealy said. “It just doesn’t let go.”
The years since have had the usual ups and downs of life, but they’ve been good. Really good. Ryan Kealy has stayed clean and become someone who can foster—and feel—happiness.
Which is why he knows he can’t let up again.
“Success is always a problem for me. That’s when I need to be most diligent,” he said. “When times are tough, I’m pretty good. I dial in and do the work. It’s when I’m feeling better than, that’s the tricky part for me.”
Danielle and Ryan are now the proud parents of four children. All four are active in sports, with Ryan involved as a coach. Whether it’s softball, baseball, Pop Warner, or flag football, he’s out there helping to guide them. And he’s also had a familiar face to help guide him.
Despite the way things ended at Arizona State, where Kealy feels he is responsible for Pettas losing his job, the two have remained close. Pettas lives nearby and will often take Kealy’s kids on trips to the lake. The relationship has grown into a father-son dynamic, in which Kealy feels Pettas has “filled that role for quite a while.”
With the Pop Warner team Kealy is coaching, Pettas has again become a mentor. Pettas draws up plays, and the pair puts the playbook together. He’ll speak to the team, passing on the wisdom from decades of coaching.
Then he sits back and enjoys it all.
“I go to the Pop Warner games, and it’s just a joy for me to watch him,” Pettas said. “He’s so positive with the kids. He doesn’t scream and yell. He coaches them to do the right thing. He makes it fun for them.”
It wasn’t always that way, though.
Kealy’s first foray into coaching his own kids came with leading his daughter’s softball team, and some old habits had to die hard. Like his stint at St. Mary’s, those old competitive juices flowed. He wanted to win all the games and get the best kids. But he eventually evolved in a different, and healthier, direction.
“Now, I just see the advantage they get from just being competitive and having character and discipline to fight through stuff,” Kealy said.
He wants to help develop the kids’ life skills off the field as much as their skills on it. He focuses on helping build their mental strength and character and wants to install a belief system they can tap into later in life. He’s seen firsthand how some parents are afraid to be honest with their children about the difficulties life will inevitably throw their way.
Kealy is able to address those head on.
“The trust you get with these kids, the way you engage with them and get them to believe and sacrifice is one of the more important things,” Kealy said. “I can talk through my experiences, and I can hopefully keep them from making the mistakes I did.
“What I'm trying to do is just give back. The goal now is to grow good guys, good people.”
A COMEBACK WIN
There’s an alternate reality out there where Ryan Kealy’s knees don’t constantly shred and he doesn’t get hooked on pills. With his talent and drive, he may very well have led ASU to the promised land and gone on to a productive NFL career.
“If I had done it all right, I think I’d still be an a**hole,” Kealy admits.
His journey was his own. His choices, his mistakes, and his eventual triumphs. He knows had it gone another way, he wouldn’t have the family and life he has now. He wouldn’t have become the person he needed to be to earn and deserve that.
With his children getting older, Kealy grapples with how to share his mistakes and hard-learned lessons with them. He won’t shield them from the truth. He saw how he perpetuated some of them that were passed along to him, and he knows the cycle has to end.
“I want them to see the mistakes I’ve made,” Kealy said. “That’s where they’re going to see, ‘We have to be better than Dad. We can’t be the same.’ That’s been a problem with the men in my family for generations, and I have to stop it.”
* * * *
Ryan Kealy ended his Arizona State career, marred as it was, second in school history in passing yards (6,912) and his 43 touchdown passes were tied for fourth (he is now sixth and eighth, respectively). To those closest to him, he was more than just the numbers he put up.
Pettas remembers him as a player who battled through pain and played his best in the biggest games. Redmond thinks back to a quarterback, his quarterback, that whether he was at 100 percent or 60 percent physically, gave every ounce he had while on the field.
“That guy went through hell just to do the things that he did,” Cozzetto said. “That kid gave his body for the Sun Devils to be successful.”
Some quick stats on that front:
13 total surgeries
3 reconstructions of his right knee
1 reconstruction of his left knee
2 scopes on his left knee
1 scope on his right
Plus, there was that time Kealy had calcium bored out from his hip and put into his right knee. “They had to stop everything because my knees were so cavernous,” Kealy said. “When they took X-rays, they just looked like rats had dug holes through them.”
Yet despite the blood, sweat, and tears, there is currently no relationship between himself and the Arizona State program.
“It’s nonexistent, and that’s my fault,” Kealy said.
He’s attended just two ASU games in the 21 years since he left (2005 USC, 2014 Notre Dame). The school has reached out in the past, but Kealy admits he wasn’t in a place during those times to make things right. Now he is. He wants that relationship restored, if not for himself, than for his children. He wants to be able to walk them onto Frank Kush Field at Sun Devil Stadium and tell them, Dad played here!
To the larger Sun Devil fanbase, Ryan Kealy’s name isn’t remembered fondly today. At best, he remains a major what could have been story. At worst, he’s the guy that ruined the Sun Devils’ chance at building a desert dynasty.
The truth, as it often does, lies somewhere in between.
Talking to Ryan Kealy today, it’s abundantly clear he holds himself responsible for the failure of his career and of those Sun Devil teams. He feels he got coaches fired and held his teammates back from their full potential. That’s a much harsher sentiment than he deserves. A substantial amount falls on his shoulders, but much was also beyond his control.
“There’s a section (of fans) that thinks he was just a drinker, a partier, that he didn't really care,” Murphy said. “I think it was the opposite. He cared so much that he felt that pain.”
Kealy understands how people may perceive his football career now, but he hopes that they can also understand what went on just to get to game day.
“I hope they remember me for just fighting through the injuries,” Kealy said. “There’s no way you can tag onto my career the overall success. But if there’s one overall theme that I hope they get from this is that I did work hard for them.”
For so long, football defined Ryan Kealy’s life and his own self-worth. There were great moments, agonizing setbacks, and more than a few lingering what ifs. But whether he knew it at the time or not, it was always just a game, something he did, not who he was.
As he looks back today, he is rightfully able to tell himself he pulled off the biggest win of all.
“You didn’t make it in football,” he said, “but you made it in the way that matters.”
If you or someone you know need help with opioids, call the Arizona Department of Health Services' free and confidential Opioid Assistance and Referral Line at 1-888-688-4222