April, 2004 – The NFL Draft just ended and my phone rang. It was the Cincinnati Bengals. They were offering me a free agent contract and an invitation to mini camp.
Needless to say I was pumped as I headed for the Ohio Kentucky border. It was my goal to make it to the NFL since I was 12 years old, and here I was putting on the coolest helmet in the league and playing catch with Ocho Cinco. I did it, I made it to the NFL. Three day into camp my throwing shoulder (the same one that gave me trouble my senior season) started to hurt. Jogging off the field that day I asked then starting QB John Kitna if his arm ever hurt. He said, “no, why does yours?” I nodded and he replied, “Don’t tell anyone.”
Instead I popped anti-inflammatories like the Wolf of Wall Street popped ludes and applied the horse liniment DMSO on my shoulder. DMSO is some nasty business and works by penetrating the skin and calming the inflamed joint. Sure it works, but it announces its presence through rancid breath and infection if not applied carefully.
The next day jogging out to practice I knew I was in trouble. Despite my anti-inflammatory ice party the night before I could barely lift my arm. I tried to suck it up in warmups but it was starting to be obvious. Our first drill was throwing deep outs. Of course. After I ballooned a few in there, QB coach Ken Zampese encouraged me to “go ahead and let it rip Ryan!” That next throw felt like I was stabbed in the back of the shoulder with a machete.That was it. Despite Kitna’s seasoned advice I couldn’t take it anymore. I had to say something. The next thing I knew I was in the office of player personnel signing my release papers.
They threw me into some interns cigarette stained 88 Buick to drop me off at the airport. The dream was over. I remember the red velvety seats and looking out the window taking in the sweeping emotions as this stranger drove me through the grey streets of Cincinnati. There was immense sadness, but strangely there was this equal feeling of relief. Relief that I didn’t have to worry about my shoulder holding up because it definitely wasn’t going to, and an unexpected relief that it was over.
I of course bottled up that last feeling and never told anyone how I really felt because that is how a quitter would have reacted. That, and I wasn’t prepared to destroy the dream for everyone that had supported me up to that point.
Back home I kept the dream alive and had surgery to repair the problem. I rehabbed and started training to prepare for a workout I had lined up with the 49ers. A week before my trip up to San Francisco my arm was feeling good, and after a throwing the ball around with a buddy of mine I came to the truth that my heart was no longer in it. I was done. I didn’t want to play football anymore. It was always my goal to make it to the NFL and that box had now been checked. Looking back I should have been more specific, like I want to sign a multi million dollar contact in the NFL. Either way I was now on to plan B. And if you ask anyone who has a shot to play in the NFL, you don’t have a plan B.
After many years of trying different things plan B finally announced itself and turned into plan A: to make great art. Wait, what? “You are a jock, you can’t be an artist.” Is what I heard in the subtext of those around me. The truth was I was always passionate about art but never fully perused it because of football. My mother was an avid photographer and my father was an actor and they encouraged my creativity, and I wanted to be creative. Any free time I had while working different jobs was spent in my makeshift art studio or in acting class. I had now found something that I loved to do and I wanted to do it well. Exploring this creativity never felt like work. It felt right, and my work improved. My exploration in the studio led to creating a technique where I use various blowtorches to burn images into wood.
The work got noticed and I had my first solo show at the Black Square Gallery in Miami in April, 2013, and was subsequently featured on the cover of Artvoices Magazine soon after. The acting got better too. I continued to study, got an agent, and started booking commercials and guest spots on shows like NCIS and Justified. I even teamed back up with my good friend and filmmaker from UCLA Jared Drake. Jared showed me a script he and his brother were working on titled Visioneers. They were fired up to make it and after I read it and loved it, I came on to produce. The script was well received and after attaching Judy Greer and Zach Galifanakis we were off to Seattle to shoot.
This is where I became an 80s action hero. Jared cast me as MACK LUSTER in the film, an action-hero transplant from the 1980s modeled after Rambo and Commando. Knowing I had to beef up, I hit the gym. Football was gone, but the work ethic learned on my way to the NFL was still there.
It was during this time that I realized I don’t have to abandon my identity as a jock in order to be an artist. I can just be me. All the pieces fell into place as I dove into my new Plan A. This proved successful as my character in Visioneers went on to develop a bit of a cult following.
So much so that Jared and I have teamed up again to give Mack Luster his own feature film. We recently launched a Kickstarter campaign to raise funds for production. If we succeed, shooting this feature will be as great as any Superbowl I ever could have dreamed of.
If you would like to see more and support this project, click the image below!