Calera ‘pioneer’ Rusty Ryan passes away, leaves rich legacy behind [COLUMN]

By DREW GRANTHUM/Sports Editor

Sometimes, an athlete’s legacy transcends what he or she does on the field. Such is the case with the late Rusty Ryan.

I’ll admit, I don’t pretend to know too much about Mr. Ryan. I never saw him play, never spoke with him and until a few weeks ago, I had never heard of him.

However, after talking to his brother, James Ryan, and to Ken Mobley, a classmate of Rusty’s, I have come to the realization that I missed out.

James called me to thank Wesley Hallman for a strong piece on the late Calera and Montevallo coach Richard Gilliam, and that his family always appreciated the way Coach Gilliam treated his brother Rusty, who had just passed away.

I inquired more, and learned that Rusty was the first African-American athlete at Calera High School. Under the late Coach Richard Gilliam, he rose to become a star running back, putting on performances that still excite many of the Calera faithful.

While much of the nation saw the violence that came with integration and fear and intolerance, James Ryan said his brother never had to worry about that at Calera.

“(Rusty) never got into a fight,” he said. “His teammates loved him. No one hurt him. At Calera, he was loved. People I don’t even know (are) constantly asking about him.”

Mobley said part of the tranquility was due in part to Calera, but a great deal was due to Rusty’s demeanor.

“He was a fantastic guy, just a class act,” Mobley said. “He was the epitome of a pioneer. We just didn’t have the problems. Because of Rusty, Calera never had the racial trouble. I think that’s his legacy.”

James told me that his brother wasn’t perfect, and after joining the military got into a bit of trouble. After he got back on track, he devoted his life to ministry and got into business, having died a millionaire.

I’m a firm believer that no one knows you like your brother. So while I never met Mr. Ryan, his brother’s words speak volumes about his legacy and leaves quite the impact on me.

“He was very unselfish,” James told me. “My brother is my hero.”