Miller Place native Matt Ryan keeps a phrase in his back pocket: “The harder you work, the luckier you get.”
“I knew I could control the hard work, and where it led I didn’t know,” he said. “But I knew the hard work would get me there.”
His athletic determination led him to a nine-year professional handball career, becoming Team USA’s 1996 Olympic captain and three-time U.S. Handball Player of the Year. His 225 official international matches are an American record and he’s noted as one of the greatest handball players in American history. Now, he’s part of the 2018 Suffolk Sports Hall of Fame class.
“It certainly paid off,” the current executive director of regional development for Georgia Institute of Technology, said laughingly.
A three-sport athlete for Miller Place, his Panthers success started in basketball. He also played for the baseball team and ran cross country.
“They say it takes a village to raise a child, and that was my case in Miller Place,” said Ryan, who has two older brothers and a younger sister. “Everyone was wonderful from teachers to coaches to parents, and the bond with fellow classmates, it’s a bond like none other. It’s reinforced daily, even now through Facebook. We always supported each other.”
Being in a large family on a block with many kids pushed him to his athletic limits.
“Older friends in the neighborhood pushed me to come up to their level,” he said. “I learned a lot in that — how to overcome obstacles and battle through any circumstance. A lot of my work ethic came from that as well.”
In 1984 as a high school senior, Ryan was the New York Basketball Player of the Year. As a junior, he was second team All-Long Island and won a gold medal at the Empire State Games with the Long Island squad.
Physical education teacher and baseball coach Don Pranzo met his soon-to-be outfielder in seventh grade, and said he knew he was destined to be a great athlete.
“He was amenable to teaching,” Pranzo said. “He was a good, nice kid who listened to you and tried out what you suggested.”
Pranzo introduced handball to his students during class after former Miller Place physical education teacher and field hockey coach Judy Kopelman presented it to the other teachers. Kopelman, a 2008 Suffolk Sports Hall of Fame inductee, was selected to the U.S. national handball team from 1974-76.
Pranzo said he had one problem asking Ryan if he’d play the game — the footwork was completely opposite of basketball. In handball, an athlete runs three steps before dribbling, and after dribbling once, can take three more running steps before dribbling again, passing or leaping into the air to shoot. Ryan was willing to give it a shot, and Pranzo said the teachers concluded that if it affected his basketball game, he’d be excused from class.
“As it turns out, he played with some intensity, especially during the tournament, and he continued to play basketball and had no problem with the footwork,” Pranzo said. “He had the visual skills, the physical ability at 6-4 to go over the defense and fire the handball at the goal cage. He was very good.”
Ryan went on to play basketball in college and said he thought it would be the last time he’d play handball.
The U.S. Olympic committee doesn’t have a pipeline for nontraditional sports, where team handball would fall, and instead sends recruiters out to college campuses trying to identify elite athletes across the country. Ryan took part in NFL combine-style testing after graduating, and emerged as one of the top 30 entering training camp.
“I was fortunate enough to know a lot about handball thanks to Miller Place,” Ryan said. “I took a shine to it there, looking forward to those end-of-the-year tournaments.”
“I was blessed, given a tremendous opportunity, and I wasn’t going to squander it. I was
going to make every drop of sweat matter.”
— Matt Ryan
He immersed himself into training three or four times a day, six days a week and competed internationally.
He said representing Team USA was the experience of a lifetime.
“I was blessed, given a tremendous opportunity and I wasn’t going to squander it,” Ryan said. “I was going to make every drop of sweat matter, whether it was in the weight room, on the track, through mental preparation and visualization, or being out on the playing field. I didn’t want to have any regrets. I wanted to walk away knowing I gave it my all.”
He said while many look forward to the opening ceremony of the Olympics, he was in it for more than that.
“I couldn’t wait for competition to arise,” he said. “That was an absolute charge, not only representing my team in the opening ceremony in 1996 but leading my team into competition for the six games we played.”
Miller Place pitched into his Olympic appearance. Having to fund his own training and trip to the 1996 Atlanta games, his mother hosted a variety show fundraiser that thousands attended.
“I was just overwhelmed with the response,” he said. “I shook everyone’s hand or gave them a hug. They sent me off with their well wishes and I was completely moved by that. It’s one of those experiences I’ve taken with me through the journey — to realize my life of sport wasn’t just on the court, but I was able to make an impact in the community and on other people in a positive way.”
In 2004, Ryan was honored with the Boys and Girls Clubs of America National Service to Youth Award. In 2013 he was inducted to the Miller Place Athletic Hall of Fame.
“The success Matt achieved both as a Miller Place student and as an alumnus is a testament to his hard work and drive,” Miller Place Superintendent Marianne Cartisano said. “His commitment to positive sportsmanship is emblematic of Miller Place athletics.”
Ryan said he struggled through his Miller Place hall of fame acceptance speech because his father had just had a heart attack and wasn’t able to attend. He said he’d hoped his dad would be around if he were to be inducted into the Suffolk Sports Hall of Fame. He will be attending the induction ceremony May 10 at 7:30 p.m. at Watermill Caterers in Smithtown.
“My father drove me everywhere — completely gave of himself, and now being the parent of a 12-year-old who plays sports, I know how difficult it is when he did that with me, and had three other kids involved in sports,” Ryan said. “The opportunity for him to be there and embrace this recognition with me, which is an extension of him and my mom, it’s completely overpowering.”
Almost as moving as the induction honor itself.
“This whole thing is humbling, quite frankly,” Ryan said. “I never set out for successes. I just put the work and effort in, the focus and drive, and let the chips fall where they may. To be part of this 2018 class, mentioned in the breadth of so many Long Island greats, it’s pretty remarkable.”