Back in Illinois for the final days of Wright State’s Christmas break five months ago, Ryan Weiss was out with friends one night when he decided to contact his mom.
“We were supposed to have family day the next day and I texted her to find out what time it would start,” he remembered. “It was about 11:30 and I didn’t get a response so I figured she was sleeping.”
Ryan’s sister Rachel, younger by 18 months, was out with friends, too, and was looking forward to the next day, as well. She loved family days:
“The three of us would be together and Ryan would do the grilling and I’d make some random side dish and then we might stay in and lay low – just play a game or watch baseball or something – or we’d go out and play miniature golf, anything. We were really close and it was always fun.”
The next morning Rachel was up first.
“It was 7:50 and I had to be to work at 9,” she said quietly. “I found Mom in the bathroom. She was still alive, I don’t know how, but she was unconscious. I called 9-1-1 and they said if she was going to have any chance, we needed to do CPR.
“Ryan did the best he could and they said because of him, we at least got her in the ambulance and to the hospital. But she never did regain her reflexes or retention.
“So family night became just sitting in the hospital praying.”
Barbara Weiss suffered from lupus and had had a previous episode seven months earlier. Then only Rachel was there. Ryan, a standout Wright State pitcher, was in Massachusetts playing summer ball in the collegiate Cape Cod League.
This time Barbara’s heart attack was serious.
“I remember thinking all three of are together this time,” Ryan said. “It’s the way God intended it. This was our family day.”
Barbara Weiss – a longtime special education teacher and devoted mother – was pronounced dead the following day. She was 48.
Before the day was over, Wright State baseball coach Jeff Mercer and some of his assistants were at Ryan’s and Rachel’s side.
Ryan was recalling this story on Memorial Day as he sat on a bench outside TJ Chumps, where, just a few minutes earlier on the televised NCAA Tournament selection show, it had been announced that the Raiders would travel to California to play host Stanford – the No. 2 overall seed in the tournament and the No. 3 ranked team in the nation – Friday night.
While it’s a tough assignment for the 39-15 Raiders, Ryan didn’t flinch.
He’s faced far tougher challenges.
And he was just talking about his mother’s January 5th death.
Six years ago he and Rachel dealt with another family tragedy.
“We were at the mall with mom and when I went to look for her, I heard someone sobbing,” Ryan remembered. “It was her, on the floor, crying. Finally, she pulled us aside and told us. Dad had died.”
Michael Weiss – divorced from Barbara, but always a big part of his two kids’ lives as both a coach and a confidante – had committed suicide.
“Right when it happened I was really (angry),” Ryan said. “I wanted to know how he did it and why. I know now his work wasn’t going well. There were a lot of things.
“We got through it because we followed Mom’s lead. She seemed to know just what to do.”
The Monday after his dad’s death, Ryan, then 14, remembers telling his mom he didn’t want to go to school.
“She said, ‘Why not?’ And I said, ‘Well, Dad just passed away.’
“She said, ‘If Dad were here, would you go to school?’ And I said, ‘Well, obviously…’
“And she said, ‘ Well then, get ready. You’re going to school!’
“She didn’t leave it up to me. She said, ‘We’re going to get through this and we’re gonna do it together.’”
And that’s when Ryan said he found a way to cope:
“I decided right away I was going to be a better version of my dad. I was going to finish off what he left and be the best I could be.
And, at just 21, he’s done a pretty good job of that already.
Though lightly recruited coming out of South Elgin High School, he was spotted by Mercer, who saw something “special” in him.
After sitting out his first year at WSU with a stress fracture in his back, Ryan spent the past two seasons becoming the Raiders’ top pitcher.
Going 8-1 with a league-leading 2.13 earned run average, he was the Horizon League Freshman of the Year and was named to the All-Horizon League team.
This year he was an All-Horizon League pick again. He went 9-2 and had a 3.40 ERA, which is misleading thanks to a 10-run fiasco at Northern Kentucky, a failure he said that turned into a blessing.
He said it made him tougher down the stretch as WSU won the league tournament last weekend to get the NCAA bid.
And he did it all while quietly grieving his mom.
“He didn’t hide his emotions, but he handled himself with incredible maturity,” Mercer said. “He was an absolute rock.”
A late bloomer
Growing up outside of Chicago, Ryan played several sports, often with his dad helping coach.
In high school he settled on baseball, where he was a catcher. Later he became a pitcher, though his fastball didn’t top 84 mph, and he drew limited college interest.
“Going into senior year, I remember my mom asking our pitching coach, ‘I know we’re not talking Division I, but where do you think he could go?’” he said with a smile.
He signed to play at Elgin Community College, when Mercer, then a WSU assistant, got a tip from another WSU parent that he ought to look at Ryan.
He did and after going through a formula he has for assessing pitchers, he said he was encouraged most when they talked:
“There was a difference about him. Some kids say they want to play at the next level, but it’s all eyewash. There was no fake to him. He wanted it so bad. He just wanted knowledge. He wanted to do everything we told him and more.”
When then head coach Greg Lovelady asked if the kid would increase his velocity, Mercer predicted he’d be throwing 95 mph in 24 months.
And that happened, even though he spent his first WSU season as a medical redshirt. He added 28 pounds to 6-foot-4 frame, perfected his pitches and has become a team leader.
“He was lightly recruited – a late bloomer – but has done everything he can to become better,” Mercer said. “He’s only really been pitching three years or so and one was in a back brace, so the best is yet to come.
“He’s the poster child for what this program is all about.”
A tight bond
Above a straight line tattooed on his right biceps, Ryan has inked “Above and Below.” Beneath it, he has: “I promise to you.”
“That’s for my dad,” he explained. “It means whether he’s up in heaven or down on earth I promise to do what he couldn’t do.”
Rachel is getting her own tat which will include the actual graph of her mom’s heartbeat. She got it from the hospital and is putting it to ink.
Ryan hasn’t figured out yet what to do for his mom, but said Rachel told him, “It will come to you when it’s time.”
He and his sister have a tight bond.
“We’re best friends,” she said. “We ‘get’ each other because we’re the only two who knows what it like to go through this.
“We’re in in contact all the time. We call. We FaceTime. Sometimes it’s something small, like: ’Should I get this pair of shoes?”
“Other times it’s bigger. Like today we’re selling the house.”
Along with their mom, the two – in honor of their dad – also have taken part each year in the “Out of The Darkness Walk” sponsored by the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.
Through all the hardship and pain, they both have managed to blossom.
Rachel is finishing her associates degree at ECC and then heads to Manhattan, where she’s been accepted into the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT.)
The past couple of years she’s regularly visited Ryan at WSU and developed a kinship with the Raiders, as well.
“Ryan going to Wright State is the greatest decision he ever could have made,” she said. “That school, the organization they have there, they are seriously a family, I even consider them my family.
“They’ve really been there for us. And Coach Mercer is just an incredible man.”
Mercer knows about familial loss, too. When he was playing at the University of Dayton, his younger brother Daniel, a standout athlete himself, died of cancer.
Mercer thought of that last weekend as he sat by himself in the Nischwitz Stadium dugout after the Raiders won the Horizon League Tournament and It came to him again on Memorial Day, which was the 12th anniversary of his brother’s death.
That said, Mercer said he wouldn’t try to overlap his experience on Ryan’s:
“When somebody says, ‘I know what you’re going through,’ they don’t. I don’t know exactly what he’s dealing with and I don’t like to act like I do.
“I just let him know that I love him and will do what I can to support him.”
Mercer said the other players have gravitated to Ryan because they’ve seen both how far he’s come on the field and how admirably he’s handled the loss of his mom:
“Their respect for him as a teammate is incredible.”
Ryan said it goes back to that vow he made when his dad died:
““I’m trying to take the Weiss name and make it as great as it can be.
“No matter where my parents are, I’m trying to make them proud. It’s what I’m going to do. It’s what I will do.”
Like the ink on biceps says:
“I promise to you.”