Ask Towson football coach Rob Ambrose what he thinks of senior wide receiver Tom Ryan and you're likely to get a quiet, reflective smile, a few comments about the player's heart and determination, and a story about cookies.
The story, as Ambrose tells it, goes something like this: After every win, the coach's wife bakes cookies for the nearly 100-player team. The treats are a hit with the players, Ryan especially. Ambrose can remember one night around Christmas last year when he came home to find his wife practically crying.
"She shows me a card Tom had dropped off," he said. "He had gone to one of those expensive stores, like cooking stores ... he went out and bought her a high-end spatula, something to the effect that I'm sure all the cookies she had to make last year while we were winning, she [was] going to need a new one and he thought she should have one.
"It was really, really sweet. And he's tough and he's gritty and as focused as he is on football, it was really heart-warming to see the guy, the future husband, the future father. Yeah, you've got to love coaching guys like that."
It's stories like this one that define Ryan's relationships. Coaches and teammates know the economics major not just as the player who is 15th on Towson's all-time receiving list, but as the friend they can count on both on and off the field.
"He's a good teammate; me and him are good friends off the field as well," senior quarterback Grant Enders said. "He's a funny guy, so he always lightens up the mood a little bit, but when it's time to play football and be serious, that's what he'll be. So we have a good time, and he just a good guy to have around."
The good times are slowly but surely coming to an end for the good-natured senior, though.
In their last home game of the season, the Tigers (5-4, 4-2 Colonial Athletic Association) will welcome Rhode Island (0-9, 0-6) for a rematch of last year's regular-season finale, which Towson won, 28-17, to earn its first CAA crown and its first Football Championship Subdivision berth.
Unlike last year, however, Ryan said that neither he nor the team will take the Rams lightly, and are going into the contest with the mindset that this game has just as much on the line as it did last season.
"As a senior, it kind of hits you more at home now, because you realize that you might only have two games left to wear that Towson uniform and all that work that you've done for four years to try to help the program and try to build the program to what it is today, it could all be over in two games," Ryan said.
Last weekend, in the Tigers' overtime win at Delaware, Ryan caught three of his eight passes on the team's go-ahead touchdown drive late in the fourth quarter. None of them were more important than his 8-yard reception on a fourth-and-7 to get the ball into Blue Hens territory.
"My impact, the way I look at it, is if we need a play or if we need something, and I have the opportunity, I try to take advantage of it," Ryan said. "Last week, [Delaware] left us kind of open, because a lot of people like to focus in on the running game. It's our job as the receivers to run a route, and catch a ball and actually know we're going to be open because [the other team's] first instinct is to cover our run game.
"Every receiver wants the ball ... but in our offense and the way we run things, one game I might have eight catches, this week I might only have one catch. If that one catch helps us win, or if me having only one catch can help us win, then that's what all of our receivers' mindsets are."
With 83 career receptions and five touchdowns, Ryan will leave a void when he's gone.
"It's going to be tough to fill his shoes at his position and also as a leader on the team," Enders said. "It's definitely going to hurt the team without him, but he's definitely taught some of the younger guys, and I think [been] a good example to look up to."
Though Ryan will miss his teammates and experiences at Towson, he will always have the memories of a successful college football career.
"My favorite memory would probably have to be walking off the field at Rhode Island after last season knowing were the CAA champions," he said.
As he plans for a future ("hopefully try out somewhere for receiver and if that doesn't work try to get a job with Under Armour"), he can look back on his time at Towson with no regrets.
"[I] came from a losing program to CAA champs. I don't think anybody regrets being a champion," he said with a laugh.
For Ambrose, losing Ryan means letting go of one of his kids. But as he watches Ryan move on from Towson, he sees the evolution he has undergone, not just as a player, but as a man.
"Well as a player, he's bigger, faster and stronger than he was when we got him," he said. "Football-wise he's a lot smarter, but Tom will walk out the door with a life-savvy that only the experiences that he gained through football could provide."
At the end of the day, Ambrose has the same words of wisdom for Ryan that he has for all of his players.
"Stay true to the fundamentals of who you've become. Keep the faith. You're always a part of this family. And your family is always here for you."
Baltimore Sun reporter Rhiannon Walker contributed to this article.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times