Thankful Athletes : Three Extraordinary Performers, Ordinary People

ASSOCIATED PRESS

Thanksgiving at Nolan Ryan's ranch in Texas: blessings for family and health, all the strikeouts and no-hitters in the past, a career finished, a quieter life ahead.

At Dennis Byrd's parents' house in Louisiana, one year after he broke his neck: gratitude that he can walk again, run a little, play with his new daughter, succeed in a new career.

For Fred Couples in California: relief that the unhappiest chapter in his life has ended, joy at the start of a new relationship, belief that he will once again become golf's best.

They are extraordinary athletes, yet ordinary people, each with much to be thankful for in this holiday season.

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Ryan has turned fastballs and curves into cattle and cash. He owns several spreads and is chairman of a bank. At 46, he slips out of jeans and into suits and back one day to the next, comfortable in each, his uniform hung up forever after he pitched in the majors 27 years.

His right arm is still limp, throbbing at times, not quite the same after, what, 100,000 pitches, and one too many. A pop in his elbow ligament, "like a rubber band snapping," and it was all over.

"My arm is getting better, so I'm optimistic that I may be able to do without surgery on it," Ryan says. "I'm going to wait until after the first of the year. I want to be able to play tennis and do normal day activities. I guess I had hopes that I'd be able to still throw to my kids and stuff like that, which I'm not ruling out completely. It may scar over enough that I can do that. I may not be able to be competitive, but I'm hoping I can still get out and do those kinds of things.

"I'm just thankful for my family and for their good health. That's what I'll be thinking about on Thanksgiving. I'm very thankful for the ability I was blessed with and the opportunity I was given to develop that ability and to accomplish the things that I did."

Ryan laughs at all the injuries he went through last season: surgery in April to remove torn cartilage in his right knee; a hip injury as soon as he returned; a cut foot; finally, the blown elbow.

"The last season confirmed what I felt in my heart," he says. "Physically, it was time for me to go do something else. My body just isn't capable of holding up under those kinds of demands anymore.

"I get a lot of satisfaction out of my longevity and that I was able to maintain my style throughout my career. A lot of that was the genetics I was blessed with, and then taking those genetics, my physical ability, and trying to maximize it."

Some folks have mentioned Ryan as a man with political potential. For the moment, he shrugs it off, says he wants his life to slow down so he can attend to his ranch in Alvin, his bank, his family and friends. It's time to be with Ruth and the children: Robert, 22, Nolan, 17, and Wendy, 16.

Yet, leaving the game is not quite so easy.

"It's going to take me a year or two to get into things and find out how I've adjusted outside of baseball," he says. "I'm sure there are certain things I'm going to miss. You're not that competitive and have something that dominates your life like baseball did mine and not miss it.

"I'll miss the camaraderie and the competitiveness. I don't know what I would do outside of baseball that would compare."

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Dennis Byrd walks around the hospital, visits his old room. Then he looks toward the ceiling and smiles in recognition.

He was in this room at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York on the Sunday after Thanksgiving a year ago, his neck broken, his body paralyzed, his eyes able to stare only at that ceiling.

"It was kind of an odd feeling, like I've never been here before," he says. "I don't know this place. But I know all the people and the faces. It was difficult to unravel everything. I certainly remember everything very well, except my eyes weren't correlating anything to what my memory was thinking. I didn't see anything familiar--except the ceiling.

"I remember many nights when I woke up at Lenox Hill and I was scared and didn't know where I was and I felt disoriented."

A year after a collision on the field with New York Jets teammate Scott Mersereau ended Byrd's career as a defensive lineman, his changed life is testimony to his faith, his efforts to recover, and the immense help he received from friends, family, doctors and therapists.

"First and foremost, I've grown a lot as a person," Byrd says. "I've learned a lot from what's happened to me. I've learned about the things that really matter in my life. It's taught me a tremendous amount of patience and perseverance.

"Everything that's happened has been so positive, I could never even have imagined it. And it's been, for the most part, through people's hearts and caring."

He has nearly full use of his entire body. He is a TV football commentator for CBS. Four months ago, his wife Angela gave birth to their second daughter, Hayley.

"When I look back on it now and think that a year ago on Nov. 29 I broke my neck and I was completely paralyzed and lay in a hospital in Lenox Hill," he says, "I would have had no idea that a year to the day would end with me having a new baby, learning how to walk again, and having a great job with CBS."

He still must work hard to regain his strength, but he's already able to jog a little. "It's not real pretty," he says, "but it's functional. I'm thrilled just to be able to walk."

On Thanksgiving, Byrd and his family will gather at his parents' house in Baton Rouge, La., about 15 people in all. It's not hard to imagine the feeling at that table when they pray before dinner.

"I have a tremendous amount to be thankful for," Byrd says.

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Fred Couples' problem wasn't physical, like Ryan's and Byrd's, but he felt trapped and distracted, humiliated at times, for more than a year during a messy, very public divorce.

Now, at last, a new love has helped return order to his life, and he is playing golf with singular concentration again, his sweet swing back in control, a smile on his face once more.

"I have something to be very thankful for this Thanksgiving and that is that my divorce is over and I met a great young lady," Couples says, offering a rare glimpse into his personal life. "That's the best thing that happened to me all year. That kind of really was the whole year.

"Since the divorce was finalized around the end of September, I felt much better about everything. I've been able to practice a little harder and play more to my capabilities. I'm looking forward to next year."

The divorce proceedings and the attention they drew--Is there anyone who hasn't heard about his former wife Deborah's ponies and her request that he pay $168,000 a month during polo season in Florida?--were more than just distracting to Couples.

They were embarrassing for this intensely private man, and for a while the fun had gone out of his life and his game. He and Deborah had been married 11 years before their separation in the summer of '92.

Then he met Tanya, and everything began to change. He didn't quite have a year to match 1992, when he won the Masters and two other PGA Tour titles, led the money list and took Player of the Year honors. But he considers this year extremely successful, considering all he's been through.

He won his second title of the year a few weeks ago in Hawaii, and finished the season with just under $800,000 in 19 tournaments. He missed a few events because of the divorce proceedings.

"If I could have played my usual 22 or 23," he says, "I think I could have possibly won another tournament or made over $1 million, so that would have been fabulous, but I just couldn't play them all."

As the divorce went through its last stages, Couples began enjoying the best part of his year: the U.S. Ryder Cup victory in England, a good performance in the Tour Championship, the victory in Kapalua, another with Davis Love in the World Cup, and a second-place tie last week in Japan.

"I think things are really turning around and being very, very positive, besides golf," Couples says. "Everything seems so much better. I'm excited about doing stuff. Tanya's had a lot to do with that. She's excited for me. She likes to travel and watch.

"Half the battle in golf is to concentrate on what you're doing and nothing else. For the next year I hope to play the way I have the last month or two. If I do that, I'll be in good shape."

Couples is spending Thanksgiving at his girlfriend's house in Southern California, along with her 11-year-old son from a previous marriage and her parents.

Asked if he's planning to remarry soon, Couples replied:

"No, not right now. Someday. I think she's the right one."

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