When the C8 bus arrives in College Park, Joel rushes out and scurries across the University of Maryland campus. He’s late, and he hates being late. The students don’t seem to notice him — just another backpack and Terrapins cap — but when he reaches his destination, the gates open to one of the most exclusive spots on campus.
In order to watch Maryland football practice, you need to be one of three things: 1) a player, 2) a coach, 3) Joel Ryerson, the 51-year-old super fan whose relationship with the school and its sports teams is as unique as they come. Consider the rave reviews:
“There’s no question about it, he’s the number one fan at the University of Maryland and has been for many years,” says Bobby Ross, the former head football coach. “He probably always will be, too.”
“Every sporting event I’ve ever been to, he’s been at,” says Justin Gibert, a senior offensive lineman.
“He dresses like a Terp, he looks a little bit like a turtle. He’s so charismatically consistent, he stays so loyal,” said field hockey Coach Missy Meharg, the school’s longest-tenured athletics coach.
“If you ever saw him get a cut, Maryland would bleed out,” said Mark Duffner, another ex-football coach. “That’s the truth.”
Joel is allowed inside the Terps’ football practice because Joel has always been allowed in. This is his 30th year around Maryland athletics. He attends as many games and as many practices as time — and the Metro bus schedule — allow. Around College Park, no one seems to know Joel’s last name, his age, what he does for a living or what his exact condition is. They just know that while hundreds of coaches, thousands of student-athletes and even more Terps fans have passed through in the past three decades, there has been only one Joel.
Every year, former players and attentive alums return to College Park and spot the familiar face. His thin moustache has a bit more salt mixed in with the pepper, but he is still soft-spoken and always smiling. He’s slightly bent at the shoulders and as always, hurriedly walks like he’s late for an appointment, bus schedules poking from his pockets.
“Is that Joel?” they’ll ask Kevin Glover, the former Maryland football star who’s now an associate athletic director at the school. “He’s still here?”
“Yep,” Glover tells them. “Every day.”
The newcomers always get a history lesson. Randy Edsall is midway through his second season as head football coach. They didn’t tell him about Joel during the job interviews, but like the five coaches who preceded him, Edsall learned pretty quickly.
On Edsall’s first day of practice in 2011, Joel got off the bus and speed-walked to the practice field, where the new coach had left strict instructions at the gate: No one gets in. Joel was stuck outside. Glover found him there, “visibly upset.” When practice ended, Glover took the Terps fan to meet Edsall, knowing the Maryland coach simply needed to learn about Joel for himself.
The roots of Joel’s story stretch back more than 50 years. Shortly after he was born, doctors told his mother, Susan Ryerson, something wasn’t right. They eventually settled on a diagnosis of hydrocephalus, the accumulation of fluid inside the skull that leads to brain swelling. It left Joel with brain damage.
Susan visited a number of specialists, discussing treatment plans. Most weren’t sure what kind of life awaited Joel, but many painted a grim picture. “Every doctor I’d go to, if I didn’t like the report, I’d tear it up and flush it down toilet,” she says. “There was just too much behind his eyes. There was something in there.”
Eventually, the Ryersons settled on the Lt. Joseph P. Kennedy Institute in Northeast D.C., where the hands-on attention paid off and Joel showed remarkable progress. He not only learned to walk, but he learned to learn. As he got older, Joel was swimming competitively and even ran for student body president. “He’s come so far from what was first predicted,” says Susan, who still shares her home with her son.
Ten years after the Ryerson family moved to the Adelphi area, they got a next-door neighbor: Ross, who accepted the football coaching job at Maryland in 1982. A shy kid, Joel would occasionally wander next door to say hello. When the Ross family left town, Joel would watch after their dog, Chief. Ross was always friendly with Joel and chatted with him about football, a sport with which Joel had only passing familiarity.
At some point, Ross invited Joel to watch practice. Or maybe Joel invited himself. No one seems to remember perfectly. “He just came one day,” Ross says, “and then we saw him a few days later. And before you know it, he was out there every single day.”
His motivation is simple. “I just want to be there, where the action is,” Joel says.
When Ross left in 1987 and assistant coach, Joe Krivak, was promoted to the job, Joel’s standing with the team was safe. “If you would’ve told Joel you can’t come to practice, it would’ve literally broken his heart,” says Krivak, who coached the Terps from 1987 to ’91. “There was no reason to do that.”
Last year Edsall heard all of this and knew he had only one option. College football practices have become top-secret classified affairs since the days when Joel first wandered onto Ross’s field. Edsall, though, told the gate attendant that Joel had a spot inside.
“You just don’t find many people like that who have that passion for their team,” Edsall says.
Joel purchases season tickets each year to Maryland football, and men’s and women’s basketball. To the other sports, he’ll buy a single-game ticket or a generous coach might leave his name on the pass list. If Joel can’t make it to practice or he’s dealing with a scheduling quirk, he calls the athletic offices to alert them.
“I have to tell him, ‘You can’t go to everything,’ ” his mother says. “’You’re going to wear yourself out.’ But he feels so obligated to be there. He thinks they depend on him.”
Joel finds every team’s schedule on the Internet and plugs it all into his phone. And then he studies and organizes and plans, still wishing he could somehow attend every sporting event. “It’s impossible,” he concedes. “I just do what I can do.”
In time, he’s become a part of Maryland’s routines, too. From the highest-paid coaches to low-level employees, nearly everyone has given Joel a ride over the years.
Following home games, former football coach Ralph Friedgen would usually retire to his office. Those quiet couple of hours marked the closest thing he’d get to quality time with his daughters each week. Joel was always there, too, and they’d all eat and watch whatever game was on television.
Before long, Friedgen would get tired and hit the road, always dropping off Maryland’s biggest fan en route to his own home. Friedgen thought nothing of the arrangement. “He was a source of inspiration to me every day,” Friedgen says.
Last season marked some of the Terps’ darkest days. The stands at Byrd Stadium were half-empty and the team had become a laughingstock of sorts. Joel was still there, at games and at practices, treating players like they were part of an undefeated powerhouse.
“He epitomizes team loyalty,” says Eric Franklin, a senior safety on the football team. “He sticks with us no matter — every win, every loss, it doesn’t matter to him. He’s there every week.”
In 1996, the Terps finished with a disappointing 5-6 record. Duffner was fired two days after the season ended. That night in late November, as temperatures outside dipped below 45 degrees, there was a knock on the door at Duffner’s Silver Spring home.
“I said, ‘Joel, what the heck are you doing here?’ ” recalls Duffner, now an NFL assistant with the Jacksonville Jaguars. “‘I just wanted to say goodbye,’ he told me. ‘Well, how the heck did you get here?’ He told me he walked. Can you believe that? That’s about 12 miles, and it was cold as hell outside.”
Says Joel today: “I just wanted to tell him that I was going to miss him.”
Joel looked upset, Duffner says, so he offered his biggest fan a hug and brought him inside to talk. A little while later, Duffner gave him a jacket and one last time, he drove Joel home.
Joel has been a government mailroom employee for 25 years, first at the Naval Surface Warfare Center, then Walter Reed Hospital and for the past year at U.S. Army Garrison Fort Detrick in Silver Spring. He wakes up at 4:30 a.m. each weekday and catches a 5:45 a.m. bus to work. At 3:45 p.m., he gets off and takes two buses to College Park, which usually amounts to an hour-long commute.
The busy afternoons encompass his two passions: the Terps and public transportation.
When he was 15, he nervously asked his mom, “Do I have to drive?” and started studying bus maps. At first, unbeknownst to Joel, his mother would drive a block behind the bus, but many years later, he’s become an expert in navigating the Washington area.
“It’s amazing how he gets around,” Friedgen says.
When Joel gets home each night, he’ll often watch recorded county government meetings on television. He closely follows transportation developments — roads, signs, public transportation — and has even attended meetings and visited with lawmakers on county and state levels to express his concerns.
Joel is no football expert. His favorite part of practice is at the end when the players leave the field. No one gets to the gate without passing him. On a recent afternoon, they trickled by slowly.
“Heya Joel,” said an assistant. “Looks like you got a haircut, bud?
“Yes, I did,” Joel said. “Yesterday.”
Soon, there were more giants passing en masse, a flurry of fist-bumps, handshakes and pats on the shoulder. Joel had something to say to everyone.
“Good to see you. . . . Take care. . . . See you guys later. . . . Hey guys. . . . What’s up? . . . Great to see you. . . . How’ve you been? . . . Good to see you, Jarvis. . . . You have a good evening. . . . Good to see you, fellas. . . . Take care now. . . . See you Saturday.”
“I’ve never experienced anything like it as an assistant coach or as a head coach,” Edsall says. “I’ve never been around anybody who has been that loyal, to come to practice, to be a part of the program — to be a part of the family, really. For 30 years? That's just unheard of.”
“There’s so few like him,” Duffner says. “You talk about a fan? He is the freaking school. If there’s a better fan, I’d like to see him.”