By DAVE O’SULLIVAN
Staff Writer

It would have been tough to blame Ryan Brenner if he gave up on football in high school prior to the start of his junior season. There would have been no shame passed down from anyone in the Mainland Regional community had he decided to hang up his spikes and shoulder pads.
On August 21, 2011, Ryan Brenner had a decision to make. The day before, his older brother Casey, then 17, was one of four Mainland Regional High School football players killed in an automobile crash on the Garden State Parkway while they were on their way to the Old Country Buffet in Mays Landing, an annual get-together to celebrate the coming end to another grueling preseason.
Ryan, a rising junior at the time, could have given in to the grief, retreated into himself; he could have turned to drugs or alcohol to deal with the enormous pain he and so many others in the community were feeling. He was just 16 years old, and his brother was gone. It would have been understandable if things began to go into a downward spiral for young Ryan.
But that’s not the decision he made.
Ryan decided to turn the tragedy into motivation — to be the best player he could possibly be every day, every snap. To be the best friend he could be. The best student he could be. He got a sobering reminder that life is fleeting, and he wasn’t going to let days go by without getting the best out of himself.
“It affects people differently. I saw it throughout the family and community, people reacted differently. It led some people down different paths. I took it as you never know what’s going to happen and any day could be your last, so I took it as motivation to make me work hard and play harder. It gave me something to play for every day, knowing that you never know when you’re time is going to be up,” Ryan said. “Initially, right after, (playing football) was an escape from reality in the days and months after it happened. I didn’t have to worry about anything out there playing football, as opposed to coming home and the whole house is different. So, it was kind of an escape. Football got my mind off everything, being about to go out and hit people and have fun.
“It was good that the season started right after that because it gave me something to keep my mind off it, but after the season was the hard part,” he added. “I was used to getting rides home with him, fighting, doing all those things brothers do. Once reality started to set in it made things harder. But, I just got back to working out with teammates and that helped me get my mind off things.”
Ryan wasn’t the biggest high school football player, and certainly not the fastest. He was 5-foot-11, maybe 200 pounds at best. Fairly average for a guy playing offensive line and linebacker at the high school level. He always wanted to be a linebacker, but the Mustangs were thin at offensive line his junior year, so he played mostly offensive guard, getting a little bit of time on defense when he was called upon.
Throughout his high school career, he was playing out of position. But, that’s what the team needed, so Ryan had no complaints. If he had to play guard for the team to be successful, then that’s what he was going to do. It may have hurt his recruiting, as he was passed over by several Ivy League schools because they didn’t see much tape of him playing defense. The 2013 Mainland graduate eventually signed on with Division I Wagner, but after one semester there decided to transfer to Division III Rowan University.
“I was 5-foot-11 and 200 pounds and played guard, so, obviously, I wasn’t going to get recruited for college as a guard. Offensively, I didn’t really have a future. My junior year, coach didn’t want to have guys playing both ways if he didn’t have to, and we were thinner at guard than at linebacker. So he had me play guard most of the time, but halfway through the season a kid playing linebacker ended up transferring and I got to play linebacker for the last five games and ended up with more than 50 tackles,” Ryan said. “Junior year is a big year for recruiting and kind of dictates what tier you’re going to be recruited at, so after that year I started going to camps. I was looking at some Ivy League schools. As a senior we moved to a 4-4 defense so I initially moved to outside linebacker. They ended up moving me to defensive end, and I had a really good year, but it was kind of the same thing — I had no future at that position at the college level. There were college coaches who liked me, but they only had five games (of tape) of me at linebacker.”
Ryan thought he could step right in at Rowan and be an impact player as a sophomore. He thought wrong. He didn’t get much playing time, and eventually had to beg the coaching staff just to let him get out there on special teams. But Ryan is a hard worker, and hard work eventually pays off.
“Junior year, I was second string at strong-side backer. The first game I got about 15 snaps at linebacker. Coming in I had that expectation (junior year) that I would be playing about four or five series every game. The first game went that way, but after a few games when I wasn’t playing, as a competitor and athlete you start getting pissed off. But coach said he knew he needed to work me into the lineup more. I just kept working hard in practice, and in the eighth game of the year the kid in front of me got hurt and I ended up playing most of the game. I think the coaches realized I could play and knew they could count on me,” Ryan said. “I wanted to show them (senior year) that I could perform week in and week out. All offseason I worked harder, and the first day of camp I found out I was going to be the starter at middle linebacker. I had never played middle linebacker, so that was a whole new ball game. It’s still football, but I was reading and reacting in ways I had never done before. At the first (intersquad) scrimmage at Ocean City High School, the offense ran a power and I got over late and got clocked. I knew what to do, I just didn’t have the confidence and I was hesitant. By the third time they ran that play, I made the play in the backfield. So from then on, I was pretty comfortable.”
Once he got comfortable, there was no stopping Ryan. He had a tremendous senior season, registering 86 tackles, most on the team, four tackles for loss, two interceptions, two sacks and a forced fumble. For his efforts, he was named all-New Jersey Athletic Conference first team. He ranked fifth in the conference in tackles, including a season-high 18 against Wesley on Oct. 22. He was also named third-team D3football.com all-region, Rowan University Football Player of the Year by the Touchdown Club of Southern New Jersey, and academic all-area by the Philadelphia Inquirer. To put his senior season in perspective, as a junior he had just 18 tackles. With Ryan leading the way on defense, the Profs went 6-4, including a 17-0 shutout victory over The College of New Jersey in the final game of his college career.
“It was great to see all my hard work finally pay off. I waited for my turn sophomore and junior year. There were some good guys in front of me, so I just waited and learned things from them. You learn to persevere and to have a good work ethic. I knew I had to get there early in the offseason, get my runs and lifts in, and just keep doing what my coaches were telling me to do. To see all that pay off in the end, to go out like that was good,” Ryan said. “It’s definitely been a journey. When I came out of high school I wanted to go Division I. But Rowan is a high level Division III program that is co
nstantly producing good players. I think my high school self would be proud of me being resilient and constantly persevering.”
Putting together a successful college football career wasn’t easy, especially considering Ryan is a double major in business management and human resources management while also minoring in Spanish. He had to sacrifice a lot of his social life, but he had goals he wanted to reach and that’s a price he was willing to pay.
“I always just tried to schedule everything out. We had every Monday off, so I tried to get most of my work done on Mondays to make the rest of the week a little bit easier, and every Wednesday night I would go to the library after practice for a few hours. Planning it out and trying to staying ahead was definitely important,” Ryan said. “I just tried to make sure I took care of everything. School always came first, then football, then fun, so if I took care of everything in order, the sooner I got my papers done the sooner I could go out. If I didn’t get my work done, I wasn’t going out on a Friday night.”
Ryan said he hopes to begin a career in the financial services field after graduating from Rowan in May. He knows it’s going to take hard work and patience in order to be successful in such a competitive field, but, he’s used to having to work hard for everything he gets.
“That business is very similar to sports. It’s competitive, and you have to work your tail off the first few years,” he said. “You might be working 50 or 60 hours a week your first few years and might not see that pay off until five or 10 years down the road. It’s a lot of delayed gratification in that sense.”
With his college football career now in the rearview mirror, Ryan has had an opportunity — albeit a brief one — to reflect on a football journey that ended this past November.
“It’s bittersweet. I’m having shoulder surgery and my knees are all banged up, so I’m not going to miss that. But it was definitely worth it, all the relationships I made — all my best friends are from playing either high school or college football, so the bonds you build are lifelong,” Ryan said. “I could have transferred to a lower level Division III school and played right away, but I set my mind to something and I was going to see it through all the way to the end, whether I played every snap and made all-conference or whether I ended up playing just a limited amount of time. I wanted to follow through with something I set out to do. It taught me that good things in life don’t come easily. If it’s worth it, it’s going to be worth the wait.”
Thinking back on that August day in 2011, when his life changed forever, Ryan said there have been people who have marveled at how he handled such a difficult situation. He said he never really got too depressed, choosing to focus on all the love and support he and his family received in a time of need rather than the crushing grief that comes with losing a brother.
“I never really was at the point where I was (really far) down. I wouldn’t say there was a turning point because I was never really on that side,” Ryan said. “Having family and friends around for support, I kind of just stayed upbeat about things. People would say, ‘I don’t know how you did that.’ I just kept going, I guess. I just tried to keep doing what I was doing. The way I looked at it was instead of sitting there grieving, being upset and staying down — that wasn’t going to do anything or change anything. So I’d rather stay upbeat and positive and just keep moving forward.”
People might think that these days, when cruising past the football field at Mainland Regional High School, that Ryan may feel a rush of bad emotions; that the field might symbolize what he had lost.
In fact, it’s just the opposite. He looks at that football field the way any former high school football player would — and focuses on what he has gained.
“I still get chills when I drive by the field,” he said. “A lot of memories were made there.”
Contact Dave O’Sullivan: sully@acglorydays.com; on Twitter @GDsullysays