New Canaan’s Drew Pyne inspired by 8-year-old Ryan Berg’s battle against cancer
NEW CANAAN — A hero, as Drew Pyne pointed out in a recent tweet, is “a person who is admired or idealized for courage, outstanding achievements, or noble qualities.”
Heroes can also appear in the most unexpected of places.
Pyne, New Canaan’s senior quarterback and a Notre Dame commit, took part in the Elite 11 quarterback competition in Dallas, this summer, putting his talents on display alongside some of the nation’s best high school passers.
It was there he met 8-year old Ryan Berg of Pennsylvania and a unique friendship was born.
“Ryan was diagnosed with leukemia at the age of 5-years old and he’s fought it for the past three years,” Pyne said. “He actually beat it last June, so he’s eight years old now and is just starting to play football again. There were a bunch of kids there and Ryan was one of the most lively out of the group. I really bonded with him.”
An energetic boy with a brilliant smile, Ryan is in remission and has been able to get back to playing football himself. He plays quarterback and relays highlights to Pyne at every opportunity.
“He doesn’t throw the ball much but he told me last week about how he finally had his first passing conversion,” Pyne said with a smile. “He was really pumped about it.”
Ryan’s friendship with Pyne has extended to the entire New Canaan football team.
During the Rams’ homecoming game, Ryan was named an honorary captain and was on the field with the Rams during warm-ups. He ran out with the team before kickoff, and was on the sidelines wearing one of Pyne’s No. 10 jerseys while watching the game.
“It was a little big for him,” Pyne said of the jersey. “He likes to run around, so he doesn’t wear it during warm-ups because he wants to run.”
Ryan again made the trip to Dunning Field for the Rams’ game against Brien McMahon on Friday, Nov. 1, and was at Pyne’s side when the New Canaan QB was awarded a jersey by coach Lou Marinelli in honor of his selection to the Under Armour All-America Game. The game will be played at Camping World Stadium in Orlando, Fla., on Jan. 2, 2020.
“I’m watching Drew because he’s always so nice to me and his family is nice to me,” Ryan said. “He hangs out with me, he talks with me, and we have fun together. We play together and have passes.”
That night, the Rams shut out McMahon 42-0 with Pyne throwing five touchdown passes and running for another score. It was a fine performance for a player who already owns New Canaan records for passing touchdowns and yards, and it impressed one of his biggest fans.
“He did amazing,” Ryan said with a smile.
Watching from the stands was Ryan’s father, Ian Berg.
“When you have someone like Drew, who’s been so warm and so open, and so willing to accept Ryan not as a little kid going through something, but as the friend that Ryan’s craving,” he said, “it becomes extra special.”
“I don’t think you could get a better role model than Drew,” Marinelli said. “He’s done so much here at New Canaan and not just on the football field, but as a student and as a person. He’s been a great teammate and a great citizen throughout. For Ryan to look up to someone like Drew is really perfect.”
As far as Pyne is concerned, it’s Ryan who deserves the admiration.
“It’s about what I can do for him and provide for him because he’s given me so much motivation in my life,” Pyne said. “When things are really bad, maybe I have a lot of school work, or we lose a game, I think of him and he’s fighting for his life. It’s not about school work or a game for him, it’s about fighting for his life.”
Ryan’s energy was infectious when Pyne first met the eight-year-old in Dallas. Ryan was on the field for the Elite 11 as part of the Jessie Rees Foundation’s NEGU program. NEGU stands for “Never Ever Give Up,” and Pyne wears a wrist band with the acronym every day.
“We ended up talking a lot,” Pyne said. “His dad had made an Instagram account for him for every day of his time with cancer — all the way from the day he was diagnosed to the day he beat it. There are a couple hundred posts and I sat next to him at lunch and he took me through every single one. It was pretty cool.”
Ryan has met numerous high school, college and professional football players through NEGU, but the friendship with Pyne remains a special one.
“For Ryan, this connection has meant the most out of everyone that he’s met because Drew is just so warm,” Ian Berg said. “He looks at Ryan as an equal and that’s something special about Drew.”
Ryan isn’t just running around on the sidelines, either. He studies Pyne’s moves and approach to the game and is learning about playing quarterback.
“He watches Drew and like a hawk,” Ian Berg said. “He sees things and then you’ll see him working on it in the backyard all by himself, and then he tries to put it into the game.”
Things are also looking up for Ryan away from the football field.
“Things are good,” Ian Berg said. “We keep going in to get wellness checks. They check his blood, they check his counts. It’s new because we don’t know exactly what the process is, but right now, it’s so far, so good.”
“He finally beat it, but he’s still working every single day because you never know with those things,” Pyne said. “It could come back and I’m sure if it does, he’ll fight it and beat it again.”
Pyne will be in a bigger spotlight next year when joins the Notre Dame football team as a freshman. He hopes Ryan will be able to visit him there as well, and Ryan definitely likes that idea.
“It would be pretty cool watching him play in a college stadium,” Ryan said.
Pyne has just a few more games remaining with New Canaan. The Rams are 6-2 and host Wilton before the annual Turkey Bowl against rival Darien on Thanksgiving.
The Rams are still fighting to qualify for the state playoffs, and Ryan’s perseverance has been inspiring.
“If we lose one more game, we’re not going to be in the playoffs, so I spoke to the guys about fighting with everything we had,” Pyne said. “Ryan was there before the game and I said Ryan is a prime example of someone who’s had to fight for his life for as long as he can remember. A lot of the guys were able to bond with Ryan. We all feel what he’s been through and we’re all backing him and he inspires us.”
Or, as Pyne said on his twitter account: “Ryan Berg is my hero and is the strongest kid I know.”