Archdeacon: National recognition for Dayton’s Big Friendly Giant

When she thinks of Ryan Culhane, the image that may resonate the most with University of Dayton associate athletics director Krystal Warren is not of the Flyers’ offensive lineman pancaking some overwhelmed defender who, just moments before, had visions of laying hands on the UD quarterback.

Nor is it a snapshot memory of last Thursday evening’s gala affair at the College Football Hall of Fame in downtown Atlanta where Culhane shared the spotlight with the likes of former Heisman Trophy winner and NFL veteran Danny Wuerffel, Indianapolis Colts kicker Rodrigo Blankenship, coach Steve Spurrier, and seven other athletes – three more from college and four from high school – all with inspirational stories of their own.

They all were gathered for the Coach Wooden Citizenship Cup awards given to the most outstanding role models among athletes at the pro, college and high school level.

But the Culhane remembrance that seems to best strike a chord with Warren – at least by the inflection in her voice when she recounts the recurring scene – is the way the massive guard (UD listed him at 6-foot-5 and 301 pounds) turned into a beloved Pied Piper of small kids whenever he walked into Horace Mann and Blairwood elementary schools in Dayton.

“We’d go into those schools and these teeny little kids would look up and see this big imposing football player – this giant – and it was so cute,” she said. “Ryan related to them so easily and it became a beautiful relationship. It meant a lot to them that he’d come out to be with them. The kids loved him.

“One of his teammates called him the BFG.

“Big Friendly Giant!”

According to a letter of support written by UD football coach Rick Chamberlin, Culhane – who recently graduated with a chemical engineering degree and is about to take a job in Portland -- was drawn to Dayton community in his four years as a Flyer and did a lot of good here with people of all ages and from all walks of life.

He took part in Christmas on Campus every year and as a senior helped run the event that draws over 1,000 children every Dec. 8.

He and his fellow football players took part every year in Rebuilding Together Dayton, a non-profit organization’s effort to rehabs homes of low income owners – especially the elderly – and help preserve their neighborhoods.

One year that included cleaning up the overgrown and mostly neglected Greencastle Cemetery on Nicholas Road and especially picking up the trash and pulling weeds from around the grave of Hall of Fame Negro League pitcher Ray Brown, whose burial site, until a few years ago, had been unmarked and forgotten for decades.

He made several trips to Dayton Children’s Hospital to visit kids and he was one of the principle organizers of a Day of Giving on the UD campus when $866,284 was raised in less than 24 hours.

And just a few days after an armor-clad shooter used an AR-15 style weapon to kill nine people and cause injuries to 27 more in the Oregon District entertainment area one night in August of 2019 – a 32-second barrage that devastated a city and only ended when police killed the perpetrator as he was about to run into the crowded Ned Peppers bar – Culhane and a couple of other Flyers athletes who led the Student-Athlete Advisory Committee (SAAC) on campus came up with an way to engage the rest of the community and help support the families of those who had been killed and injured,

They designed and sold “Dayton Strong” t-shirts which they hoped might raise $5,000.

In three months they made $35,000.

The money was turned over to the Dayton Foundation and earmarked for those targeted by the gunman and people whose lives had been uprooted by the series of tornadoes that struck the Dayton area on Memorial Day that year.

‘An amazing representative of the University of Dayton’

It was efforts like those that got Culhane to Atlanta five nights ago as one of four college finalists for the Coach Wooden Citizenship Cup, which is named after iconic UCLA coach John Wooden.

Sponsored by Athletes for a Better World, a non-profit organization that celebrates the good deeds of athletes, the Cup has been awarded in the past to people like Jack Nicholas, Drew Brees, Peyton Manning, Mia Hamm, Pat Summit and Tim Tebow.

The three other college finalists this year were Denison soccer player Claire Kolff, Florida State basketball player Trent Forrest and eventual winner Bria Matthews, an All American triple jumper and long jumper from Georgia Tech, who overcame a career-threatening injury while continuing her good deeds – making international humanitarian trips and being involved in several social initiative programs nationally – all while finishing up her masters degree in electrical engineering.

While all the athletes Thursday night had meaningful stories, Warren said Culhane – the first Flyers’ athlete ever to be so honored – deserved to be right alongside them because, as she said in her nominating letter, he is “such an amazing representative of the University of Dayton.”

Bringing joy to others

Coming out of Naperville Central High outside of Chicago, Culhane chose Dayton over schools like Illinois State, Eastern Illinois, Butler and Valparaiso because of UD’s engineering school, the reputation of the football program and especially that of Chamberlin, a man able to see the importance of life beyond the game.

He lettered three seasons at UD and started for two, all while going through a series of injuries and surgeries to his shoulder and knee.

Already as a freshman, he became involved in SAAC, something Warren said “almost never happens” with first-year students: “His coaches saw the leadership potential in him right away.”

With a laugh, Culhane admitted: “I’m not sure you can say this in the newspaper, but I kind of feel I fell (butt) backwards into all this.

“In the beginning, I felt SAAC related to what I was doing and would help me become a leader, but when I started doing things, I saw how it helped others.

“Whether it was going to the schools or the kids coming in for Christmas on Campus, you could see the joy it brought them. They were always so sweet and they had such a blast. If you can do that for someone, you should.”

When Culhane showed up a Horace Mann a few years ago to take part in Halloween festivities, a boy named Ryder who wore a Bengals jersey as his costume was drawn to him – one football player to another.

And when the youngster came to UD in December for the annual Christmas on Campus celebration, his teacher asked that he again be paired with Culhane because their first meeting had meant so much to him and inspired him afterward.

Warren said that last Thursday night was about “recognizing athletes who use their platform for something good in the community. And that was especially important in our community where the past couple of years there was so much tragedy. And Ryan always stepped up in a big way.”

But then that’s what you’d expect.

He is the BFG.

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