How two teasing brothers motivated Ryan Buchholz to become a dominant Penn State DE

OCTOBER 19, 2017 11:05 PM

Ryan Buchholz cried to his mom all the time. The youngest of three boys with a cousin five years his elder and a sister just as tough, Buchholz had reason to.

“They wouldn’t take it easy,” Buchholz said with a grin, subtly shaking his head. “But it was fun.”

Buchholz — now a 6-foot-6 behemoth and starter on Penn State’s deep front-four — has built on what his brothers and cousin taught him. He’s still the youngest, but he’s not the runt of the litter anymore.

A laid-back, towering redshirt sophomore who glided into a Lasch Football Building office wearing navy Crocs and a unzipped hoodie that barely hung onto his broad shoulders, Buchholz was always the biggest kid on the field among his own age group. As a nose tackle in Pop Warner, “I’d just push the center back into the quarterback,” Buchholz said smiling.

But in the Big Ten, it’s a bit different. Every offensive tackle is some version of 6-foot-massive and 300-and-a-lot-of-pounds. Now, the Malvern native is channeling that underdog role, the fighting spirit necessary when tasked with guarding a 13-year-old as a 7-year-old twerp.

Buchholz learned about himself as a person and player from his older family members and pals, from getting roughed up in backyard football to having early exposure to Penn State.

Buchholz is an omnipresent pass-rusher on the nation’s top defense — and those family members have been by his side every step of the way.

“Growing up, we were his role models,” said Carl, the oldest Buchholz brother and a former fullback at Maryland. “He did whatever we did, no matter right, wrong or indifferent. Now, it’s reversed. We look up to him physically and mentally. I’ve got to look up to talk to him. But really, we look up to him, because he’s hands-down the best football player in our family. No question.”

‘He was better than us’

The teams were always the same: Carl and Ryan (oldest and youngest) vs. Erik and Dan, a cousin who lived half-a-mile down the road. Carl, now 26, has a year on Erik, two on Dan and six on Ryan.

The duos would play four or five times a week in the summer, and at least three or four weekly games during the school year. “We’d be out until it was dark,” said Erik, later an offensive lineman at James Madison.

Football and whiffle ball contests took place in Dan’s backyard, while two-on-two basketball happened on the Buchholz’s blacktop.

The pairings were as fair as could be — but the results heavily favored the middle guys.

“It wasn’t really close,” Erik said. “At least when Ryan was young. He wasn’t quite there yet.”

Added Dan, a lineman at Duquense who latched on with the Chicago Bears and Dallas Cowboys’ training camps: “We were fortunate enough to be able to play two-on-two, and Ryan was unfortunate to be the youngest.”


Early on, there was always a mismatch. In basketball, Erik or Dan would post up Ryan with relative ease. In Dan’s backyard, Ryan struggled to cover someone four or five years his senior, understandably so.

When Ryan and Carl rarely won, the former was “relieved.”

When they lost? Well, that’s a different story.

“There were times where he wouldn’t play because he knew what was coming,” Carl said with a laugh. “I’d be so hard on him. If he dropped a football, he’d just keep running down the block because he knew I’d throw it at him. Or he’d know a basketball was coming for his head.”

But he kept coming back — and Carl, Erik, and Dan are thankful for that. First and foremost, they all wanted to keep the game going. But in retrospect, all three know it was beneficial for Ryan’s development.

Ryan put up with their teasing and as the years went by, he started to not just compete. A growth spurt in seventh grade from 5-foot-7 to 6-foot-2 helped.

When Ryan was 15, he and Carl were winning consistently for one particular reason.

“He was better than us,” Carl admitted. “We’re like, ‘What the heck happened?’”

Added Dan: “He was getting bigger. He was getting faster. He could keep up. We were all looking at each other like, ‘Man, we have an athlete on our hands here.’”

‘Knew right away’

Ryan and the Buchholz brothers got their gigantic genes from their father, Larry, who stands at 6-foot-5, 280 pounds.

But Papa Buchholz made sure to note something.

“My wife is the one that gave birth to the almost 11-pound child,” Larry said with a hearty chuckle. “So she’s taking credit for some of that athleticism.”

On April 8, 1997, Buchholz weighed 10 pounds, 15 ounces at birth — the biggest of all four kids. And a few days after he was born, Buchholz was exposed to sports. Carl and Erik had a Little League baseball game. Instead of staying home and resting, Larry’s wife, Becky, surprised him.

“She said, ‘Let’s wrap him up and bring him to the game,’” their father said. “It was almost like Ryan was osmosis. Ryan was at the sporting events when he was 2 or 3 days old. That gave him a leg up on everyone.”

That was the case at the Pop Warner level.

Buchholz started playing football in fourth grade. His interest was really piqued when he made a friend at his sister’s soccer game: Doug Strang, the son of Todd Blackledge’s backup quarterback during Penn State’s 1982 national championship run and the Nittany Lions’ starting signal-caller in 1983.

Buchholz often hung out at Strang’s house, where photos of Joe Paterno graced the walls and he and Doug watched old Nittany Lion film.

“We thought that was the coolest thing ever,” Strang said. “We thought that was gold.”

It was a bit of foreshadowing, for sure. But at the time, Buchholz didn’t necessarily aspire to be a Penn State football player. He didn’t even think he was good enough to play college football.

That is, until one day in the spring of his sophomore year at Great Valley, when his high school coach gave the house a ring.

“I was in my room, and my dad came in and said, ‘Coach is on the phone.’ I thought it was really weird,” Buchholz recalled. “He said, ‘Hey Ryan, I just got off the phone with Virginia and they want to offer you.’ I was so confused at the time. My mom was crying. I was blindsided by it.”

UVA was Buchholz’s first offer, and it wasn’t the last. The four-star prospect was sought after by programs such as West Virginia, Pittsburgh, Maryland, and Northwestern.

His family members weren’t surprised, either.

Buchholz’s cousin saw him dominate as a freshman in a game at Sun Valley High School in Aston.

“I knew it right away when I saw him,” Dan said. “I almost didn’t recognize him on the field.”

‘Hard work paid off’

After Larry hugs James Franklin when the Nittany Lions arrive at Beaver Stadium, the family won’t go to any tailgates. Still with more than two hours until kick, Buchholz’s mom insists they all go inside the stadium.

It’s a tradition that started last season, prior to Buchholz’s first-ever game in the blue and white, a 33-13 win over Kent State as a redshirt freshman. The Nittany Lion’s parents and siblings wait on the sideline railing for him to come over, so Larry’s wife, Becky, can give her son a hug and kiss before warm-ups. Then as Ryan heads back into the locker room before running out of the tunnel, he stops quickly to embrace each member of his family at the 30-yard line closest to the student section.

“Sometimes we get a little grief from security,” Buchholz’s father said. “But it’s extremely important to Ryan and his siblings.”

The Buchholz family doesn’t miss a game. The whole crew piles into a 2006 Suburban for home contests, while the parents and a sibling or two will travel to away tilts.

At least one family member has been there to support him every game since the start of last season.

Well, with one exception: The Buchholz gang was in upstate New York for Penn State’s last-gasp win over Iowa. A family member was getting married near Lake George, causing them to watch Buchholz’s first collegiate start from afar.

So, naturally, they skipped the reception and found a bar.

“I said sorry to my cousin,” Carl recalled. “We weren’t going to miss that game for anything.”

That’s just the way it is with the Buchholz family.

Despite roughing Ryan up when they were younger, his brothers were there for him. Erik watched Ryan’s high school film on Hudl on Sunday mornings after his James Madison games, while Carl texted him pointers in his time at Maryland.

Both brothers and Dan took Ryan with them to Great Valley during the summer. When they were training for the upcoming high school season, Ryan — a mere middle-schooler — worked out alongside them.

Even his older sister, Hannah, who could’ve played collegiate sports if not for two ACL tears, gave Buchholz inspiration.

Making his family and those back home proud is Buchholz’s motivating factor in football.

He knows that his parents and siblings shaped him into the person and player he is today, even if he remains humble in his successes.

“I’m nothing special,” Buchholz said with a grin. “I tell people that all the time.”

That’s not the case in his family’s eyes. And as Buchholz continues his journey, they’ll be there at the railing, waiting to offer words of encouragement.

“To me, it’s just so amazing that everyone in the family is so excited about the opportunity to watch Ryan,” Larry said. “We watched everybody play throughout the years. Ryan watched all his older brothers and his older sister and Dan play. Now they’re all coming back to watch him play.

“We consider Penn State our family. All of us.”