By Chris McCarthy/Editor
Not many high school student-athletes go from undergoing head major surgery to winning four straight state wrestling titles.
In recognition of the above accomplishment, Southside High senior Haden Ryals was named the Class 5A overall state winner of the 2014 Bryant-Jordan Scholarship Award for Student Achievement on Monday in Birmingham,.
Ryals was selected as the Class 5A Region 5 winner in March.
The program recognized 48 regional scholar-athlete winners selected for their excellence in athletics and academics and 48 achievement winners chosen for their ability to overcome major obstacles during their high school careers.
Each student selected was nominated by his/her respective high schools. A committee of school principals chose the area winners and a committee of school administrators in each region then selected the regional winners. The overall and class winners were selected by a statewide committee comprised of school administrators and state business leaders.
Each regional winner received $2,500 scholarship and each class winner received an additional $3,000 scholarship. In addition, each school that had an individual classification winner received a $2,000 cash award.
“I really didn’t know about the award until they told me I was nominated for it,” said Ryals. “It was a pretty nice surprise.”
Ryals capped off his standout high school wrestling career in February with by winning the Class 5A state wrestling title in the 152-pound weight division. Ryals’ win helped the Panthers finish second in the state.
Ryals, who went 51-0 this year, is the first SHS wrestler to win four straight championships. 2010 SHS graduate Garrett Kitchens won three in a row from 2008 to 2010. Ryals is one of 12 wrestlers in state history to win four titles.
“It’s a great feeling,” said Ryals, who won a state title in four different weight classes. “Anyone wants to hold a record for something at your school. Winning the fourth one is something I wanted to accomplish, and now I can say I did it. All the hard work was definitely worth it. I think everybody wants to leave something behind at their school and set a record.”
Ryals’ high school career didn’t end with his state title in Huntsville. In a field of 51 top wrestlers from across the U.S., he took fifth place in the senior 145-pound division at the National High School Coaches Association Tournament on Mar. 28-30 at Virginia Beach, Va.
“By far, Haden’s the most competitive person I’ve met in my life,” said SHS wrestling coach Kyle Routon. “I told his dad Toby that if there are 10 kids in his weight class that are good, Haden eventually will rise to the top. He’s going to be the best one that there is, and if not, he’s going to do everything in his power to be the best one. That goes to the type of mentality and work ethic he’s got.
“Haden is a great leader, and this season it was like having another coach out there. He really was able break stuff down step by step during practice, and all the kids respected him. He’s just a good overall kid.”
Ryals’ path to the top of his sport, however, was far from smooth.
In the spring of 2007, while Ryals was traveling with his mom Jacqulan and sister Anna on I-59 northbound between the Steele and Gadsden exits, a careless maneuver by a fellow motorist caused the Ryals’ vehicle to leave the roadway and flip several times before coming to a halt.
Anna received a few minor bumps and bruises, but Jacqulan suffered a broken arm and a crushed rotator cuff. Ryals was ejected from the vehicle.
“All I remember is riding down the road and then feeling the car turn sideways,” he said. “When I woke up I was laying on the side of the road.”
Ryals suffered multiple lacerations and a hairline fracture of his jaw and was airlifted to Children’s Hospital in Birmingham. Due to the possibility of a severe head injury, Haden spent the next several days in ICU undergoing a battery of x-rays, cat-scans and MRI’s. No brain trauma was found, but something else was discovered – a tumor-like growth in his neck.
The accident indeed was a blessing in disguise for Haden and his family.
“It was very hard to watch your child go through something like that,” said Jacqulan. “But the love and support we received from the communities of Southside and Rainbow City was just tremendous. Folks stepped in and had all our meals for the next week or so.”
“We felt that God had carries us that far, that He would take care if it,” added Toby.
Despite his condition, Ryals soon was medically cleared to play youth football, wrestling and baseball. Not only did Haden participate in those sports, he excelled. His football team won the league championship, he won an individual state title in wrestling and he was named the MVP of his baseball championship tournament. Along with all of the above activities, Haden remained a straight ‘A’ student at Rainbow Middle School.
By the summer of 2010, however, Haden’s doctors felt that they could wait no longer to remove the tumor.
In July of 2010, Ryals underwent an 11-hour operation at UAB Medical Center to remove a cancerous tumor from his neck and head. The procedure was so delicate that it involved three doctors. Ryals’ recovery included a 10-day stay in the hospital’s intensive care unit. For the next five months, he was not allowed to participate in any type of strenuous activity, including the fall football season.
A 1986 Southside High graduate and a member of the Panthers 1985 and 1986 Class1A-5A state championship wrestling teams, Toby is an assistant coach for the Southside High wrestling team and is one of the founders of the Northeast Alabama Wrestling Academy (formerly known as the Jimmy Blanton Wrestling Academy).
“One of Haden’s doctors told us that Haden couldn’t afford to make a bad decision when he was driving or playing sports,” said Toby. “Haden had to be honest with his coaches, honest with his parents and honest with himself when he decided whether or not he was ready to wrestle.”
“We knew Haden was something special because he was so accomplished as a youth wrestler, but I don’t think anyone expected a four-time state champion,” said SHS assistant principal Chris Winningham, who coached Ryals as a 7th and 8th grader. “He’s definitely in an elite group. Haden’s a model student who has about a 94 GPA. He’s a great kid who has a great future ahead of him.”
That future includes spending the next four years in Colorado Springs, Colo., where Ryals will attend and wrestle for the United States Air Force Academy.
“The assistant [Air Force] wrestling coach talked to me at a national high school tournament, and ever since then, we’ve kept in touch,” said Ryals. “I never really thought about going into the military until [the academy] got a hold of me and was able to learn a little bit more about it. I just think that for right now it’s the best option I have.”