Thursday, July 24, 2014

Nate Ryan's love-hate-love story

USA Today motorsports writer Nate Ryan is getting married in August. Have you heard the tale? It's your classic love story -- all except the part about Nate's fiancee once hating his guts. Oh, and that 16-year stretch when they didn't even talk to each other.

But maybe you have to love someone to hate them that much, don't you think? So that’s where we’ll start and end this little story that deserves to be told about two well known sportswriters who fell in, then out, then back in love again. We’ll get to all that messy stuff in a minute.

Nate met Jodie Valade of The Plain Dealer in Cleveland back when they were both journalism students at Northwestern University in the mid 1990s. Nate was a senior, Jodie a sophomore. He was her editor at The Daily Northwestern student newspaper and they had a class together as well. 

"I remember purposely missing class so I would have to call him to find out what happened that day,'' said Jodie, who mustered the courage to overcome her own shyness and asked Nate to her sorority spring formal in 1995.

That was the same spring Nate bought a brand new red Toyota Tercel, graduated from college and drove to California to take a job covering sports for the San Bernardino Sun. They dated for nearly two years while Jodie was still at Northwestern.

The distance was tough; their youth made it tougher. Couple the ambition to follow their own career paths with the realization that Jodie was on a fast track to a major metro while Nate was going to take longer to get there, and that was one too many obstacles to overcome.

Nate ended the relationship in 1997. Jodie couldn’t forgive him for the longest time.

"It broke my heart,'' she said. "I guess I thought he was my true love. Turns out, I was right."

But it would take years to get there.

They went their separate ways and both became successful, high profile sportswriters. Nate moved from San Bernardino to the Richmond Times-Dispatch and on to USA Today. Jodie interned at her hometown paper, the Detroit Free Press, before going to the Kansas City Star, Dallas Morning News and finally to Cleveland where she writes features and has assisted in coverage of the Cavs and Browns.

In the meantime, Nate got married in 2004 while he was living in Virginia. It lasted 20 months but was over by 2006. Two years later, after yet another relationship ended -- this time Nate was left with the broken heart -- he decided he needed to figure out why he kept failing at love.

Suzuran Photography
So Nate did something really kind of strange.

Have you ever seen the movie "High Fidelity" with John Cusack? His character tries to understand why every relationship flops by going back and talking to many of the women he dated in the past (see Jack Nicholson in "Something's Gotta Give" for the senior version of the same story).

Apparently, Nate thought that was a grand idea. So in 2008, he reached out to his ex-girlfriends -- even his former wife -- and talked to everyone he could. All except Jodie. Nate sent a friend request on Facebook. She accepted. Then she defriended him two days later.

Yep, still hated his guts.

It might have been over for good at that point, but Jodie was having relationship issues of her own. She couldn't find a way to make them last, either. A year later, after a breakup, she sent an apology and Facebook friend request to Nate hoping to learn from her past failures, too. They began sending occasional notes back and forth in 2009. But that was all.

Nate had moved to Charlotte around that time to pursue another relationship. Apparently, there were a few more dramas yet to play out. They were sometimes painful, sometimes ugly and -- if he had to be brutally honest about it -- sometimes Nate's fault.

After some soul-searching following another nasty break-up in 2012 (no, we didn't ask for a running count) Nate paused just long enough to write the mea culpa to Jodie he had been planning to pen since 1997.

"A mere 15 years later, I finally sent it,'' he said. "I said 'Hey, it was all my fault, here's all that happened in the interim, here's what I learned from it.' "

Turns out it was the ending they needed to begin again.

"I think he had a chance to finally say he was the one at fault in our breakup,'' Jodie said, "which I had been waiting all my life to hear."

In March, 2013 -- 16 years after that last phone call in January, 1997, when Nate ended the relationship -- they finally talked again. Two months later, Nate invited Jodie to visit him in Indianapolis, where he was covering the Indy 500 on Memorial Day weekend. It was the first time they had seen each other in all those years.

By July, Nate had picked out a ring. In August, he gave it to Jodie on bended knee.

It all happened pretty quickly. Or not, if you count the other 18 years it took to get to this point.

"Yeah, I wish it would have happened a little bit faster,'' Nate said. "but I don't think I would have changed anything about it if it would have meant this couldn't happen."

Now all they have to figure out is how to find time to be together with Nate perpetually on the road chatting up Jimmie Johnson, Brad Keselowski, Dale Earnhardt Jr., et. al., while Jodie keeps up with LeBron James, Johnny Manziel and the rest. No small task in an industry that can be hard on relationships.

But somehow, that seems like the easier hurdle after all they've been through.

"I still sometimes wake up and think, is this real?'' Jodie said. "Is this really Nate Ryan here?"

Courtesy of Nate Ryan
All she has to do is look in the driveway. Nineteen years later, Nate still has that little red Tercel he drove when he took Jodie out on dates back at Northwestern. Only it's not red anymore. It's a worn-out, faded, blotchy reddish pink -- and truth be told, Nate, it's the ugliest car in all of Nascar.

But you have to appreciate its endurance, if not Nate's extraordinary frugality. From Chicago to San Bernardino, Richmond, Charlotte and finally Cleveland, where they now live, that Tercel has held up long enough to take Nate full circle in his life and all the way back to Jodie.

They're actually thinking of driving off from the wedding in that thing. Seriously.

Hey, is there anybody in Nascar who knows how to paint a car?


  1. A beautiful love story disguised as a Toyota ad. Marrvelous. Mazel Tov, Nate. Andrew Giangola

  2. That Toyota is a metaphor that deserves further exploration.