While Ryan Day coached, wife Nina managed homefront through difficult season

Bill Rabinowitz
Buckeye Xtra

Nina and Ryan Day have a nickname for it now.

The Dungeon.

It’s actually a nice little place, more like a hotel suite than the shed it was before its conversion. It has big windows, overlooks a pond, and contains a kitchenette and bathroom. 

Ryan Day lived there for almost three months, at the same Delaware County address as the rest of his family but separate from the main house. This was the sacrifice the Days decided to make after the Big Ten reinstated the football season on Sept. 16.

To minimize the chance of the Ohio State coach contracting COVID-19, he lived apart from Nina, his wife of 15 years, and their three children, RJ, Grace and Nia, who attend hybrid school and play youth sports.

The Day family – from left, RJ, Grace, Ryan, Nia and Nina – celebrate on the field after Ohio State's victory over Clemson on Jan. 1 at the Sugar Bowl.

While Ryan was consumed with navigating his Buckeyes through a season ravaged by the coronavirus pandemic — a season that ends Monday with the College Football Playoff championship game against Alabama — Nina had to manage things at home mostly by herself.

“It hasn’t been easy,” she told The Dispatch last week. “Most of my life I could plan things and look ahead to the next week or the next three or four games. This year we’ve just literally lived hour by hour. I mean, every hour something comes up, and I hold my breath every time I see my husband’s name on my phone because I think, ‘Oh, goodness. Now what?’ ”

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Nina grew up with Ryan in Manchester, New Hampshire, as the daughter of a college basketball coach. She had an idea what it was like to be a coach’s “widow” during a season. But this was different. She knew the stress Ryan was under. She didn’t want to add to it.

Even before Ryan exiled himself to the guest quarters, it had been a stressful year. He had spent more time than ever around his family after the Big Ten initially postponed its season and he had unexpected time on his hands. But because he wasn't doing his job it was in some ways unwanted time, and he was miserable.

The 2020 Ohio State football season has been something of a constant stress test for Ryan Day, according to the Buckeyes coach's wife, Nina.

“Those were very difficult weeks,” Nina said.  “Even though he was home for the first day of school for the first time ever, and even though he could make the kids’ soccer and football games on the weekends and pick them up from school, it was a huge void. And it was extremely difficult to be around Ryan those weeks.”

On the night the Big Ten reversed its decision, Day moved to the guest suite. Ryan is an involved father, and the separation was difficult. RJ, 12, revels in his role as the football program’s unofficial general manager. He loved hanging out with his dad and the Buckeyes at the Woody Hayes Athletic Center. COVID protocols prevented that from happening this year.

“That's been very, very difficult for Ryan and RJ,” Nina said. “It really bothers Ryan because one of the best things about this job for Ryan was the fact that he could take his son to work and just hang out with him all day and night and just be in meetings and see his son walk by.”

Players view RJ like a little brother.

“He texts and he plays video games with them, and they're so great,” Nina said. “Especially Justin (Fields) is so great with him. He’ll text RJ all the time.”

But that’s not the same as being with players. The Days’ daughters — Grace is 10 and Nia 7 — aren’t the football junkies their brother is, but they also missed their father’s physical presence. Ryan texted them, made FaceTime calls to his kids and spoke to them through the window if he returned home from work early enough.

Some days, Nina said, “My girls are standing at the window crying, looking at their father, wanting to hug him.”

If they were older, she said, they might have understood the pandemic better. She and Ryan had to continually explain to their kids why they chose this living arrangement.

“For a 7-year-old girl, not having our daddy home for seven weeks because of a football game is hard to comprehend,” Nina said. “It was a sacrifice our family was willing to make and we’re happy we made, but it wasn’t easy.”

Nina and the kids attended only two OSU games during the regular season — the opener against Nebraska and the Rutgers game. They drove to Indianapolis on Dec. 19 for the Big Ten championship game. But they couldn’t attend the game because one of the Days was positive for COVID on a test taken before they left Ohio. They had to watch the game from the hotel.

Ryan Day himself had tested positive before the Michigan State game. Though fending off COVID was the reason he lived apart from his family, his illness proved to be a bit of a blessing. Nina said the only symptom he had was a runny nose. After quarantining for 10 days, he was then free to return to live inside the family’s home.

“The girls were screaming and (jumping) up and down,” Nina said. “It was a good night. And then we were happy to see him be able to get into his car the next day and go back to work because it was hard for him not to be there.”

Life is settling back to normal, though Nina has a trump card if they ever bicker.

“I always threaten him, like, ‘Don’t get me mad, or you're going to go back into the dungeon,’ ” she said with a laugh.

The Days finally attended a game together at the Sugar Bowl.

“We would not have missed that for the world,” Nina said. “We were just so excited to go and be there for Ryan. Most of the games, he didn’t have any family in the stands. He’s worked so hard all season. So it was nice to be able to be there for him and for him to know that we were there, win or lose.”

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After the game, the family celebrated with the team on the field. Ryan said players were stunned to see RJ, who has grown 6 inches in a year.

“The guys didn’t even recognize him,” Ryan said.

Nina said she worries about the stress her husband has endured this year. She said he handles it well, but it’s been a never-ending series of COVID-related challenges.

“He’s extremely, extremely emotionally and mentally exhausted,” she said. “I worry about him because some days, it's like this is just too much. The last thing we worry about right now is winning the football game. It’s who’s testing positive, who’s testing negative, who’s in and out of quarantine, whether we’re going to play the game, whether we played enough games. 

“Just getting to the game a lot of times was just a relief for me. At that point, I was like, win or lose, it was just a success getting there. I think every game that was played this season was a small success story. It’s amazing what these players have done. The fact that they’re going for a national championship, knowing what they’ve been through, just says a lot about the character of these kids.”

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Ryan said the victories in the Big Ten title game and CFP semifinal against Clemson served as validation that the sacrifices made were worth it. 

“Honestly, it allows me to sleep at night,” he said. “If we get a chance to win this game (Monday), then it really will be worth it.”

He has earned praise for guiding his team through the season. He was able to do that because he knew Nina was handling a more important job — their family.

“I think some days were better than others,” he said. “But all things considered, she was a rock. She was a rock during a hard time.”

brabinowitz@dispatch.com

@brdispatch

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