If the story of Ryan Stoodley doesn’t move you, your heart is ice.
I hate to be that blunt, but it’s true. Two years ago Ryan was a 21-year-old United States Marine. He was based out of Yuma, Arizona, and first made the decision to serve our country on Sept. 11, 2001, when—as a third grader—he watched the Twin Towers fall to the ground. That’s the kind of guy we’re talking about here.
Anyhow, on the morning of Jan. 21, 2015, Ryan woke up for PT (physical training) when something didn’t feel right. He was rushed to the Yuma Regional emergency room via ambulance with symptons of a stroke. Only, the actuality was far worse. A CT scan on his head uncovered a cloudy wedge, which was ultimately diagnosed as a brain tumor. What followed was, well, awfulness. As his wife Brenda wrote: “After taking several different pain killers to quell a muscle spasm, nothing seemed to help. It was determined he would need to stay longer. He woke up in the middle of the night, reached up to touch his head and came away with his hand drenched in blood. We turned the light on and nurses rushed in. His pillow was covered in blood and it wasn’t stopping. They rushed him to an emergency CT Scan which determined he had a Epidural Hematoma—a brain bleed.”
Future scans showed Ryan to have an Oligoastrocytoma, and he needed both chemotherapy and radiation. He also was forced to retire from the Marines after serving three years. It was a heartbreaking development for a young man who wanted to serve his nation.
As he dove into his fight against cancer, Ryan dove into a this-is-so-boring-I-need-to-do-something-or-else-I’ll-go-insane pastime—autograph collecting. He started by writing celebrities with requests, and before long word caught on. He now owns signs items from stars ranging from George Brett and Brett Favre to Anthony Robles and Candace Cameron Bure to Anthony Ervin and Jamie Moyer. He sends me regular updates, and the randomness alone is worth the price of admission.
Anyhow, although the tumor remains, the battler is strong. Ryan and Brenda live in Milton, Florida, where he’s living off his retirement pay. He Tweets regularly here.
Ryan Stoodley, you’re a great man. And, to my honor, Quaz No. 308 …
JEFF PEARLMAN: Ryan, I’m gonna start with the autographs. How did this begin? What was the impetus? How many have you received, and which were the most surprising? The coolest? And what do you do with them?
RYAN STOODLEY: My autograph collection started because of a desperation to do something. I went from working 14-to-16 hour days before I got sick to not working. So one day I decided I really needed to find something to do with my time before I went insane. Then the idea came to me: I can become a fill-time autograph collector. It truly is a way to have a smile even on the worst days.
I have received more than 150 autographed items thus far. It’s amazing. I think the coolest one—and the most surprising one—was definitely the 20-pound box I got from the Lakers that was 100-percent because of you [Jeff’s note: All props go to Jeanie Buss and Linda Rambis with the organization].
Some are framed, most are in a binder waiting to be framed. Eventually I’m hoping to have a whole room dedicated to my memorabilia.
J.P.: You are one of many Americans who decided to join the military following the Sept. 11 attacks. What, specifically, about that day caused you to follow a call for action? Why the Marines?
R.S.: It’s one of those things I really can’t describe. My dad is a retired Marine and my mom was in the Navy. Every summer I would ask my dad if I could go to work with him, and I think that started the idea in my head.
The second I saw the news of what had happened, I instantly decided that my life would be in the Marine Corps. It’s funny, because I was in the third grade. I couldn’t even pronounce Bin Laden’s name. But I got this pure anger come over me, and I actually haven’t had it since. That makes me know I made the right decision.
The decision on the Marine Corps was pretty easy, to be honest. My dad in a retired gunnery sergeant (E-7), so it was always my goal to make it further than he did.
J.P.: Don’t take this the wrong way, but you’re a kid. Twenty three. And yet, you’ve faced some hardcore stuff. Stuff people your age (or, I suppose, any age) don’t deserve. In Jan. 2015 you found out you had a brain tumor. Again—you were just a kid. How was the news delivered to you? How did you digest it?
R.S.: So to make a very long story shorter—after a long day of tests and feeling miserable, this doctor walks into the room and kicks out anyone besides family. He then says, “You have a cloudy spot on your brain.” And without skipping a beat, because I knew it was bad but I wanted to keep the room in good spirits, I said, “That’s OK. That’s just excess knowledge. I’m smarter than you guys.” And then the doctor responded with, “That’s not funny. It’s either an infarct, a tumor or a stroke.”
I actually digested the news fine. I didn’t cry. But I think that might also be because of all the symptoms leading up to that moment; I mean, it made me know it wasn’t a cold.
J.P.: This might sound overly simplistic, but what is it like fighting cancer? Is it hard to stay up? Do you actually view it as a “fight,” per se? Or is it something different?
R.S.: This question is actually really hard to answer. Before I was diagnosed with cancer I think I was clueless as to how hard it really is to be diagnosed with a disease like this. I wake up every single day in an unimaginable pain that I can’t really explain. I have extremely vivid nightmares, as well as daily headaches.
So I think I have to say, yes, it is a fight. But I’ve never been in a fight that lasts almost two years and hits as hard as Mike Tyson, with the speed of Floyd Mayweather and the endurance of Micky Ward. I’m not sure if this answers your question, and I know it’s really corny to say, but I’ve really learned to live every day like it’s my last; to do things when they’re on my mind and not wait.
J.P.: How has everything you’ve experienced impacted your take on mortality? Are you a guy of faith? No faith? Do you fear death? Laugh at death?
R.S.: I’m not a guy of faith. I never really have been. Not that I have anything against it at all. I don’t fear death. I think I’ve grown to laugh at it. I feel like two years of walking on eggshells will make you stronger to weaker. I think it had actually made me stronger.
JP.: When you enlisted you were sent to Parris Island for boot camp. Many people hear the words “boot camp” but have no inkling what it’s like. Ryan, what’s it like?
R.S.: I will say what pretty much everyone says about boot camp—it’s the most fun you never want to do again. You meet a lot of good friends for life there, because they’re the only people who know the exact struggle you went through.
A typical day starts at 4 in the morning. You get up, they slay you for a bit while you’re cleaning the squad bay and making racks. Then you go to chow. After chow you typically go to some classes or practice drill for hours, or so some sort of physical activity. You’ll eat lunch around noon (the whole time you’re being screamed at), then after lunch you typically practice drill or knowledge until lights out. Sometimes it’ll be a special week, like the range where, and that’s when you go to the rifle range.
Needless to say, it’s a great time except for when it’s you getting screamed at.
J.P.: Your lovely wife started a gofundme page, but it’s actually beyond just “Help us because Ryan has cancer.” It’s “Help us because he might wind up sterile from all the treatment, and we want to afford the sperm bank.” And, to be clear, I consider it a very noble, righteous cause. But I also wonder how it made you feel? You clearly SHOULD NOT BE, but … were you at all embarrassed? It’s a personal sorta thing out out there. Was there debate? And what has the response been?
R.S.: The whole thing started because a social worker told us we needed to do something, and ASAP. This was right after my appointment. They made me go see the social worker because they knew what the possibilities were with the chemotherapy. The military paid for my other medical care, but for some reason this was not considered medical care. So, in all honesty, my wife and I really only thought about it for about two minutes.
The response was incredible. I think we got more than $1,000 toward it in less than three days. It was just insane. I guess you really do find out you your friends are when times are tough.
J.P.: We talked about this a little over DM, but I’m a bit confused about the military and politics. Specifically, this past election the military vote went for Donald Trump by a large percentage. He’s a guy who received multiple deferments, who mocked a POW and a Gold Star Family, who said he knows more than the generals. And yet, soldiers still backed him. I just don’t get it. But perhaps there’s something big I’m missing. Ryan, from your experiences, what don’t I see?
R.S.: Whenever someone wants to talk politics with me, I always start by saying that I’m a registered independent who leans both ways on a lot of things.
As for the reason I can see the military vote going for Donald Trump—it’s definitely about the e-mails, because I’ve known people to get kicked out of the Marine Corps and put in the brig for doing much less than that. But, like I said, I’m a registered independent and would have preferred to have two different candidates to pick from.
J.P.: Greatest moment of your life? Lowest?
R.S.: The greatest moment of my life isn’t even a close one—it was the day I married my best friend. The worst moment was when the Royals lost the World Series after getting so damn close for the first time in my life. I eve drove from Yuma, Arizona to San Francisco for Game 3. It was an amazing up and a huge down. But my life has been incredibly good for this to be my worst moment.
J.P.: Would you want your son or daughter to enlist in the military? Why or what not?
R.S.: This question might be the toughest one yet. Which is silly, because it really shouldn’t be. My dad always told me, “I did my time in the Corps so you don’t have to.” I have those same thoughts, but in a way I also had it taken away from me without my consent. And I absolutely love what I did.
So I know if my son or daughter is anything like me, and they had the chance, well, I think I would be the proudest father in the world.
QUAZ EXPRESS WITH RYAN STOODLEY:
• It seems like your last name would lend itself to some messed-up childhood nicknames. What you got?: Toaster strudel, Stoodleberry.
• Ian Khama, the president of Botswana, calls and says, in the Setswana language, “Ryan, just thought it’d be cool to grab dinner.” He spears zero English and there’s be no translator. You in? And could it be an enjoyable and lovely experience?: Like I said earlier, I try and live for today and have fun all the time. I think 100-percent, I’m in. Could it be enjoyable? Probably not. But I could just laugh when he laughs and try and make it fun.
• Rank in order (favorite to least): Lesley Stahl, Gwen Stefani, Rudy Gay, “Suicide Squad,” cursing while driving, Wall Street Journal, Landry Jones, potato soup, Shawn Marion, R2D2: Shawn Marion, Rudy Gay, Landry Jones, Suicide Squad, R2D2, Gwen Stefani, potato soup, Lesley Stahl, Wall Street Journal, cursing while driving (I can’t drive anymore).
• How did you propose to your wife?: We had our first fight at a pier because she didn’t want to walk out onto it. I guess she was scared it would break. So on her birthday in 2012 I brought he back to that pier and said, “Let’s walk to the end.” But I stopped in the middle and wouldn’t go any further, I said, “Would you do it for this? Would you marry me?”
• One question you would ask O.J. Mayo were he here right now?: I would ask, “How can I help?” I’m someone who believes drug addiction is a disease. It’s truly sad he had let it go this far, but his expectations were to be the next LeBron James, and that can be incredibly tough.
• In exactly 17 words can you make a case for plastic bags?: I don’t think anyone can make a case for plastic bags.
• Three memories from your 14th birthday: I have absolutely no recollection of my 14th birthday. I’ve lost a lot of memories ever since all of this has happened.