It was a gloomy day when Rylan Ritter and his varsity football teammates from Poteau High School gathered for a team meeting following practice. Ritter, a sophomore, sitting on his knees and entirely focused on head coach Greg Warner, was about to get the surprise of a lifetime. When Warner called his name, Ritter was instantly confused. Like many high school athletes who are put in that situation, he thought he was in trouble. "I definitely did," Ritter says about getting nervous when his coach called him out to end the practice. "I said, 'oh man’, I thought I was going to get kicked off the team.'"
But it turned out Coach Warner had other plans.
Warner began reading a letter aloud, letting Ritter know he'll represent Special Olympics Oklahoma when he competes in powerlifting at the 2022 Special Olympics USA Games. The team expressed immediate excitement for their teammate, all jumping to their feet at the same time. Towering over his teammates at 6'8", Ritter embraced each player with a 345-pound hug. "It shows how good of a family we are," Ritter says about the celebration, also at a loss for words when trying to explain what the team means to him.
"We just thought he deserved it. Rylan supports everyone on the team no matter if they get to play or not," Warner says about the surprise. "We have a saying on our team—a man will be known for how he treats those who can do nothing for him—so we make it a point to treat all people the same. Rylan is so loved by his teammates; they all wanted to do that for him."
All Ritter could say about the team and the work they put in was, "we work hard, and we get ‘er done.” Simple and to the point, that sentence shows that all we need to know is the team puts in the work, they take no days off and they share the same goal.
However, when it comes to competing in Special Olympics, he talks about how long of a road it’s been.
Ritter started Special Olympics in the third grade, participating in bowling, athletics and flag football. Though, he says his favorite sport is powerlifting, which he has been competing in for two years.
Not surprising that he’s a football player, playing defensive nose guard.
"My maximum weight for deadlift is 315lbs, bench press 225lbs, but my favorite is bench press because I like working the upper body," Ritter says about what he excels at in the gym. When training, he rotates different lifts and the number of reps to continually increase his strength. He is constantly working his way to excelling at his maximum lifts.
And when it comes to his USA Games goals, the first time he'll compete at that level, he says, "I look forward to bringing back four gold medals to Oklahoma."
While Ritter has dreams of winning, so does the student body, the community, and most importantly, his Special Olympics coach.
"Rylan represents everything positive about Special Olympics," Tanna Weaver, Ritter's teacher and Special Olympics coach, says about competing at the national level. "He started young, he found a sport and stuck with it. He's continued to grow in that sport; his character and enthusiasm is just everything Special Olympics stand for."
The entire student body is helping Ritter prepare for Orlando, too.
"I believe they have supported him financially through selling hamburgers but also in encouraging him as he begins to prepare for the Games," Warner says.
While Ritter isn't playing football or preparing for the USA Games, he is working towards his goal of becoming a farmer. As a proud member of the FFA (Future Farmers of America), he regularly spends time in his garden growing vegetables. "I grow peppers, tomatoes, and I cover them, so they turn into pickles," Ritter says about what he grows. It's a friendly reminder that no matter how big you are, there's always room to be a gentle giant.
"He brought garlic pickles and handed them out to people last year in school," Weaver says, while Ritter adds, "those were gnarly pickles."
Farming remains one of the toughest occupations, but with the dedication Ritter shows on the football field and in his garden, it’s a perfect fit for him. That dedication is even present in the face of adversity like when Ritter recently broke his wrist, saying “I was trying to be Evel Knievel.” Despite that injury, he remains one of the most important players on the football team. "Rylan has not missed one practice because of the injury but has been here every day supporting his teammates," Warner says about Ritter's character and involvement. "He cheers them on and makes them laugh during a tough practice." Ritter hopes by sometime in October the cast will be off, and he can start football and powerlifting activities again.
Ritter says he wants his team to “get stronger, faster and work harder” when preparing for games. At the time of this story, Ritter’s team sits at (3-1). He says the team's goal is to win, but expresses the main objective is to enjoy the brotherhood created by the bonds on the football field.
As he prepares for a run at the Oklahoma state high school football championship, he also has his sights set on competing at the 2022 USA Games. A perfect combination between training on the gridiron and in the weight room will create the balance needed to get Ritter ready for both.