'Everything's Waiting' for Ryan Downes

He's been getting D-I offers since he was in 7th grade and his coaches see a potential all-time QB, but for now, the 14-year-old prodigy is happy hanging with his brother, playing Legos and learning.
photo of Adam KramerAdam Kramer@kegsneggsNational College Football Lead WriterMay 18, 2020

With each sentence, Ryan Downes' vocabulary expands. With each question during the first of many interviews he undoubtedly will be asked to be a part of, he becomes more comfortable exploring life, family, football and how they all blend so naturally together in a way that would be unnatural for most. So much so that after a while you forget he's barely a teenager.

He doesn't look like a typical 14-year-old, either. Not at 6'4" and 200 pounds. Long, rangy arms. A frame that is years ahead of schedule. And the remnants of a babyface that are quickly disappearing.

Last fall, Downes played quarterback for IMG Academy—a boarding school in Bradenton, Florida, that regularly produces some of the most coveted high school football prospects in the country.

Only Downes isn't technically in high school. Not yet, at least. But that hasn't prevented him from being offered three verbal scholarships from college football programs—including one from the Ivy League.

"It's like he's the prototype of what you would want as a quarterback as a senior in high school, but he's an eighth-grader," IMG varsity coach Kyle Brey says. "If he continues to develop the way that he's developed in the short time I've been around him, it might be at a level that we haven't witnessed yet in this country."

He is not the first middle school athlete to be offered a football scholarship. Still, the concept is unusual. To many, likely uncomfortable.

But the more he speaks, the more these stigmas fade. In part because Downes doesn't need to talk about football, no matter how much he loves the sport. Instead, he wants to know how my three young children are holding up during such uncertain, challenging times.

He wants to talk about life after football—something he's already given a great deal of thought. About lacrosse, the sport he refuses to give up no matter how promising his football future might be.

He wants to celebrate his nine-year-old brother, Nolan, who he believes will ultimately become the true prodigy in the family.

He wants to talk about his passion for academics. (He currently holds a 4.3 grade point average.) 

Brian and Karlin Downes, with their son Ryan, after the family moved down to Florida to have a home near IMG Academy.
Brian and Karlin Downes, with their son Ryan, after the family moved down to Florida to have a home near IMG Academy.Photo courtesy of Brian Downes

His coaches warned me of this. Not just of the physical gifts. But of his propensity to deflect, to try to normalize a life that has the potential to be anything but normal.

It's hard not to get swept up in the possibilities, no matter how far out they are. And perhaps, more importantly, how natural this all feels.

Brian Downes was buying pellets for his smoker the day he learned his seventh-grade son had been offered a football scholarship.

When Ryan called and told him that Brown had offered him a verbal scholarship, he found a vacant patio chair inside a Home Depot near the family's Florida home. Even after they hung up, Brian didn't get up for a good five minutes as he processed the moment.

Two weeks later, Kansas followed with an offer of its own.

"You have these benchmarks and these little goals, but there's never any destination," Brian says. "I just always looked at [the interest] as a positive and a great compliment, with the understanding that it doesn't mean any more than that."

His third scholarship offer came earlier this year from Indiana. This, in many ways, was the most meaningful of all. When IMG Academy coach Kevin Wright left for a job on the Hoosiers' staff, he didn't hesitate to make a pitch to the quarterback he had seen up close.

While surprising, the offers didn't change much. Not for Ryan and his goals.

"I never worry about Ryan getting a big head from it," his father says. "It's just not the way he's made up. It's just a continuous journey, and it has to always be more than just football. For him, it is."

For much of his life, Ryan was average height. It wasn't until sixth grade, not long after he graduated from flag football and fell in love with tackle football, that he experienced a massive growth spurt.

Around this time, Ryan took a liking to the idea of playing quarterback. It began simply by watching Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers and Drew Brees. Each brought a different element to the position that he was drawn to and has tried to incorporate into his game: Brees' accuracy, Rodgers' creativity and Brady's, well, everything.

As his interest grew, so did his involvement with the sport. The path to IMG Academy began on Long Island, which Ryan has called home much of his life. He started by attending a few camps. It was here that his size and ability caught the attention of the coaches. The interest was so strong that they asked if Ryan wanted to enroll.

When the opportunity presented itself, his father had initial reservations.

But as he spoke to coaches, he grew more comfortable with the idea. And Ryan persisted, sensing the combination of academics and athletics would suit him well.

Before long, everyone bought in. But Ryan didn't go at it alone.

While the family still has a residence in New York, his father, younger brother and mother, Karlin, also now call Florida home.

On his first official day as varsity head coach, Kyle Brey trotted out to the practice field eager to see what an IMG Academy-caliber football player looked like.

Downes' size and maturity impressed his coach at IMG, Kyle Brey, from the first moment the two met.
Downes' size and maturity impressed his coach at IMG, Kyle Brey, from the first moment the two met.Photo courtesy of IMG Academy

As he took inventory of a field stockpiled with gifted athletes, he made his way to the quarterbacks. Well, it looks like we've got an older group out here throwing the ball around, he thought to himself.

When he learned that one of the most physically impressive players on the field was still in middle school, he thought it was a joke. His first conversation with Downes later that day left him even more perplexed.

"I go home that night and my wife asked me what IMG is like," Brey says. "I told her I just met one of the more mature, capable middle school football players in the history of middle school football, and he is going to be my quarterback next year."

IMG Academy fields two teams: a varsity team and a national team that travels the country and competes against some of the nation's elite programs.

Last fall, Downes played for the varsity and split time as the team's starting quarterback. And although he was competing against older, more experienced players, he had a knack for blending in.

"I thought he was like 16 or 17 years old," IMG running back Xavier Terrell says. "I didn't believe he was 13 when we first met."

Beyond an exceptional right arm that will grow stronger, the trait that floored Bobby Acosta was Downes' personality.

Acosta, the head coach of the national team at IMG, spent time as the recruiting coordinator and wide receivers coach for Syracuse before joining the program. He was also an offensive assistant coach at Delaware when Joe Flacco emerged as one of the nation's most coveted draft prospects.

"I sat down with him just to talk football, and I realized very quickly that this is what I want my program to be like," Acosta says. "Let's face it: he could go anywhere in high school right now and be their starter. He's choosing to do this because he sees the bigger picture.

"He has all those qualities to really be the face of our program," he adds. "I've never had a kid this talented."

Despite Downes' age, Acosta placed him on his leadership council—a group compiled largely of juniors and seniors. During each meeting, Downes sits in the front and spends his time jotting down notes.

"He's the most organized person in the room," Acosta says.

Over the course of last season, there were flashes. A throw. A read. A single play that foreshowed what's to come. Even Downes' miscues provided the coaches a glimpse into the future.

"I treasure the moments we had last season," Brey says. "I got to see the raw footage of somebody I believe could end up being great. That's something that I'm never going to forget because five years from now, he'll be so polished and talented, and the game will come so easily if he's progressing the way that he's progressing now."

Most of all, Brey saw an equanimity any quarterback who hopes to craft a long career needs. Regardless of the outcome on the field, Downes never altered his demeanor.

"The more I was around him, the more I expected to see youth and I didn't see it," Brey adds. "There is a group of kids, and I've only had a few of them, that you get a little nervous to coach. Ryan fits that mold. He's really special, and I really don't want to screw this up.

"I just hope I can be as special for him as he's going to be special for me."

The anticipation surrounding Downes' freshman debut will mount. Not just through summer, but into the fall and the following year. The next time he competes in an IMG Academy game won't be until the fall of 2021.

Technically, Downes is putting the final touches on his eighth grade year. But the plan all along has been for him to reclassify from the class of 2024 to the class of 2025, meaning Downes will essentially stay in eighth grade.

Academically, he has already acquired a weighted class schedule that has pushed his GPA to 4.3. That will again be the case. Although he'll likely progress academically, according to his father, at least in some subjects.

On the football field, Downes will take what amounts to a redshirt season. He will work out, prepare and practice with IMG Academy. He'll also travel with the national team, but he won't dress. Because middle schoolers are only allowed to play in varsity football games for one season, he is not permitted to play in any games.

Downes split the starting QB duties on IMG's varsity team last fall but will spend his next season at watching and working with the school's national team, although he won't take the field again until the fall of 2021.
Downes split the starting QB duties on IMG's varsity team last fall but will spend his next season at watching and working with the school's national team, although he won't take the field again until the fall of 2021.Photo courtesy of IMG Academy

"He's learning and progressing in an atmosphere that is a great match for him," Brian says. "There's really no downside for him to spend an extra year becoming a better leader, student and person."

Reclassifying is nothing new in the recruiting world. Some, like Downes, prolong their arrival. Others, including current college quarterbacks JT Daniels and Jake Bentley, reclassified so they could enroll in college one year early—essentially skipping a year of high school.

Ultimately, Downes' decision boils down to comfort, something the family has discussed at length. It allows him the flexibility to grow as a student. To hone his craft. Above all, it allows him the freedom to grow in a place he's enjoying.

"I knew it was the plan, and it was something that we all saw for the better," Ryan says. "It gives me an opportunity to get better in so many areas."

Downes won't turn 15 until December. The thought process as of now, even though it's years away, is to finish his high school senior season and then enroll early at the program he chooses, if the opportunity presents itself. He would be an 18-year-old freshman, like many of his teammates.

"Everything's waiting for him out there," his father says. "What's the rush?"

He still loves Legos. It's one of the few signs of youth that Downes exhibits, although even this comes with a caveat. It's a passion, much like the love of football, he shares with his younger brother, whom Ryan speaks of glowingly. While the coronavirus pandemic has drastically altered his football and academic routines, it has brought the two even closer.

While most 14-year-olds would struggle with the concept of being a role model, Downes is embracing it with Nolan. What happens now and the attention that is likely to follow is something he has thought about. Not so much for the impact it will have on his life, but the way it could impact others.

"He looks up to me more than I think I even understand," Ryan says of his brother. "And I need that. I'm setting an example for him, what he needs to do and how he needs to handle things. It's something I think about a lot for his sake."

He doesn't view his situation as unique. He doesn't view his gifts as special. Nor does he have any real advice for other young athletes in his position. Talking about himself is still difficult.

"I mean, I'm 14, and I've barely gone through anything yet," he says. "There's really one word that comes to mind, and that's humble. You don't need to go out and tell everybody, 'Hey, this is who I am, this is who I'm going to be.' Let's just go do it."

Ryan says he understands his brother, Nolan, sees him as m ore than just a sibling, but as a role model.
Ryan says he understands his brother, Nolan, sees him as m ore than just a sibling, but as a role model.Photo courtesy of Brian Downes

And still, even now, he regularly posts motivational quotes on his Twitter page. Not because he has to. It all just comes naturally.

Although his recruitment won't truly pick up for at least some time, Downes already knows what he wants it to look like if things progress the way they are.

He wants to acknowledge every coach and program that shows interest. He wants to know more about the school, the academics and, of course, the football program. But he also wants them to know more about him. Who he is. What his goals are. What he wants to become.

Ultimately, the answer to that question is not a football player. He could see himself as a coach or a teacher. He likes the idea of owning his own small business. The specifics aren't all thought out just yet. But the plan is building.

No matter how much he grows. No matter how strong his arm gets. No matter how many offers he commands over the next four years, football cannot, and will not, be what defines him. It's not something someone so young is supposed to understand, but he does.

"I want a great academic school because football only lasts so long," he says. "You can't do football forever unless you're Tom Brady. You just need to have another plan. When football is over, whenever that is, it's time to go."

"Let's go live that next chapter," he says emphatically. And for the first time since the conversation began, he pauses. "You know what I mean?"


Adam Kramer covers football for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @KegsnEggs.