Dec. 4, 2015

By Renee Peggs

Ryan Doherty stands out, and not just because he’s seven feet tall.

Other athletes have career credits in multiple professional sports. Certainly there’s no shortage of rags-to-riches stories where talent is discovered and a star ascends. Lots of people write books these days after graduating from Notre Dame with a degree in philosophy.

The 31-year-old New Jersey native has done it all, with panache and a relaxed take-life-as-it-comes attitude. Just ridin’ the waves …

Yes, Doherty lives on the beach in California. Of course he surfs, too. Now someone go get him a 12-foot long surfboard.

No surprise, Doherty played basketball in high school and was really good. Baseball was just something to do in the off-season, but he pitched in a showcase series in Pennsylvania his senior year and caught the attention of a Notre Dame recruiting coach.

“The coach invited me out to South Bend for an official visit, I loved the campus, got to go to a football game and that was all she wrote.” Doherty chronicles, casually explaining a process that for so many Fighting Irish athletes is the culmination of their life’s dreams.

“It was cool, you know, baseball. I ended up developing a passion for it and really enjoying it. There’s a much different feel about it than basketball. I think if I had had to spend 35 or 40 hours a week in a gym with the basketball team I would have burned out really quickly. Baseball at least is outside.”

Translation: Doherty dominated. Prior to signing with the Arizona Diamondbacks after his junior season in 2005, he had already stacked up career stats that were on pace to topple Irish baseball records that had stood since the 1960s.

And he was an All-American.

But why not give professional baseball a shot? He played three seasons in the minor league system, including pitching for the South Bend Silver Hawks in 2006 where he went 9-1 with a 2.59 ERA in 62 innings pitched.

We’ll give his contact info to Andrew Berlin (owner & chairman) and Joe Hart (president), the two current leaders of the South Bend Cubs organization.

After a rough start to his fourth season, Doherty was released.

“It was unfortunate,” he says. “All of a sudden I was an ex-baseball player pretty much overnight. I didn’t really have much to do or any plans for the rest of that summer so I threw everything I owned into my Jeep and drove to South Carolina where I lived on my friend’s couch.”

Doherty was undaunted.

“There was a beach volleyball court pretty close to his house. Neither of us had ever really played before but we thought it looked fun. We bought the cheapest ball ever, started hitting it around and playing against other people any chance we could get. I absolutely loved everything about it even though we were getting beat by high school girls and their moms and people who were like five-foot-six.”

And he ended up going pro?

“Not quite yet,” Doherty says with a laugh. “I was working odd jobs, and after three years at Notre Dame it was sticking in my side a little bit that I didn’t have a degree. I’d had a great experience there and felt like if I had put in that much work already, then I wanted to come out with something. I also wanted to patch things up and leave Notre Dame on good graces. I ended up going back to finish my philosophy degree.

“If volleyball doesn’t work out, I can always be a professional philosopher. I like that there’s no right answers; you just sort of sit and think about things, like getting to the root of a problem. But I might be very much overstating how cerebral I am…”

Bachelor’s degree in hand, Doherty moved back home to New Jersey.

“I realized that the days I looked forward to the most were weekends when I could play volleyball. I took that as indication that I needed to move to California where they play every day. I packed up my Jeep again with everything I owned, found my way over to Huntington Beach, got a job at a pizza place and secured myself a little apartment, so that way I could play volleyball every morning.”

Just like that, making it happen.

After a couple years, Casey Patterson (nine-time AVP champion and current No. 1 on the world tour) approached Doherty about his interest in playing with him.

“He just straight-up asked if I wanted to join him, and in our first tournament together we ended up beating the defending gold medalists in the finals,” Doherty says.

That’s all it takes to become a pro beach volleyball player?

“The AVP Tour had gone bankrupt the summer I moved out to California. It was a huge blow to all the guys who were counting on the Tour for some form of income; all of a sudden they had to go find some other job, and a lot of people left beach volleyball at that time. Now me, I wasn’t making any money back then anyway so it didn’t really matter to me.

“Casey sees a guy who’s seven feet tall, can hit the ball and block pretty well. There were still some technical things I needed to get better at but his thought was, take this guy who’s pretty raw and teach him some stuff to really help his technique and ball control; turn him into a player I can win tournaments with. And he was right, we ended up winning three tournaments together.

“He’s one of the smartest players in the world – known as the Professor. We played on the FIVB Tour together: I had never left the U.S. before but by the end of that year I had been to four continents and played in 13 countries. I teamed up after that with Todd Rodgers (who won Olympic gold for the U.S. in 2008). The following year I played with Nick Lucena and we earned silver and bronze medals on the world tour. This past year I played with John Mayer – not the singer/songwriter – and had what was my first AVP win, in Seattle. So it’s working out pretty decently.”

He doesn’t deliver pizzas anymore and he even won the Best Offensive Player award for the AVP Tour in October 2015.

“I’m in the process of writing an e-book right now,” Doherty says. “It’s called Avatar’s Guide to Beach Volleyball, my attempt to describe the game and the community in a funny way to anyone who is interested in the sport. I started a blog and found that I really enjoy writing; I also found that quite a few people enjoyed my writing so I decided to add ‘author’ to my resume.”

The blog, in which Doherty adopts the alias Avatar, had 50,000 unique visitors and more than 125,000 hits in its first year.

“You know, it gives me something to occupy my time. My girlfriend hates this part of year because I’m in the off-season: she’s working 60-hour weeks and I can lie in bed all day. I have to step up my boyfriend-game and be super attentive or else she gets mad.”

Anything else interesting about the off-season?

“I like painting, even though my skills capped in kindergarten. I juggle. I practice the harmonica but I never seem to get any better. I am addicted right now to learning about finance: I think it’s unbelievable and crazy that people can make billions of dollars based on nothing more than stock prices moving up or down.”

How does he feel about Derek Zoolander, the star of the 2001 comedy Zoolander played by Ben Stiller?

“Well, I have done some male modeling! I was playing in the Manhattan Open, one of the biggest tournaments all year, when one of my friends introduced me to a woman who runs an underwear company. I took her business card and said I’d wear one of their wristbands, and then literally the next day someone from Dig Magazine asked me if I’d do their back cover which is called BeachSmack.

“Being hilarious, I said the only way I would agree is if I could do it just wearing underwear, and they said alright. So I called the underwear lady and said, ‘Look, I could be on the back cover of a beach volleyball magazine, this many people will read it, what’s that worth to you?’ and she said she could get me $1,000. I was sold; I would have done it for $20!

“So now I have Professional Male Underwear Model on my resume for the rest of my life even though that’s the only modeling gig I’ve ever done. I’m sure it’ll never happen again: no one else is dumb enough to pay me to hang out in underwear.”

Motivation isn’t hard to come by.

“My income is solely from winning tournaments. There’s a big difference financially between being the best and being, like, third. You can make a really good living if you’re at the top of the pile and really struggle if you’re somewhere not that much lower, sixth or seventh. So I keep practicing and working out.”

From big man on campus to big man on the sand, Ryan Doherty is living large.