Ryan Minor
Ryan Minor excelled as a two-sport athlete at the University of Oklahoma. (NonDoc)

In the spring of 1995, Ryan Minor gave my grandmother a hug.

Minor was a two-sport star at the University of Oklahoma, in basketball and baseball, and was truly the Big Man on Campus in the mid-90s in Norman.

During the spring 1995 baseball season, after another Minor-led victory at L. Dale Mitchell Park, I escorted my grandma toward the OU dugout. I was a 20-year-old burgeoning sportswriter blessed with a student newspaper beat covering the defending national champion Sooners. My grandparents’ favorite sport was baseball, and my grandmother just thought Ryan Minor was the “cutest thing out there” on the court and ballfield, so they regularly made the two-plus-hour trip from Hartshorne to watch OU play baseball.

When we reached the dugout, I tapped Minor on the shoulder. He recognized me from covering the team for The Oklahoma Daily, so I introduced him to my grandmother. He held out a hand, but my grandma swiped it away and said, “I don’t want a handshake, I want a hug!”

Without missing a beat, Minor grinned, opened his arms and said, “Come here, grandma!”

Cancer sucks

Two weeks shy of his 50th birthday, Ryan Minor died Friday after a months-long battle with cancer. An exceptional athlete from Hammon, Oklahoma, Minor leaves a legacy that includes being a bright spot during one the darkest times for OU sports fans.

What Minor did for my grandmother that spring evening was essentially what he did for all Sooner fans everywhere during the mid-90s: Wrap them all up in a much-relished hug. During an era when athletic success at OU was waning, Minor stood as a candle in the darkness, a light at the end of the tunnel, a … well, whatever cheesy metaphor you want to use, Minor was it for OU fans.

During the early 1990s, OU men’s basketball was experiencing a slow decline from the height of the Billy Tubbs era. In 1993, the baseball team endured a season where it missed the postseason entirely. OU softball literally played at a muni-league park. OU women’s basketball was just happy even to exist after an attempted euthanization by the athletic department. Wrestling had not been nationally relevant since the 1970s. Hardly anyone knew the gymnastics squads existed. And the less said about OU football during those years, the better.

While Ryan Minor and his twin brother had actually been on campus since fall 1992 — the same semester I started school at OU — Ryan’s breakout as a Sooner star took a couple years to percolate. The light came on in 1994, with Ryan Minor finishing the basketball season as OU’s second-leading scorer and joining a Sooner baseball team being led by his brother, Damon, who was mashing homers and playing first base. After Ryan linked back up with the squad, the Sooners won 35 of their final 46 games, including eight straight in the postseason to win the College World Series.

A few months later, Minor started the 1994-95 season for the OU basketball team. By the time it ended, the 6’7″ junior had averaged 23.6 points and 8.6 rebounds per game, led the team to a 23-9 record and an NCAA Tournament berth. Along the way, he claimed Big 8 Player of the Year honors. He also dropped many memorable moments in his wake, including a home win over top-ranked Kansas that left quite the impression on many Sooner students back then.

Minor had another season each in basketball and baseball at OU, and he did not disappoint. He finished a two-time All American in basketball and seventh all-time in scoring for the Sooners. He led Kelvin Sampson’s teams to back-to-back NCAA Tournament appearances, and he made wearing a t-shirt under your jersey look cool to every kid from rural Oklahoma. In baseball, he added pitching and third base to his repertoire during the 1995 season, and he helped coax the Sooners to a regular season Big 8 title and a second-straight College World Series berth.

Forever a place in Sooners history

Eventually, Ryan Minor was selected in both the Major League Baseball and National Basketball Association drafts. He chose the baseball route with the Baltimore Orioles, a decision that famously put him in a historic position.

In September 1998, Minor started at third base for the O’s during a game instead of Cal Ripken Jr., which made him the first player to supplant Ripken Jr. in the starting lineup in a record 2,632 games.

After a four-year career in the majors, Minor turned his attention to coaching and managing in the minor leagues of baseball. His brother, Damon, did the same.

It might be easy to forget about Ryan Minor nowadays. With the renaissance of OU athletics since the dawn of the 21st century, the struggles of the Crimson and Cream in the 1990s could be dismissed to the dustbin of history. A handful of Ryan Minor-level athletes have since graced Lloyd Noble Center and L. Dale Mitchell Park: Hollis Price, Blake Griffin, Buddy Hield, Trae Young … Kevin Bookout, Reggie Willits, Garrett Buechele, Jon Gray.

But Ryan Minor was never forgotten. Ironically, on the day of his death, before it was known he had passed, an “X” poll was taken by a local Norman radio station about who was the favorite two-sport athlete at OU. The resounding answer was “Ryan Minor.”

It reminded me again of the night my grandmother got her hug from him. All she could do was talk about it for days afterward, much to my grandfather’s jealous — yet adorable — chagrin. Eventually, she got an autographed photo from “her little Ryan” that hung on the wall of their house for the remainder of her time there.

It’s been said heroes get remembered, but legends never die. Let’s, however, add another clause to that nugget: Hugs from said heroes and legends — whether actual (for my grandmother) or metaphorical (for all Sooner fans) — well, they’re neither forgotten nor able to fade away.

(Correction: This article was updated at 3:30 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 23, to correct reference to the date that Ryan Minor started instead of Cal Ripken Jr.)