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Ryan Curtis
Ryan Curtis. photo by Tim Fitzgerald

Engineering His Own Masterpiece

by Zac Robinson

March 2005

Waking up at 5 a.m. for practice would be enough to make most college athletes question their love for what they do.  But being the first one in the gym after studying architectural acoustics all night leaves no question about loving what one does.

If school and athletics aren't enough, living the life as half of an up-and-coming local band supplies the topping to an already hectic lifestyle.

But no matter what he does, University of Nebraska at Omaha (UNO) junior Ryan Curtis is always well aware he is constantly adding to his life's foundation.  At the very base of the 6-foot, 8-inch Curtis is his family.

"My family and friends are without a doubt the most important things in my life,"  Curtis said.  "My dad has always been my role model.  I have always respected him as a man, and I can only hope that I can do as good of a job raising a family as he did with my brothers and me."

Growing up with two older brothers, Matt, 27, and Justin, 23, and seeing the support that was given to them by his parents has helped Curtis see that no matter what he decides to pursue in life, his parents will be behind him every step of the way.

 "Both of my brothers have chosen to pursue careers in the field of athletics," Curtis said.  "Matt is the head baseball coach at Omaha South High School, and Justin is the men's soccer head athletic trainer at Creighton University, but I have never felt any pressure from them or my parents to pursue that field for a career.  I know my family will encourage me in whatever direction I choose to aim my life."

That decision may prove to be more complicated than Curtis could have ever imagined.  It wasn't until the ever-pivotal high school years that his life began to branch out into the three distinct, yet different roads he would find himself choosing between.

Entering his freshman year of basketball at Millard South High School, Curtis faced a major glitch in the blueprints.  After feeling a sharp snap in his lower back at the end of the summer baseball season, he tried to go through practices for the start of basketball season.  But some days, he said, he couldn't even walk without feeling like a knife was stuck in his lower back.

After a month of practice, he and his family decided it was time to find out exactly what was wrong.  The doctor said Curtis had suffered two severe stress fractures of his fifth vertebrate in the lumbar of his lower back.  He would need surgery that involved removing bone from his hip and fusing it to the fractured vertebrate in his back.

"Going into the surgery, I felt like I had nothing left to live for," Curtis said. "My whole life up to that point revolved around athletics, and then all of a sudden, I was stripped of them.  I had absolutely no idea what my life might consist of after my back was fixed, because there was no guarantee my back would be able to handle the stress that basketball, or athletics in general, would put on it."

But as Curtis would be reminded by his mom, "Everything happens for a reason."  Faced with a newfound abundance of time, Curtis found that schoolwork began to be his new focus for success.

"I had always been a good student," Curtis said.  "But all of a sudden, I felt like my competitive drive that usually had been reserved for athletic competition was now transferring to the classroom."

His competitive spirit may have been honed in the home as the youngest of the three Curtis children.  "Ryan was always trying to top either Matt or I at everything we did," Justin Curtis said.  "I definitely think a lot of his competitiveness came from trying to get out of our shadows, as is seen with a lot of younger siblings."

A new interest in math and applying it to buildings and structures made Curtis investigate architectural engineering.  It wasn't the only new interest that was starting to build within Curtis' life.

All through his younger years, he could remember having several of his dad's old guitars laying around the house and playing with them as a child.  His dad had always told him stories of his high school and college days, and how he had been in a band that had the sound of the band "Chicago."

Not really understanding or knowing who "Chicago" was at that time, Curtis ended up telling anybody who would listen that his dad was actually in "Chicago."

 "As I grew up and realized who the actual band ‘Chicago' was, I wasn't nearly as disappointed as some of the people I had told that my dad actually hadn't ever been in the band," Curtis said.

In the first few weeks of the five-month period of near total restraint after the surgery, Curtis decided to give one of the old guitars a try.  He taught himself how to read the music, learned a few simple strings and chords, and was hooked.  "I started out playing about an hour a day, but that eventually grew to about eight hours a day in a matter of about three months," Curtis said.  "Writing and playing music turned out to be some of the best therapy I could have done."

His newly acquired love for the guitar would lead him to another unexpected opportunity.  He and a high school friend started an acoustic guitar band called "49 Cents."  The band gained a large fan base at Millard South High School but would gain a much broader spectrum of fans in the coming years.

With all of the new doors that had been opened after the surgery, it seemed like Curtis might have lost track of what his focus was before suffering the temporary setback.

But he didn't.

Curtis went on to be named an All-Class and All-State basketball player his senior year at Millard South.  He has since been named the North Central Conference Freshman of the Year, his first year playing for UNO after red-shirting.

Academically, Curtis decided his love for math and buildings was a good enough reason to pursue a career in architectural engineering.  He has managed to uphold a 3.5 GPA.  His outstanding academic achievements also have helped him receive a place on the Dean's List at UNO, as well as a place on the North Central Conference All-Academic team for men's basketball.

"49 Cents" also has gone on to achieve status as an up-and-coming local acoustic band with an ever-growing fan base in the Omaha area.  "I've been to every ‘49 Cents' show to date, and I have seen Ryan in action on the stage, in the classroom and on the court," said Grant Nieland, an avid "49 Cents" fan from the Omaha area.  "He has a great passion for everything he does."

As far as what comes next, Curtis continues to stay humble and not take anything for granted.

"I'm trying not to set too many goals for myself because something's got to give," Curtis said.  "I just want to finish my career both athletically and academically on the best note possible and see where it takes me.

"As far as the future goes, more than anything, I want to find the love of my life, have a family and be the type of role model for my kids that my dad was for me."

Zac Robinson is a journalism major at UNO with a concentration in public relations and advertising.  He can be reached at


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