John Kuntz - The Plain Dealer

St. Thomas More's Ryan Fallon turns in his Catholic high school selection form

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NOVEMBER 16, 2008

Everything in the Cleveland Catholic school system has a time and an order. In second grade at St. Thomas More, you make your First Communion and have your First Reconciliation.

In eighth grade, you not only are confirmed, but you decide which Catholic high school you will attend. And there are deadlines that students must adhere to if they are coming from a Catholic grade school.

After a long autumn of taking high school entrance exams and shadowing current students at prospective high schools, there is a "hands off" period that begins in December and lasts until students file an application in January listing their first and second choices of high schools. No administrator or coach from a high school is supposed to contact a prospective student. They are supposed to have time to reflect and decide.

As the St. Thomas More eighth-grade football team meets for its annual year-end awards banquet, it's on the cusp of "hands off" in the midst of a long season of almosts: The Wolverines almost repeated as CYO city champs, falling in the playoffs after an undefeated season; and two of the stars on that perennial powerhouse team, Ian Stuart and Ryan Fallon, almost have their minds made up about which high school they'll attend.

Ryan likes St. Edward. But the quarterback is still torn.

There's no question that football is the determining factor in his decision right now. And that's part of the reason he's not that interested in St. Ignatius: When he shadowed at the school a few weeks ago, he was matched with a student who was on the chess team and not the football team. He didn't get to talk about his passion, didn't meet with coach Chuck Kyle and didn't learn anything about what matters most to him.

St. Edward seems like a good fit with its dedicated engineering program -- the profession the straight-A student is most interested in right now -- and with a football offense directed by coach Scott Niedzwiecki that relies heavily on passing. That is, of course, right up Ryan's alley.

But he's still not sure, and this decision is weighing so heavily on Ryan that his chestnut eyebrows furrow and he's become snippy whenever his parents broach the topic.

Most days, he doesn't even want to think about it.

JANUARY 14, 2009

Ian Stuart isn't too worried at all. The blond lineman with the chiseled face still has his mischievous sense of humor intact and is shrugging off his high school decision as if it were as easy as choosing what to have for lunch. His older sister Margo is a junior at Padua, it seems like a good school and he might as well go there, too.

Just before Christmas, Ian had told his mom, Valerie, that he was going to Padua. That was it, he had made up his mind. There was no changing it.

But then . . . in late December a classmate's father told Ian that St. Ed's Niedzwiecki would like to talk to him. Someone knew someone who knew Ian's classmate would relay the information -- that's how the process works.

Niedzwiecki was at the St. Thomas More vs. Sts. Joseph-John game Sept. 28 when the two CYO powers clashed, and he saw the way Ian is a football natural. He's got a nose for the ball, especially on the defensive line, and is powerful and aggressive.

So even though Ian is sure he wants to go to Padua, he and Valerie make an appointment to talk to Niedzwiecki in the coach's office. It can't hurt to check it out and hear what he has to say.

But by the time they make it to St. Edward, Niedzwiecki has resigned as football coach.

This potential monumental shift in team philosophy doesn't matter to them, though.

Ian walks into the meeting with George thinking that he won't change his mind from his decision to attend Padua.

They sit down in the football offices with assistant coach Joe George, a young and energetic coach whose words drip with sincerity. He tells them all about the successful football program, about the support Ian will have from the all-boys school, about the father figures he'll find in football coaches and teachers and school leaders.

And Ian notices his mother's face brighten with every sales pitch George throws her way.

Valerie's face lights up visibly when she hears about the benefits of the all-boys school, about all the immediate male role models he'll have in his life. That's what she wants for Ian, because he doesn't have a dad around.

Ian likes when George goes into detail about how understanding the football coaches are

And then there is St. Ed's fabled wrestling program -- which has won 13 straight state titles and 25 overall. Ian knows for certain that he also wants to wrestle -- he was runner-up in the city CYO meet this year in the highest weight class -- and there's no better high school program in the area for him to wrestle in.

The problem is that St. Edward offered only $3,000 in financial aid for the annual tuition of about $10,000, and Valerie doesn't think she can swing the remainder without more help. She's already picked up a third job working at Marc's on weekends. Will she really need to find a fourth job? George tells her that they can explore finding more financial aid.

The more Valerie's face reflects her unspoken preference for St. Ed, the more Ian begins to reconsider.

By the time they leave the meeting, he is certain: He is going to St. Edward.

He says it's still his decision, that he made it based on the school and the potential of the football program, but there's no question his mom's reaction influenced him. He's seen all the sacrifices she has made for him over the years, working two or three jobs to make ends meet.

If this small gesture is how he can repay her, then there's no question of what he should do.

JANUARY 19, 2009

Ryan Fallon is distracted by everything as the late January deadline to submit his high school application draws nearer. After every high school visit, he changes his mind.

First it was Padua. Then St. Ignatius. Then St. Edward.

Sometimes his mother, Kathy, thinks that each school's football coaches must be salesmen in their spare time -- and not even because they necessarily want you on their football team.

"They just want you on their team because they don't want you on their rivals' team," she says.

Earlier this month, Ryan was sure he was going to St. Edward, and it didn't even matter that Niedzwiecki had resigned and no one knows who the new varsity coach will be. The

And playing is most important to Ryan. His right hand, which he broke during the season, still hasn't healed; he can't fully form a fist. And at 5-6, he still is on the smaller side of boys in his class, though his lanky arms and legs suggest he's due for a growth spurt soon.

While it seems as if every school he's interested in would like him to play for its team, no one has been gushing over him. Are coaches not allowed to fawn over eighth-graders because of recruiting rules, or are they ambivalent about him? He's still not sure.

As the deadline to submit his Catholic high school application nears, Ryan grows more confused about where to go. Some days he sulks. Some days he feels as if he's made up his mind. Some days he fights with his parents about making any decision at all.

Fortunately, finances aren't a huge concern for the

Finally, his mother, Kathy, orders him to sit down and discuss the pros and cons of each school. Everything Ryan lists is about the football team of each school -- not the school, itself. And he regrets that when he shadowed a student at St. Ignatius, it was a member of the chess team, not a football player. He never got a real taste for what sports are like at the school.

Ryan's dad, Mike, suggests meeting with Rob Previts, the St. Thomas More athletic director who also was an assistant coach for the STM football team. He's an Ignatius alum, and his sons attend school there.

So Previts gives Ryan a personal tour of St. Ignatius two days before his high school application is due. He sees the gym, the weight room, the football field and the locker room. He's awed.

This, Ryan decides, is where he wants to go.

He thinks. Maybe.

For two days he goes back and forth. St. Ed . . . Ignatius . . . St. Ed . . . Ignatius.

Finally, the night before his application is due, he sits down with his parents. He fills out the paperwork. He writes in Ignatius.

He wakes up with a queasy feeling, but he hands in the paperwork to the St. Leo the Great school secretary anyway. He thinks some more.

And he realizes he's made a mistake.

He's been impressed and swayed, again, by his most recent school visit. When he thinks about the things that are important to him -- guaranteed playing time and solid academics that can help steer him toward an engineering career -- he realizes that St. Edward is the right choice for him. That's where he wants to go.

In a panic, he calls his father. Mike Fallon knows that he won't suffer through four years of his son regretting a decision, so he rushes to St. Leo's to meet Ryan and they head to the office.

It's minutes before the deadline.

"I need to change my son's first choice," Mike tells the school secretary.

She shrugs her shoulders and shakes her head no. "I've already sealed the envelopes," she says. "He said he wanted to go to St. Ignatius. He'll do fine there."

The stress finally boils over in Mike Fallon. For months, he has watched as Ryan agonized over his decision because he was afraid to let someone down. And now, when his son finally realizes what he truly wants, he can't make it right?

"Why don't you just turn away while I unseal the envelopes?" he suggests, smiling.

The humor disarms her, and she allows Mike to go back into the sealed application and change Ryan's first choice to St. Edward.

Ryan breathes a sigh of relief.

The change has been made, and it feels good.

FEBRUARY 24, 2009

For Ian and Ryan, the decision and acceptance by February means they can spend the rest of their eighth-grade year in peace. They meet with new St. Edward coach Rick Finotti during the school's open house in March, register for classes and begin working out in the school's weight room once a week.

A court ruling that allows Cleveland employees to live outside city limits means Ian's family can move to Rocky River from the two-bedroom Old Brooklyn apartment he shared with his mom and older sister. He's just down the road from St. Edward now, and sister Margo will transfer to Rocky River High School for her senior year.

Ian's private-school tuition is more affordable without Margo's Padua tuition, though Valerie is still hoping St. Ed will supply more need-based aid money to help with the financial burden.

The Fallons, for the first time, will go without a summer vacation this year. All three boys will be in private Catholic schools in the fall -- Ryan's two younger brothers will be in kindergarten and sixth grade at St. Thomas More while he's at St. Edward -- and sacrifices need to be made.

Discussing the process in their Old Brooklyn home, the Fallons can laugh when recalling the late-night, heated discussions they had about high schools. They should have started the process earlier, they think. They should have visited every high school together. And they should have made sure there was less pressure on Ryan.

"What I think is that parents should make the decision," Kathy Fallon says, shaking her head. "They're too young at 13.

"This one," she gestures to Ryan, "had everyone influencing him."