CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Ryan Gibson of York, South Carolina, is a Navy veteran, Clover Schools traffic controller, Hammerhead Sports Marketer and devout Bayern Munich fan. He may even be the number 1 fan in the USA let alone in Charlotte. He runs the Queen City Bavarians, Charlotte’s Bayern Munich supporters group and is often seen wearing a Bayern Munich jersey or other team apparel in his down time, but now no one can mistake where his allegiance lies.
In early March this year, Ryan was diagnosed with ocular-melanoma; a type of cancer that develops in the cells that produce pigment – the color of your eye. Many tests were carried out to decide the treatment and a week later it was elected for enucleation – removal of the eye. On March 25th, Ryan’s right eye was removed, the procedure carried out at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center in Winston Salem.
Losing an eye would be traumatic for anyone and would probably take time to come to terms with, but Ryan didn’t let it keep him down. The very next day after the operation, wearing a Bayern Munich eyepatch, he attended Charlotte Independence‘s season opener against Louisville City FC at Ramblewood Soccer Complex – somewhere you can pretty much guarantee seeing Ryan when the Independence play at home.
When Ryan received his diagnosis and with the subsequent scans, evaluations and treatment, he says it all coincided with the ups and downs of the team – a kind of parallel with his journey battling cancer. “I was in my pre-op appointment, which I had planned around the Juventus second leg game.” Ryan recalls. “The appointment ran over, so I was listening to it during the appointment, which got me in trouble since I may have said a few foul words!” Bayern Munich were taking on Juventus in the Champions League round of 16. Bayern had tied the first leg 2-2 but Juventus had taken a 2-0 lead in the first half of this second leg game. Ryan continues, “Then on the drive home while I was listening to the comeback, I realized I need to be like the [Bayern Munich] boys and never give up. I gave myself a Bayern pep talk and that was the turning point. I take this like Bayern Munich does; No matter what this throws at me I’m not backing down. I’m gonna give my all and I’ll win in the end.” Bayern Munich did indeed turn that game around and won 4-2.
As mentioned earlier, Ryan wore a Bayern Munich eyepatch. That wasn’t enough though. Ryan was already getting a prosthetic eye anyway but didn’t want just a regular looking eye. “The process was pretty simple for getting Bayern Munich to grant trademark approval.” Ryan explains getting a prosthetic eye featuring the club crest. “I researched their trademark and they own the medical equipment trademark internationally so I asked the US Bayern Munich office.” Safe to say this was the first time they’d received a request like this. After hearing Ryan’s backstory, Bayern Munich US proceeded, “The request was approved the same day there was a Bayern Munich event in Charlotte with Mayor Roberts and Bayern and German football legend Paul Breitner.” A Bayern Munich contingent visited Charlotte to celebrate and promote the announcement that the team will visit Charlotte as part of the International Champions Cup. This was already shaping up to be a dream come true for Ryan. “I wanted the eye done before this event but that wasn’t possible, so I wore my Bayern Munich eye patch which was a hit with everyone! That’s the first time I had met anyone from the Bayern team in person and they explained to me they wanted to do a few things around my prosthetic being made.” So the US office of Bayern Munich arranged an exclusive with GOAL – a worldwide soccer website, to talk with Ryan.
“Once the eye was completed the global content manager from GOAL conducted an interview and we agreed to unveil it the following week on their website. The eye took an entire day to produce at Carolina Eye Prosthetics in Burlington and it turned out amazing!” Ryan simply loves his new eye and he’s not shy about it. As far as he know’s, this is the only officially licensed prosthetic eye for a soccer club that exists but acknowledges there is a man in the UK with a Newcastle United glass eye but the licensing for that is debatable (and frankly doesn’t look as professionally made as Ryan’s eye).
Little did Ryan know, his new Bayern Munich branded eye was about to go viral, “After the GOAL article came out, there was an incredible response. I was called a “Bayern Munich Legend” by a lot of fans. One site in Germany called me “The World’s Craziest Bayern Fan.” I still keep hearing that Bayern Munich should fly me to a game in Germany [laughs]. If only that would happen!”
After the GOAL article was published it didn’t take long for that post to be shared all over the internet and in turn other outlets reported on Ryan’s Bayern Munich branded prosthetic eye, some as far away as the United Arab Emirates and The Philippines, even a meme from Bulgaria.
These are just some of those websites and social media posts: Goal Germany, Goal USA, JOE.co.uk, The Sun (UK), Fox Sports, Fox Soccer Live, AtTheBuzzer (FOX), Fox Sports Italy, The Record (Mexico), Yahoo Sports, 90min.de (Germany), FC Bayern Munich US, FC Bayern Munich Charlotte, The Bavarians (Bayern Munich supporters group).
— Goal (@goal) May 24, 2016
— AtTheBuzzer (@TheBuzzerOnFOX) May 24, 2016
Since then Ryan has obviously been building with excitement for the Inter Milan v Bayern Munich game, Saturday at Bank of America Stadium; his first time to ever see the team play in the flesh, but he’s also had to have more scans to make sure the cancer hasn’t spread, his eye removal wasn’t a 100% guarantee of being cured (though it was the best option) but thankfully his scans have been all clear.
One downside lingers for Ryan though, he now has thousands of dollars in medical bills. Thankfully the community has got together and held fundraisers for him with FIFA 16 tournaments at Courtyard Hooligans and Premier Soccer. It’s not just about him though. Ryan says he wants to make more people aware of ocular-melanoma and help associated charities and this is why he welcomes the attention his prosthetic eye has received. On Wednesday, August 31st, it will be Eye Patch Day at the Queen City Cup game between Charlotte Independence and Cincinnati FC where a collection will be made for charity and everyone in attendance will get an eye patch to wear! (Tickets to that game available here)
After all this, you may still be wondering why Ryan follows a German football club. You might say the answer is in his blood. His dad was born in Germany after his grandfather served in World War 2. There wasn’t a hospital at his base so Ryan’s father was born in a German hospital, therefore giving him a German birth certificate. Despite the connection, Ryan has never traveled to Germany (“I have to before I die” he says) let alone seen his beloved Bayern Munich in person, something that is going to finally change Saturday.
Tickets to the Inter Milan v Bayern Munich, International Champions Cup game at Bank of America Stadium, Saturday at 5pm are still available on Ticketmaster.
UPDATE: Friday, on the eve of the biggest soccer game of his life, the International Champions Cup sponsor Heineken, presented Ryan with a signed Bayern Munich jersey AND the opportunity to come out on the field and perform the ceremonial coin-toss before the game begins! Watch the video here for his reaction outside Bank of America Stadium.