It was the spring of 2009 when Ryan Doherty and good friend Steve Johnson decided to head a half hour south to the casinos of Atlantic City, N.J., for a guys' night out.
In the midst of the drive, Doherty dropped a bombshell.
"We're driving down the parkway, and Ryan says, 'Hopefully I can win a couple of bucks. I'm moving out to California tomorrow,'" Johnson said. "I was like, 'What?! Are you crazy?!'"
At 25 years old, Doherty had spontaneously decided he was going to pack everything he owned into his car and drive to Huntington Beach, Calif., to pursue a professional beach volleyball career. He had $5,000 left to his name, no job lined up in California, nowhere to stay, and a failed professional baseball career in his rearview mirror.
After being released by the Arizona Diamondbacks organization, the 7-foot-1 former Notre Dame closer had dabbled in beach volleyball while living in South Carolina with Johnson. What started as a way to blow off steam had become an obsession that prompted him to abruptly move to Huntington, a beach volleyball mecca.
"I was terrified," said Nancy O'Brien, Doherty's mother. "But that's the kind of guy Ryan is. When he has a passion for something, he throws himself in all the way. I thought that he'll get this out of his system, and then he'll use his degree to get a job."
"My story could've ended much differently with me being broke and heading back to New Jersey, but if that happened, at least I would've known I went for it," Doherty said. "I believe if you pursue your passion as if it's your last breath of air, you won't look back and regret it."
Just over four years after he made the decision to leave New Jersey, Doherty returned to Huntington Beach in mid-October for its annual Association of Volleyball Professionals' event. He returned not as a broke 20-something with a dream, but as a rising star and Olympic hopeful with a beach volleyball legend as a playing partner. Not only that, but Olympic gold medalist Todd Rogers was the one who reached out to Doherty last year after Rogers split with long-time playing partner and fellow gold medalist Phil Dalhausser, the 6-foot-9 force known as "The Thin Beast."
"Phil and I had gone our separate ways after the 2012 season, and I needed a new big guy," Rogers said. "Ryan was the biggest on the block. I also wanted to work with a guy that needed to be taught, as I enjoy the coaching aspect of the game. I had taught Phil everything I knew, and I missed coaching. Ryan was a perfect fit for me."
"When we first started playing down in South Carolina, I would dive for a ball and be like, ‘Rogers!'" Johnson said. "Ryan would hit one and be like, 'Dalhausser!' We were acting as those two playing against two 14-year-old girls on the beach and getting our butts kicked. Four years ago we were pretending to be these people, and now he's playing with one of them. It's absolutely surreal."
Doherty grew up in baseball-mad Toms River, N.J., home of the two-time Little League World Series champions and a trio of strong high school programs. After starring as a hard-throwing right-handed starter at Toms River High School East, Doherty became an All-Big East closer at Notre Dame in 2004.
By 2006, life couldn't have been better. He was back pitching in his old college town of South Bend, Ind., trading the uniform of the Fighting Irish for that of the South Bend Silver Hawks, the low Class A affiliate of the Diamondbacks. He had been so eager to start his professional baseball career that he took the unconventional route of signing with Arizona after his junior season despite going undrafted.
Determined to be more than a curiosity as the tallest pitcher in professional baseball, he earned a promotion to the high Class A Visalia (Calif.) Oaks by 2007. He threw all of three innings for the Oaks when he was called into the front office early in the season.
"They told me they didn't see me as a future major-leaguer,'' Doherty said. "That was probably the worst day of my life. It was as tough to deal with as anything I've tried to put up with."
His agent wasn't receiving any interest from other organizations, so Doherty signed a contract on June 27 with the River City Rascals, an independent league team in O'Fallon, Mo.
"Signing with River City allowed me to finish my last season on my terms,'' he said. "I was able to say my goodbye to baseball. After I pitched in my last game, I tipped my cap and walked away. I haven't hopped on a mound and thrown one pitch since."
"We didn't talk that much that summer,'' O'Brien recalled. "It was very quiet around the house. It was very difficult watching him go through that, knowing how much baseball meant to him."
With money from a provision in his Diamondbacks contract that allowed him to finish school, he returned to Notre Dame and completed his degree in philosophy in 2009. Following his graduation, Doherty moved to Hilton Head, S.C., where Johnson was already living after finishing his baseball career at Wofford College in Spartanburg, S.C.
"I had to take a good, hard look at my life," Doherty said. "I just needed that for my sanity and to see if I could find something that would give me the same passion as baseball."
With a sand court near their apartment, Johnson and Doherty would head down to the beach in their spare time. If they bumped the ball back and forth to each other three times without it hitting the ground or flying into the ocean, that was cause for high-fives.
"We were terrible," Johnson said. "Here we have a former D-I athlete and a former pro athlete, and we're getting embarrassed by the worst players on the beach."
However, Doherty took an immediate liking to the sport, where his height was clearly an asset.
"It's a very big bonus to be able to hit the ball over the net or block shots without jumping," he said.
The two then moved back to New Jersey, with Johnson getting a job as a teacher at a local high school and an assistant baseball coach at Toms River East, and Doherty still trying to determine a new career path. Doherty continued to immerse himself in volleyball, although the results were less than encouraging at first. He and Johnson entered the novice division of a tournament in nearby Seaside Heights, where they finished in last place.
Undaunted, Doherty made the decision to head to Huntington Beach.
"When he told me that, I was like, ‘This is Huntington Beach with real professionals, not Hilton Head,''' Johnson said. "But he really saw a vision of himself playing when other people didn't. He had the courage to do it.''
"I think they were all rightfully worried," Doherty said. "When you pack up your stuff and drive to California with no job and no place to live, it's probably not the smartest game plan to guaranteeing success, but they want me to be happy, so they supported me. I gave myself two years to see if I could play with the top players in the world."
Doherty rented an apartment in Costa Mesa, Calif., and found work delivering pizzas and also giving pitching lessons in Huntington Beach. Every morning, he would go hang out by the volleyball courts near the south side of the pier in Huntington, where professionals routinely gather for high-level games. He would practice his serve or do drills on his own on the side, immediately catching the eyes of the pros with his height. His stature also gained him the nickname "Avatar'' for his towering presence like the blue Na'vi characters from the movie.
"Guys would always need another person for a game because somebody didn't show up,'' Doherty said. "They would all beat up on the new, tall guy who doesn't know what he's doing. The 7-foot thing definitely helps because there is a shortage of blockers in the volleyball community, so being the tall guy helped me get some games early."
Doherty's height and wingspan made him an immediate threat as a blocker at the net, but the rest of his game was raw.
"If you just flip served me the ball, I couldn't pass it,'' he said. "It was an embarrassing and humbling experience when random people at Huntington were float-serving me the ball, and I couldn't handle it."
"Ryan's strength and weakness is his height," Rogers said. "It is his strength at the net. His hitting and blocking can be very formidable, as you would expect. But at the same time, his height makes it more difficult for him to get low to be able to pass the ball and defend the ball when away from the net. Fortunately, all these things can be worked on and improved over time."
However, Doherty's dedication began to win over the veterans who had seen a lot of dreamers come and go over the years. Every morning he was out there, working on serving and passing like he once worked on his fastball and curveball. He went from trying to emulate Randy Johnson to studying the 6-foot-9 Dalhausser, an athletic big man and the top blocker in the world.
"I would get down there at 7:30 in the morning to go grab a court and (Doherty) would be on his 10th rack of jump serves,'' said Huntington Beach-based professional Ryan Mariano. "He was borrowing balls from anyone he could because he was dead broke, and riding a bike around trying to deliver pizzas just so he could play volleyball. That earned a lot of respect with us."
A 7-foot-1 blocker with a relentless work ethic has the potential to be a weapon that no opponent can match, and other players took notice. In only a few months, Doherty went from the unknown tall guy to turning down a partnership with former Cal State Northridge All-American Ty Tramblie in favor of partnering up with the veteran Casey Patterson, a former star at Brigham Young University.
"With the professional baseball background I knew that his mental game would be better than most veterans on the beach tour,'' Patterson said. "I decided it was a valuable investment for me to pick him as a partner because he's 7-1 in a sport where height is huge."
Patterson, 33, is straight out of beach volleyball central casting with blue eyes, a blonde Mohawk and more than a decade of dedication to the sport. Having been a full-time professional since 2008, he knew that Doherty still needed much more work if the two were going to be able to compete with the best players in the world. When Patterson went off to play in a professional indoor league in Puerto Rico during the fall of 2011, he sent Doherty to work with good friend Adam Cutrell, the head volleyball coach at perennial power Mater Dei (Calif.) High School.
"He was athletic and his hand-eye coordination was pretty solid, but he definitely was in the picnic ball grouping as a player at that point,'' Cutrell said. "I became a true believer after the first week of working with him. His ability to take information and process it and make immediate change was like no other."
For two to three hours daily, Doherty would work on passing and footwork with Cutrell. He would shoot video of the sessions and have Cutrell explain to him what he did wrong because intricate volleyball terms were like a foreign language to him.
"I put him through hell,'' Cutrell said.
Doherty emerged in early 2012 as a player wholly different from the one he was only months earlier. Patterson and Doherty then continued their preparation by regularly playing against 2008 Olympians Sean Rosenthal and Jake Gibb during the winter. The first major test of Doherty's improvement would be the pair's initial professional tournament together – a National Volleyball League event on the infield at Pimlico in Baltimore during the weekend of The Preakness in 2012.
The tournament headliners were Dalhausser and Rogers, the gold medalists from Beijing who were playing a rare domestic event during a two-week break from the Federation Internationale de Volleyball tour. This was a rare chance for Patterson and Doherty to test themselves against the best if they were able to advance deep into the tournament.
The pair reached the final as the 10th seed and then stunned Dalhausser and Rogers to gain notoriety across the beach volleyball world.
Doherty's mother does not watch any of her son's competitions in person, dating back to Little League. She feels she makes him nervous and that whenever she leaves, he always performs better. That day she was tending bar at EJ's Tavern in Seaside Heights like she has been for nearly 30 years when she stared incredulously at a text message from her brother.
"I knew they were playing Dalhausser and Rogers in the final, but I was thinking there was no way they could've won,'' O'Brien said. "I bought a round for the bar, and everyone was cheering and screaming."
"Afterward, Casey and I compared texts," Doherty said. "His all said, 'Congrats, all the hard work paid off,' and mine were like, 'Really?! There is no way you did that!' The biggest thing for me was that I got to quit the pizza job."
Patterson and Doherty went on to finish ranked sixth on the AVP, winning multiple tournaments. One of their titles came on the beach in Belmar, N.J., only 20 minutes north of where Doherty grew up in Toms River.
"I think everyone back home was wondering, ‘Is he doing well? Does he even make money doing this?''' Johnson said. "Then they beat Dalhausser and Rogers and everyone's eyes are opening up like, 'Whoa, this is serious.' Then they come home and show everyone in person.''
In a sport where playing partners change frequently, Doherty and Patterson parted ways after the season, and Dalhausser and Rogers also split, providing the opportunity of a lifetime for Doherty when Rogers reached out to him.
"It was kind of amazing,'' Doherty said. "He's a legend in the game. It's a little nerve-wracking getting a call to play with a guy of that caliber."
Partnered with Rogers this year, Doherty traveled the world, playing in nine different countries on three different continents on the elite FIVB tour before returning and playing the AVP schedule this summer.
"Going on a bike ride through the Swiss mountains with the best U.S. male players in the world, guys I rooted for when I was living on my buddy's couch in South Carolina, put things into perspective into how far I've come and how far there is to go,'' Doherty said.
Doherty posted his wry observations of everything from foreign television to encounters with the locals in foreign countries on his blog, gaining admirers worldwide.
"There was a surreal moment in Poland,'' Doherty said. "I had quite a few Polish citizens tell me how much they read my blog and wanted to get pictures of me and Todd. It was very strange, but very cool."
As far as on the court, this was a year of adjustment to the new partnership. Doherty and Rogers are currently ranked 29th by FIVB and did not win an AVP event. In the first event of the AVP season in Salt Lake City, they faced Dalhausser and new playing partner Sean Rosenthal, losing in three games.
"I think the main word would be 'inconsistent,' based on the fact that I don't have the experience of these other players," Doherty said. "There's still some development on my side that needs to happen. The sophomore slump definitely jumped up and bit me a little bit."
"Our first season was honestly a little below what I had hoped for,'' Rogers said. "I didn't think we would come out on tour and run the table by any means, but I did think we would do a bit better than we did."
The goal is for Doherty to become a polished player capable of making a run at a spot in the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro and the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo. Rogers, 40, said it's "unlikely" that he will also try for an Olympic spot with Doherty, but believes Doherty has the potential to add another impressive chapter to his improbable story.
"I think Ryan will be one of the top big men for the USA through the 2020 Olympics," Rogers said. "He still has much to learn and work on, but if he continues working hard he will be a force to reckon with if not by 2016, then certainly by 2020 if he remains healthy."
"I want to do everything I can to put myself in a position to represent the U.S. in the Olympics,'' Doherty said.
During his improbable ride from dreamer to Olympic hopeful, Doherty has made sure to enjoy every minute of it, whether it's posting on his blog or walking into the lobby of a local bank and trying to cash an oversized, $10,000 winner's check with a straight face.
"It's just gotten me excited about life again," Doherty said. "Volleyball was a reason to get out of bed in the morning and put a big smile on my face. I can't think of a time in my life where I'm having as much fun as I'm having right now."