Alumni Profile
By Michelle Morrissey ’97
Platform with a Purpose
Ryan Day and his wife Christina (Nina) Spirou Day
Courtesy Day family.

s head coach of Ohio State University’s renowned football program, former UNH record-setting quarterback Ryan Day ’02 knows about the importance of strength. He knows that for elite athletes like OSU players, that strength comes in the form of both physical prowess and mental preparedness to make each player game-day ready every time they take the field.

That mental well-being isn’t just part of Ryan’s winning athletic philosophy — it’s a cause close to his heart and that of his wife Christina (Nina) Spirou Day ’00. Not only have they experienced loss of a loved one related to mental health, but they’re also parents of three young children — and, since 2018, surrogate parents to the OSU football family.

Both at home and at work, breaking down stigmas around mental well-being is a passion for the Days.

“There’s always such an emphasis on your physical health, how to be fit, look good, and yet there’s so little about how to take care of your mental and emotional health at the same level of importance,” Nina says.

That’s why, through a gift to the Nationwide Children’s Hospital, the Days have created the Christina and Ryan Day Fund for Pediatric and Adolescent Mental Wellness, which will focus on mental health research, advocacy and fundraising. They’ve also become advocates and spokespeople for Nationwide’s “On Our Sleeves” campaign, which promotes awareness through school and parent resources focused on helping children and teenagers who may be struggling with mental health issues.

Ryan has called the advocacy work something positive that has come from something negative: He lost his own father to suicide when he was just 9 years old, something he started talking about publicly when he announced the new venture with Nationwide at a press conference in June 2019.

“When you’re young … you go through a range of emotions: from angry to sad to resentment. Then as you get older, you start to realize … it was a sickness, and there’s people out there that need help,” he told reporters, speaking passionately about breaking the stigma around mental illness and the importance of reaching out for help.

“It’s something that hits home with me … this is an epidemic right now in our country. We see mental health as a major issue, we see it here at the college level, we see it with our team, and throughout the state, and we hope we can have a major impact.”

Ryan Day ’02 and Nina Day '00 with their kids
The Day family celebrating Ohio’s win over Clemson last season. Ryan says wife Nina provides the strong foundation of their family. “She’s created a sanctuary in our house, when you come in, there’s a feeling that it’s safe, you can be real, you can cry, you can laugh, and in the end there’s love. Because I work so much for my job, it’s Nina’s stability that keeps it all together.”

Now, says Ryan, it gets a little bit easier to talk about his father’s death each time he does it. “I think about it now as a father struggling, and he wasn’t able to get the help he needed,” he says.

The couple were also motivated by a visit Ryan made that year to a local high school; the day of his visit, the school had unexpectedly canceled classes. When Ryan asked why, the coach said a student had committed suicide — the latest in a string of several students to do so.

It struck both Nina and Ryan that they could take action to help save lives in the future. Their gift kicked off a fundraising campaign for a first-of-its-kind hospital focused strictly on mental health in children and young people.

Ryan and Nina, who have known each other since elementary school in Manchester, N.H., both have fond memories of their undergrad careers at UNH. For Nina, it was a bit non-traditional — she transferred from St. Michael’s, and soon left to study abroad in London. But her UNH years were treasures, she says, because those other experiences made her realize what a close community UNH was.

For Ryan, UNH was where he developed his love of football that set him on the career path to coaching success — especially thanks to the influence of “Coach Mac” (head coach Sean McDonnell ’78), former assistant coach Chip Kelly ’96 and faculty member Tim Churchard ’65.

When it comes to his coaching career, he still calls on the foundational concepts that all three ingrained in him as a student-athlete. In fact, it was Kelly, who has gone on to coach two Pac-12 college teams as well as the NFL’s Eagles and 49ers, who first suggested to Ryan that he think about coaching as a career.

“You can’t take a class on how to be a good coach, but I got that class at UNH,” says Ryan.

Coaching Ohio State football is a high-pressure endeavor and leading a team through celebratory wins or heartbreaking losses is a high-stress job — and lifestyle. Add to that the pandemic wreaking havoc on college athletics over the past year, and mental health came to the forefront in Ryan’s work even more prominently as the season was canceled, then revived, and as players isolated to avoid getting sick.

“I focused on not just telling the guys, ‘Don’t worry, everything’s going to be fine.’ The truth was we didn’t know. I think they appreciated the realness of that. We don’t know what’s coming next, so let’s just focus on maximizing today and in the end, whatever happens at the end of the day will make you stronger,” he says.

Day’s approach clearly worked; he was integral to the Big Ten reversing its decision to cancel the entire season, allowing players to return to the field safely during the pandemic. And in January, a mere two years after Day took over the program, his Buckeyes defeated Clemson 49-28 in the 2021 Sugar Bowl to advance to the national championship game for the first time since 2014.

As the Days continue to settle into the role of ‘first family’ of OSU football, Nina (who is open about the anxiety she suffered growing up), says the couple is raising their family — a third-grader, fifth-grader and seventh-grader — to embrace communication about feelings. “We’ve been very much more in tune with them during this pandemic, and we’ve always been very open with them about talking about how they are feeling; that it’s OK not to be OK,” she says, adding that her public platform is allowing her to share their story. “The more I can talk about our experiences and share what I feel, maybe it will help others in how they’re feeling.”