STEAMBOAT SPRINGS, Colo. (AP) — Loveland native Ryan Wood said his tobacco habit and his cowboy boots got him a seat, years ago, at one of the roughest poker tables in the gritty, steel-corridor city of Youngstown, Ohio.
The Mafia members and inner-city toughs liked his Colorado charm, Wood said recently. So they let him play the guts poker game called 024.
Wood, then in his early 20s and building football skills that would take him to Arizona State University and a brief stint in the NFL, suddenly found himself with four wild cards — the best hand in the game, outside of four aces.
He knew that playing that hand could present significant, immediate risks to his personal health. He made a decision.
"I took that pot down," Wood said May 20 at The Steamboat Grand, speaking at Economic Summit 2010 about his path to success as a founding member of the billion-dollar Under Armour sports apparel brand and about his new career starting Sweetwood Cattle Co. in North Routt County on the old May ranch where Mad Creek runs into the Elk River.
In choosing a brand for his cattle, Wood thought back to the Youngstown days, to a time before his quick departure from the NFL, before hand-sewing Under Armour gear in Baltimore, Md., before running up $50,000 in start-up credit card debt with creator Kevin Plank and another founding member, before living in Amsterdam to open European offices and before sales reached a global level of more than $800 million a year.
He considered incorporating his name into Sweetwood's cattle brand. But instead, he thought about Youngstown. Wood said during his time there, he was deeply affected by people doing tough jobs and living tough lives embodied, in many ways, in a poker game.
"My name was given to me," Wood said. "024 was a coming-of-age moment for me as a man, staring down those players at that table. It meant a heck of a lot to me.
"Every time I saw my brand, I wanted to taste that."
So he decided on an 024 brand styled with a 2 inside an 0, with a vertical line through the 2's horizontal line to create the 4. It's a brand that county residents can see on Sweetwood's delivery truck.
Wood is hoping that residents see a lot more of that brand in the weeks and years to come.
Wood, 37, left Under Armour about three years ago, he said, to start a family and come back to Colorado.
"It was time to slow down a little bit and eat a steak," Wood quipped. "I'm sweating steaks."
Sweetwood Cattle Co. produces "Steamboat artisan beef" that's primarily grass-fed with an ethic of conservation and human treatment, no antibiotics and, Wood said, no shortcuts. Sweetwood beef currently is used at Rex's American Grill & Bar, Mazzola's Italian Restaurant, Big House Burgers, Lil' House, bistro c.v. and Yampa Valley Medical Center.
Rex Brice, owner of the first four restaurants in that list, said Wood was a regular customer and approached Brice about a year ago. For about two months now, Brice said, his restaurants have been using Sweetwood for "all of our beef products" because of its environmental standards and flavor.
"There wasn't another rancher in the community that could meet our needs," Brice said.
Wood said he has no beef with other producers and ranchers in the region — several of whom share his principles.
"I hope the word gets out about all those people," Wood said, adding that his disagreement lies with the few large beef operations that dominate the industry. "My problem is with big beef. Quite frankly, I think there's a lot of stuff that's going into these animals and getting passed onto us that's not a good thing."
Wood said that he's learning more about the ranching business every day.
On a recent morning, he and a few other cowboys worked to round up Sweetwood's cattle and herd them through a gate for branding, while the runoff-fueled Elk River flowed nearby.
Many of the cows were showing their temperamental sides and, Wood said, "not cooperating" with the effort. But he sat on his horse in the sun and grinned, undoubtedly enjoying the new life he's chosen.
"Hell yeah," he said.