MANHATTAN — Every walk-on dreams of becoming a scholarship player. So much that the lucky few who successfully make the transition remember the moment they achieved their goal as a life-altering occasion.
Still, it is hard to imagine anyone remembering the exact instant he gained scholarship status with more clarity than Kansas State defensive end Ryan Mueller. It happened in the summer of 2012. He was in his hometown of Leawood. And he was helping a neighbor landscape her yard.
But before he gets into the intricate details, Mueller offers some back story. When he accepted a preferred walk-on spot on K-State’s football roster out of St. Thomas Aquinas, he did so realizing he would have to work to pay for college. That wasn’t a huge issue, because he was the owner of a neighborhood landscaping business that he started when he was 12. He had 30 clients and serviced their yards throughout high school.
He sold his clients to an outside company before leaving for college, but kept his equipment and made the occasional weekend trip home to make ends meet. It was on one of those trips that his former position coach, Joe Bob Clements, called to inform him he would be a scholarship player for his final three seasons with the Wildcats.
“I was doing landscape work when I got the call,” Mueller said. “I got up, looked at my neighbor, Miss Smith, and said, ‘I’m sorry, but I’m done here. I’m done pulling weeds. I’ve got to go play football.’”
With his education now paid for, Mueller’s days of mowing lawns and spreading mulch are in the past. So are his jam-packed days of classes, football practice, homework and landscaping. Though he values those grueling days as the time when he developed his work ethic, he can now devote his life to his true passion: Football.
It’s what he has always wanted, even more than a scholarship.
“My dream is to play in the NFL,” Mueller said. “The NFL is Plan A, and I’ve always been told if you want to focus on your dreams you have to put all of your effort into it. The NFL is such an elite group, you can’t get there putting 80 percent into Plan A and 20 percent into Plan B. You are just setting yourself up for failure.”
Perhaps his added focus explains why he has developed into an impact player as a junior. Mueller is emerging as one of K-State’s best defenders with a team-high five sacks and three quarterback hurries. He also has 29 tackles. Oh, and he made the defensive play of the year against Baylor when, in one fluid motion, he leapt into the air and stripped the ball away from Bears quarterback Bryce Petty as he was attempting to throw on the run.
After the play, he fell on the ball, burst to his feet and stomped upfield in front of an enthusiastic home crowd. The highlight has since gone viral among K-State fans.
“He should have made the top 10 on ‘SportsCenter,’” freshman fullback Glenn Gronkowski said. “I was surprised he didn’t with a play like that.”
Added K-State coach Bill Snyder: “I made note of it. I thought it was a great play. I don’t think I’ve ever said that before, just because of the effort it took for him to get from where he was to make the play and he did it in such a way that a lot of players might not do that. They might not get there.
“If you know Ryan, he is not the fastest guy in the world. To run the (quarterback) down is not the easiest thing to do. For him to get there and have the presence of mind to put his hand where he put his hand and strip the ball was a very, very fine play.”
Mueller entered the season with modest expectations, but his mixture of highlight plays and tenacious attitude have turned him into a leader on defense. He gave a speech after the loss to Baylor, urging everyone in the locker room to keep their heads up and to play for each other during the second half of the season despite a 2-4 start.
Several of his teammates referenced that speech when they met with media earlier this week.
Receiver Curry Sexton, one of Mueller’s closest friends, wasn’t surprised to see that from the former walk-on.
“I can’t say enough about him,” Sexton said. “He works harder than anyone. The kid puts in more hours than anyone. He will tell you he might make the occasional mistake, but to see the effort he puts in … There is never a dull moment with him. He is constantly going at it as hard as he can.”
Snyder also praised him.
“Nobody plays or practices harder than Ryan Mueller,” Snyder said. “Nobody.”
It seems logical, then, that Mueller’s effort is translating into big plays.
First it helped him run a business and pay for college. Now it is helping him chase his dream.