MANHATTAN — There was a time when Ryan Mueller wanted, more than anything, to play football for the Kansas Jayhawks.
Now he wants to beat them.
He’s embraced it head-on. Mueller, who has become a star defensive end for Kansas State as a junior, grew up in Leawood and attended St. Thomas Aquinas High. He lived close enough to Lawrence and his father, Steve, spent two seasons playing football at Kansas as a walk-on. So, naturally, Mueller was a passionate KU fan.
But when the Jayhawks bypassed him on the recruiting trail, his allegiances quickly and permanently changed.
“I was never recruited by KU,” Mueller said. “Not even looked at. If they would have offered me a scholarship, I probably would have taken it. But I grew into the K-State Wildcat family and got recruited here. This game means a lot to me. I want to do whatever it takes to win.”
Mueller shared those feelings with his teammates on Monday when the Wildcats met for their first practice of the week.
As a native Kansan with ties to both schools, he wanted to remind the locker room of just how significant a victory in the Sunflower Showdown can be.
“He said, ‘We’ve got one more game and we’ve got to win that game,’” K-State receiver Curry Sexton said. “He said, ‘I refuse to lose this game,’ and he told us, ‘We all need to share that same mentality.’ I’m pretty sure everyone does.”
How could they not? If there’s one thing Mueller has shown during his breakout season — with 55 tackles and 10.5 sacks he is sure to receive all-conference honors — it is that when he vows to do something on the football field, he follows through.
Mueller came to K-State as a walk-on that paid for his tuition by doing landscape work. Now he is a scholarship player with a shot at the NFL. And who can forget the way Mueller made three sacks and forced a fumble against Texas Tech and then dedicated his big day to a Texas Tech student who had crossed him?
He is as serious as they come.
“There were a lot of players who made it known how important this game is,” senior linebacker Blake Slaughter said. “We started the season 2-4, we have the opportunity to finish 5-1. That’s a pretty big turnaround and definitely something to be proud of. We want to finish it that way. We didn’t go out the way we wanted to on senior night. We want to make this our senior night. It’s important, and Ryan has made that clear. I hope I made that clear, too, when I talked later that night.”
K-State has won the Sunflower Showdown four straight times by a combined score of 191-54. And the Wildcats are once again heavy favorites heading into Saturday’s 11 a.m. game in Lawrence.
Still, Mueller doesn’t want his teammates to take the rivalry for granted. He wants to beat the team he grew up supporting too much to let that happen.
“This is a must-win game,” Mueller said. “We have got to get ready for KU this week. It is a huge rivalry and a huge game. It’s something we are looking forward to, especially myself as a Kansas kid. But it’s an important game for all of us.”