Ryan Mueller insists the following story is true.
His mother, teammates and coaches also vouch for its authenticity.
They each go out of their way to do so, because they know Mueller’s journey from unknown high school football player to college star is rare. Even at Kansas State, where Bill Snyder is famous for coaching walk-ons into pros, Mueller’s story is extreme.
It begins on a hot day at Blue Valley High School near Mueller’s home in Leawood. Mueller was hoping to volunteer at a K-State football camp taking place there. He thought it was for children. It turned out to be a showcase for top area talent.
Mueller wasn’t invited, but the K-State coaches on hand allowed the confused 6-foot-2, 245-pound senior from St. Thomas Aquinas to work out with the recruits they were there to see. They made him run longer and harder than anyone else, expecting him to quit. When he was still standing four hours later, they told Mueller to enroll at K-State and join the football team as a walk-on.
“Ryan just displayed a relentless, unending motor the entire day,” said then-assistant Joe Bob Clements, who’s now at Oklahoma State. “It was a hot camp, maybe 110 degrees on the field. He just wouldn’t stop. I knew right then he was a guy I wanted.”
Mueller was out of breath and stunned. After countless failed attempts with programs such as Northern Iowa, Kansas and Missouri State, Mueller had finally convinced a major-college coach to take a chance on him. All it took was a perfect mixture of luck and determination.
“I was totally unfamiliar with Kansas State and what was going on there,” Mueller said. “But I knew they played in the Big 12 and I wanted to play at the highest level possible. I said, ‘Sure, I will go play for the guys in purple.’ Things have worked out ever since.”
Indeed, Mueller has rocketed his way up K-State’s depth chart from a scout-team tackler to a special-teams contributor to a backup pass rusher to an all-conference defensive end.
He earned a scholarship before his sophomore season and he tied the program’s single-season sack record with 11 1/2 as a junior. He enters his fifth and final year at K-State as one of the best pass-rushers in the Big 12, if not the nation.
The progression is striking. To say Mueller came out of nowhere is not much of an exaggeration. At his first K-State practice, coaches struggled with his name.
Now strangers ask for autographs and pictures.
Not bad for a guy that didn’t receive a single scholarship offer above the NAIA level and had to crash a tryout to land at K-State.
Paying his way
Valerie Mueller pulled a crisp $100 bill from her purse and placed it in her son’s hand.
It was a bribe.
He wanted to play football at K-State as a walk-on. She wanted him to do the same at Villanova or accept a scholarship from Benedictine College in Atchison and play for the NAIA school.
Mother and son argued for weeks. She offered to pay for him to attend Villanova, where he could continue his Catholic education and study at the same school as his sister. He said no. She hyped the values of a small college such as Benedictine within driving distance. Again, he said no.
One by one, she voiced her hesitations about K-State. Mueller’s father, Steve, was a former walk-on quarterback at Kansas and Mueller grew up a KU fan. She was born in Rhode Island. None of them knew much about Manhattan. And Mueller’s high school coaches warned he might not see the field. Still, that’s where he saw the brightest future.
Mueller’s parents blessed the decision after meeting Snyder, but they offered no financial support. When that didn’t scare Mueller, his mother gave him $100 to simply visit Benedictine before making a final decision.
“It seemed like a good investment,” Valerie Mueller said. “But when he got home from the visit he said, ‘I am going to Kansas State even if I have to pay for it myself.’ I said, ‘That’s good, because you will.’”
Mueller’s family quickly fell in love with K-State, attending every game home and away, but at that moment a journey already blocked with obstacles gained one more.
On top of trying to prove himself to an army of doubters, he would have to do it while working side jobs to fund his college education.
Working too hard
Everyone who knows Mueller talks about his motor. It is a clichéd way to say he is full of energy, and that he will come at you with maximum effort on every play. He would rather line up at fullback than rest while the offense is on the field.
That motor, more than anything else, has helped him shine in the competitive world of college football.
“He practices like you would want everybody to practice in terms of his effort, and it’s consistent,” Snyder said. “When you are on the field for 10 hours, his last effort is as good as his first. That carries over to the performance level on game day. He is going to play 60 snaps and he is going to play all of them as hard as he can possibly play.”
Added position coach Blake Seiler: “He might be the hardest-working guy I’ve ever been around.”
“He’s crazy,” said former K-State tight end Travis Tannahill. “He is crazy and he is awesome. He never, ever stops. It’s all energy all the time. I’m sure he gets tired at some point, but I have never seen it.”
Where does that energy come from?
One could argue it stems from his desire to prove people wrong. He has long seen himself as a NFL prospect, even though he never had as much as a recruiting profile on Rivals.com. He is driven to achieve his goal no matter what others say about his chances.
Or maybe his energy was born out of his passion for yardwork.
He pushed a plastic mower across the lawn as a toddler, and he ran a landscaping business in high school. His fall days were always grueling: School, football practice, work, homework. Repeat. He didn’t have enough free time for hobbies.
Football and landscaping were his two passions, and he excelled at both, starting as a defensive end and a fullback in high school and growing his landscaping business so large that he hired employees.
“The phone was ringing off the hook at our house,” Mueller’s mother said. “He was an enterprising young man with boundless energy.”
Mueller sold his landscaping contacts before leaving for K-State, and that money helped him survive away from home. But he couldn’t focus on football. To pay the bills, he continued to work. Nights were spent mowing lawns in Manhattan. Sundays were spent driving home and working in suburban Kansas City.
His schedule was more grueling than ever.
He never let that stop him on the practice field, but coaches had concerns.
“Joe Bob called me one day and said, ‘We don’t like to see our players working that hard,’” Mueller’s mother said. “I told him this was his choice. He wanted to come to K-State and this was how he was going to pay for it. If they wanted him to work less, they should have given him a scholarship.”
That is what Mueller was working toward -- his ticket to a football-centric life. He pestered his coaches about the possibility monthly. At the end of each season, he presented his case to Snyder. For two years, coach told player to do more.
Then Mueller recovered a fumble in the Cotton Bowl as a redshirt freshman, and things started to change. After an impressive spring came the phone call of his dreams. He was getting a scholarship.
Mueller was working on a neighbor’s lawn when he answered the phone.
“He told us things were about to get easier,” Mueller’s mother said. “He was ecstatic, and not just financially. He proved himself. He accomplished something no one else thought he could.”
For the first time in his life, much is expected of Mueller.
He is a captain, a proven playmaker and a national-award nominee. His transition from anonymous walk-on to recognizable star is complete.
Of course, some will argue it already was when he soared through the air and, in one fluid motion, stripped the ball away from Baylor quarterback Bryce Petty last year. The highlight was replayed across the Internet and is still mentioned today.
“That was one of the sweetest plays I have ever seen,” K-State quarterback Jake Waters said. “It was all effort. That is what Ryan is all about. At that moment, you could tell this was more than him just playing well in a couple games. He was good.”
Within the K-State program, that belief had already been brewing.
“After two or three weeks you could tell he was a talented youngster,” Snyder said. “When your offensive linemen are having trouble with, and complaining about, a scout-squad player, you start paying attention.”
Mueller grabbed attention during his first practice in pads, a setting so new that he didn’t know any of his scout squad teammates.
Midway through, someone told Mueller to take out the lead blocker on a punt return, giving defenders an easy path to the returner. Mueller executed the play to perfection, colliding with Tannahill so viciously that he knocked the team’s starting tight end unconscious.
“That was my introduction to Ryan’s world,” Tannahill said. “He smoked me. He knocked me out cold in his first college practice. Most scout-squad guys pat you on the shoulder and make you look good on special teams, but Ryan is trying to knock you out every single play. He doesn’t care what the situation is.
“He even hit Collin Klein. That was the year he was really banged up, and if there was one rule in practice it was that you definitely don’t hit Collin Klein. Well, Ryan broke that rule. I had never seen Joe Bob so mad. Ryan didn’t do it on purpose, but that’s what happens when you play full speed all the time.”
That mindset, combined with work ethic, has made Mueller a star.
Just don’t tell him he has arrived.
“I’m always going to have a chip on my shoulder, because people are still doubting me,” Mueller said. “‘Can he do what he did last year again? Should we move him to fullback? Could he do this at the next level?’
“There is always something. He’s got red hair and freckles. It’s an endless ordeal. He’s got an ugly-looking dog. There is always something wrong with you. I just throw that all out the window and try to play my game.”
Mueller is proud of his story. He shares in hopes of inspiring other overlooked high school athletes. But he doesn’t like it when people describe him as a rags-to-riches player.
He grew up in a nice Leawood neighborhood and attended private school. He spent his early years living on a golf course in Houston and others offered to pay for his college education. He has enjoyed a privileged life since birth, entering the world while Nolan Ryan pitched his seventh no-hitter.
Naturally, his parents named him Ryan. He was bound to be a star athlete.
His journey only sounds scripted because of the path he chose.
“I don’t want to boast about me personally, but Kansas State has given me an opportunity to excel that not a lot of other programs would,” Mueller said. “They have given me a fair opportunity to show what I am capable of. I have taken full advantage of it, but that opportunity is open to anyone who is willing to put in the work.”