Kansas State University

Former K-State players thankful to get another shot at pro football in XFL reboot

Ryan Mueller thought he was done playing football.

What else was the former Kansas State defensive end supposed to think when he publicly announced his retirement from the game and began working 9-to-5 jobs at companies like John Deere and Milwaukee Tools while also running his own landscape business in the Kansas City area?

Mueller was good enough to lead the Wildcats in sacks as a college defender and then spend brief NFL stints with the Chargers and Eagles. He also played one season with the Hamilton Tiger-Cats of the Canadian Football League. But that came to an end in 2017.

His professional football career seemed over until the New York Guardians selected him in the final phase of the XFL Draft earlier last week. Exactly 520 days after Mueller retired from the sport (yes, he counted) he suddenly has another opportunity to live out his dream in a new spring league that is backed by professional wrestling kingpin Vince McMahon.

“I got the call and spoke to everybody on the staff,” Mueller said. “They told me the coaches were fighting about what position they wanted to put me at. They have interest in me playing defensive end, outside linebacker and maybe a little fullback. I could be a jack-of-all-trades player for them. Time to show I’ve still got it.”

The XFL will be filled with overlooked players fighting to make the most of their remaining years on the gridiron — like Mueller — when it reboots as an eight-team league next year one week after the Super Bowl. Three of them will have K-State ties. Winston Dimel, a former fullback, will play for the Los Angeles Wildcats. Kendall Adams, a former safety, will get a chance with the Houston Roughnecks.

Like everyone else involved with the new-look XFL, they hope to continue playing the sport they love and maybe even perform well enough to get another shot at the NFL.

K-State fullback Winston Dimel celebrates a touchdown against Baylor. (November 19, 2016) Bo Rader The Wichita Eagle

Dimel worried that door had already closed less for him, even though he was less than one year removed from his final college game.

“It’s been a crazy past five months for me,” Dimel said. “I went from hearing there was a good shot I would get drafted to not getting picked. Then I signed with Seattle and thought I had a new home there. That didn’t work out. I went to camp with the Lions and worked out for the Browns but never got a roster spot.”

“It really (stunk). I missed football and watching it every week on TV only made it worse. To finally know that I have a team now and can play football again is super exciting, especially in this new league. I think it has a really good shot at being successful.”

Adams did not respond to calls and messages for this story.

The XFL isn’t new. It launched to much fan fare in 2001 as an alternate football league to the NFL that featured bigger hates and nicknames like “He Hate Me” on the back of player jerseys. NBC even televised the games. But the league’s popularity quickly disintegrated, and the original XFL folded after just one season.

Another new football league called The Alliance of American Football also shuttered midway through its first season earlier this year.

No one knows what to expect from the new XFL. Even its draft was unusual, with teams selecting players by position groups instead of overall talent. Much of the draft was streamed online, but the final phase was done without media coverage of any kind.

Dimel and Mueller were both stressed about their futures until their phones rang with good news.

Still, it looks like the league is taking thing more seriously this time around. Oliver Luck running things as CEO, Bob Stoops is coaching the Dallas team and games will be broadcast across ESPN and FOX networks.

K-State defensive back Kendall Adams (21) celebrates after an interception touchdown against Charlotte. (September 9, 2017)

Mueller said he retired from football because it wasn’t financially viable for him to live in a foreign country on a CFL salary or worth his time to play in one of the arena leagues. But he will treat the XFL like his full-time job.

“It’s competitive enough pay and it’s a great opportunity for a guy like me,” Mueller said. “The likelihood of (making it back to the NFL) is slim for me, but my goal is to pursue the XFL full-speed ahead, earn a roster spot, blow it up and do really well. Who knows? Maybe if I do that for a year and put some good stuff on film something like that could happen.”

The teams will prepare like they are heading to the playoffs.

Dimel, who spent his final year of college playing for his father at UTEP, said he is scheduled to report to a 16-day mini camp in December followed by an even longer training camp in January and then a week of preparation for opening day.

“It’s a lot of work,” Dimel said. “A 16-day mini camp doesn’t sound like a mini camp. It sounds like a camp. But it will be great. Our team will be filled with a bunch of different dudes from a bunch of different places. It will give us time to get organized.”

He would rather be playing in the NFL right now, but this is the next best option.

Everyone that got drafted by an XFL team this week has reason to feel optimistic about the future.

“I am glad the XFL came back,” Mueller said. “There is a need for this. There are so many good, quality football players out there that deserve to be on a team. Now they are.”

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Kellis Robinett covers Kansas State athletics for The Wichita Eagle and The Kansas City Star. A winner of more than a dozen national writing awards, he lives in Manhattan with his wife and three children.