Last year, KU's Ryan Schadler was unsure if he'd ever play football again
He’d just gone through four hours of surgery, leaving five marks that looked like bullet holes around his navel. He’d lost 20 pounds, his lungs were collapsed, and inflammation was shooting pain to both his bladder and prostate.
For hours, a Wichita surgeon could not find his appendix. After lifting some organs out of the way, suddenly there it was, enlarged and full of waste in a place much too close to his heart. It was taken out immediately.
This was almost one year ago today. Ryan Schadler was so frail he had to stay a week in a hospital bed. His football coach was concerned enough that he boarded a plane to Newton during one of his busiest weeks to offer his support.
Schadler, for a brief moment, admits that he considered giving up the sport.
He smiles about that now.
“I was like, ‘Nope, I can’t do it,’” Schadler says. “I didn’t want to live life in regret.”
So 12 months after surgery to rearrange his insides, Schadler is still playing college football. In the last year, he got married and also became even more determined to show he can play a sport that so many times has tried to cast him aside.
It has all resulted in this. Schadler will start at receiver Saturday in KU’s season-opening game against Southeast Missouri State, and his mother, Donna, can already predict what will happen in her section: “I’m sure I will be crying.”
During homecoming weekend and in the middle of a move across town, former Hesston High School football coach Clint Rider received a text message: “Hey, I need to talk to you.”
Rider figured it was serious a few minutes later when his former player Ryan Schadler showed up at his door, making his way around stray boxes to begin the conversation.
Schadler was having second thoughts. Though he’d only spent a few months at Wichita State — he’d accepted a scholarship to run track — his desire to play football had returned. Never was it worse than Friday nights, when Schadler couldn’t help but look through his Shocker Hall windows, watching for hours as Kapaun Mt. Carmel High played football at Cessna Stadium in the distance.
His thinking became clear. In 30 years, he could live with not knowing how his track career might have turned out. But he couldn’t stand the thought that he might have given up football too soon.
Rider didn’t need convincing that Schadler could play. He led the state in rushing and touchdowns, and also had run for 525 yards — the second-highest total in state history — during a game against El Dorado. One time, when Rider was entering stats to MaxPreps, he took note that Schadler was fourth in the nation in yards per carry.
“Obviously if you handed him the ball,” Rider says, “good things were going to happen.”
Still, Division I college teams didn’t show interest. Schadler was written off as another Kansas kid taking advantage of poor competition in a bad league.
Schadler could only hope his second attempt trying to impress coaches would go better. Rider helped, getting to school early to send out Schadler’s year-old film to different football programs each day.
Emails went out all over the Midwest, from to Tulsa and Oklahoma State and most Division II schools in between. Less than a handful of responses came back, with KU showing some interest before Rider lost contact with coaches.
Schadler finally made up his mind. Though his dream was Division I, he’d be plenty happy at D-II Pittsburg State playing football and running track, making a plan to tell the coaches the next morning.
At 8 a.m., Rider received a call from KU’s football office. It was just days after David Beaty had been hired as head coach, and the Jayhawks were ready to offer Schadler a walk-on spot.
“I knew right away,” Schadler says, “that was where I wanted to be.”
Just nine months later, Schadler had already forced his way onto the field. In his first game — the season opener against South Dakota State — he returned a kickoff 91 yards for a touchdown, pointing to the stands after he crossed the goal line.
Donna couldn’t hold back her emotions while watching.
Her son was living his dream.
In one of his most unsure moments, Ryan Schadler turned to his fiancee last summer in his Lawrence apartment.
“Madison, I want you to pray,” he said, “because I don’t know what to do.”
Though Schadler’s lifelong mystery had been solved, it came with a dilemma. He’d been diagnosed with intestinal malrotation — a rare condition in adults where the small intestine and large intestine begin to wrap around each other.
And suddenly, so much of what he’d experienced in earlier childhood made sense.
There was that time at age 7 when he doubled over at Applebee’s because of stomach pain, his screams so intense that it startled those at tables around him. By the time the Schadlers drove across town to the emergency room, Ryan’s symptoms were gone. There was no reason to go inside.
Schadler’s issues also flared up just before his transfer to KU, as he frequently experienced bodyaches, bloating and increased thirst. After a few weeks, he was referred to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., making two separate trips in December 2014.
The hospital’s final diagnosis: Chronic fatigue syndrome, and perhaps some depression and anxiety.
In other words …
“They didn’t find anything,” Schadler said. “So I said, ‘You know what, screw it. I'm just going to keep pressing forward and try to get better.’”
Schadler played through any discomfort, rarely bringing it up with KU’s training staff.
That was until one particularly bad day in 2016. After Schadler told trainer Murphy Grant something didn’t feel right in his stomach, team physician Larry Magee suggested a trip to the ER after pressing on his chest.
The scan was conclusive. Schadler’s organs were in the incorrect spots — something that hadn’t been detected on earlier tests because of their constant shifting inside his body.
It was a rare diagnosis. Most cases of intestinal malrotation are found in newborns and immediately treated with surgery.
Medical opinions varied on the proper treatment for an adult. Some doctors told Schadler he’d be fine playing football. Other doctors said surgery was the best option, even if that meant he’d have to sit out his sophomore season.
As Ryan and Madison prayed for guidance, they kept coming back to the advice of Paul Harrison, a surgeon who spoke bluntly about the potential severity of Schadler’s condition.
“For us, that was a big sign of, ‘Let’s get this done,’” Madison Schadler says. “This is not normal, and this has been causing so much pain. You can’t go on like this.”
The surgery, scheduled for Aug. 20, 2016, was unusual enough that doctors from around the state came to watch. After Harrison completed the procedure — using claw-like devices inserted into the small holes in Schadler’s belly — he told Ryan and Madison they’d made a good decision.
Schadler’s appendix was in the upper-left part of his chest cavity near his heart, and it also was full of waste. Had any physical contact ruptured that sac, toxins would have filled his body, potentially killing him.
“If I would have tried to play last season,” Schadler says, “who knows what would’ve happened.”
The recovery was lengthy. Schadler missed the first week of school while dropping to 170 pounds, though he was able to hobble out to midfield to serve as KU’s honorary captain for the Jayhawks’ Sept. 3 game against Rhode Island.
Ryan’s father, Melvin, shot video on his iPhone, while Donna took photos with watery eyes.
Schadler has already earned the nickname “Little Edelman” from KU coaches, drawing a comparison to famous New England Patriots receiver Julian Edelman because of his relentless effort and attention to detail.
This is the way Schadler would rather earn headlines. A comeback story is great, but one that includes future success would be better.
“I’m feeling great and stronger and faster than I’ve felt in a long time,” Schadler says. “I’m excited to show what we can do.”
The first opportunity is Saturday. Schadler, who has been fully cleared by doctors following his surgery, does not wear any additional padding under his shoulder pads. Madison — the two were married May 20 — also says she has no concerns about him playing.
“We’ve been on this journey, and God has gotten us this far, and I believe He’s the reason for how things have turned out to this point,” Madison says. “I’m with Ryan 100 percent. We’re very excited to see where this leads him and where this takes him.”
This much is certain: Schadler’s intuition has served him well so far.
Twelve months after major surgery, his body has recovered better than anyone could have expected. Three years after quitting the track team, he validated the belief that football could be a part of his future.
And four years after receiving no Division I scholarship offers, Schadler’s persistence has made him into a Big 12 starter.
“He’s definitely where he needs to be,” Donna says. “And we keep just thanking the path that has led him to KU.”