Editor’s note: This column originally appeared on Sept. 1, 2013.
Ryan Schraeder counts down the days - each one leads him closer to being an offensive lineman for the Atlanta Falcons - he can’t help but think about what an unlikely, crazy journey his has been.
Schraeder was a standout in youth sports in and around Wichita, one of the best players on his football, basketball and baseball teams, he said. But the spotlight of that early glory left him burned out. And by the time Schraeder was in high school at Maize, he avoided sports.
“I wasn’t interested anymore, “ Schraeder said. “In any sport.”
Dejected by family issues and the death of his grandparents, Bob and Doris Lewis, Schraeder was content to just go to school. He rarely even attended a game to watch his friends.
But something strange was happening to Schraeder’s body. He was 5-foot-7 when he started his senior year and 6-4 when he accepted his diploma nine months later. Schraeder’s mind might not have been open to playing sports, but his body was literally bursting at the seams.
“My dad had a similar kind of growth spurt when he was a kid, ‘’ Schraeder said. “Growing nine inches in a year hurt. Physically hurt. I remember waking up at night with my knees hurting, my chest burning. Some nights I would think there was really something wrong with me.’’
Nothing was wrong, though. Schraeder’s body was sending him a clear signal that sports could still be an option. He started playing pickup basketball anywhere he could find a game and was better than he ever dreamed of being.
“I’d go play at Genesis with ex-college players and hold my own, ‘’ Schraeder said.
Living at home and working full time, Schraeder had no plans of going off to college until his buddy, Aaron Roberts, mentioned going to Kansas State.
Why not, Schraeder thought. They got an apartment together two years after leaving high school and Schraeder continued playing pickup basketball games whenever he could.
Who knew that a pickup game on a stormy night at a K-State rec center would be so momentous?
It just so happened that the K-State football was conducting a kids camp at the time and a thunderstorm had forced the camp indoors. A couple of assistant coaches, one of them co-offensive coordinator Dana Dimel, noticed that Schraeder was dominating his pick-up game and were impressed.
“I was jumping out of the gym, ‘’ Schraeder said. “And Coach Dimel pulled me aside and asked if I had ever thought about playing football.’’
No wonder. Schraeder was 6-6, 260 pounds at the time. Football seemed like kind of an obvious talking point, especially for a kid who had more going for him than just size.
Schraeder told his dad, Kip, of the exchange and the wheels back to football started turning. The initial plan was for Schraeder to play at K-State, but he was an academic non-qualifier. Schraeder wound up at Butler Community College, where he helped the Grizzlies win a national championship in 2010 and was an All-America defensive lineman. He then went to Valdosta State and last season played on a Division II championship team.
The Falcons picked him up as an undrafted free agent and he’s listed No. 2 on the depth chart at left tackle behind Sam Baker. As the final cuts are being made in advance of the NFL’s opening week, it looks like Schraeder is going to hang on.
“I think I’ve proven that I can play at this level, ‘’ Schraeder said. “But I’m a rookie and I still have a lot of work to do. I have to work on my consistency. I’ve been up against some good pass rushers and I’ve held my own. I think I’ve shown that I have a lot of upside. I just have to keep on working.’’
Schraeder’s athleticism is a big plus. He’s grown to nearly 310 pounds but has maintained much of the agility and quickness he showed on the basketball courts back in the pickup days.
“It’s incredible because without those coaches walking through that gym, none of this would have happened, ‘’ Schraeder said. “And then my buddy even gets me to go up to Kansas State in the first place. Sometimes I just sit and think about how amazed I am about how things have happened. But right now I’m just focused on trying to become a part of an NFL team.’’
An NFL team. For a guy who didn’t even play football in high school.
“If you had asked me four years ago about this journey we’ve gone through, I would have just laughed, ‘’ Kip Schraeder said. “He was so good at football as a seventh grader. I think he averaged 150 yards rushing per game as a running back. He was about 80 percent of our offense. We had a bad line that year and he got beat up pretty good. But he just kept pushing himself.’’
Until, finally, Schraeder stopped.
“The passion just wasn’t there, ‘’ Kip Schraeder said. “He was just dormant for all of those years. And it took something unusual to rekindle that passion.’’
Turns out, it was encouragement from Dimel.
Schraeder didn’t even arrive at Butler until he was 20. He’s 25 now, old for an NFL rookie. But he’s still in there and after being a long shot initially to survive more than a few weeks in camp.
“He’s been constantly proving people wrong, one after another, ‘’ Kip Schraeder said.
There are times when Ryan is in the same huddle with quarterback Matt Ryan, tight end Tony Gonzalez, wide receivers Roddy White and Julio Jones, and running back Steven Jackson.
Part of him can’t believe this is happening. But the biggest part of him can. As unlikely as Schraeder’s journey has been, it feels like he’s where he belongs.