The first dream, the one cultivated in the mind of a boy from south-central Kansas, always ended the same. One day, when he was older, he would leave his hometown and play football at Kansas State. One day, he thought, he would put on a purple uniform, like his cousin once did, and he would suit up for Bill Snyder.
Before Ryan Schadler became the biggest surprise in the Kansas football program — a former college sprinter turned walk-on running back turned special-teams weapon — he harbored a simple wish: One day, he would run onto a college football field and showcase his purest athletic gift: His legs.
“Ryan was born running,” his mother, Donna, says.
The funny thing about dreams, of course, is that they can change. Some times things happen for a reason, Donna says, and in this particular instance, her son is happy they did. Last Saturday afternoon, Donna and Melvin Schadler sat inside Memorial Stadium and watched Kansas play South Dakota State in the Jayhawks’ season opener. With eight minutes left in the second quarter, they watched their son, Ryan, haul in a kickoff at his own 9. They watched him take off to his right, zoom past 11 defenders and sprint 91 yards for the Jayhawks’ first touchdown of the season — a genuine bright spot in a 41-38 loss.
From her seat in the stands, Donna says she had a feeling her son would score the moment he caught the ball. But among the 30,144 fans inside Memorial Stadium, the Schadlers were also something of a rarity. They were among the few KU fans who knew the full story of this mystery walk-on from Hesston, Kan., sprinting into the open field.
All across college football, there are stories of walk-ons who have defied odds and carved out crucial roles. On Kansas’ roster alone, there is a defensive lineman (T.J. Semke) who works as a part-time bounty hunter in the offseason and a receiver (Shakiem Barbel) who was once weeks away from quitting football before finding a place at KU. Schadler has his own story.
A year ago, he was a freshman sprinter on the Wichita State track team. Five months ago, he was an anonymous name on KU’s spring roster, impressing his new coaches with his raw speed. Now he is a redshirt freshman who returned a kickoff for a touchdown in his first game, and Kansas’ offensive coaches are wondering if they can find other ways to utilize his speed.
“He’s a tough runner and he plays really fast,” KU offensive coordinator Rob Likens says. “So we can use him.”
Schadler’s path to Kansas was not perfectly linear, of course. During his high school days in Hesston — a town of 3,700 about 35 miles north of Wichita — Schadler was the classic small-town star. As a senior in 2013, he rushed for 2,541 yards and was chosen as Kansas Class 4A player of the year. In one game that fall, Schadler piled up 525 yards on El Dorado. A few months later, in the spring, he claimed first place in the 400 meters and second in the 200 at Kansas Class 3A track meet in Wichita.
“He’s probably one of the hardest workers we’ve ever had on the track team,” says Jason Peters, the track coach at Hesston.
But despite the eye-popping rushing yards and the track pedigree, few Division I schools were interested in Schadler for football.
Schadler, who stands 5 feet 11 and 185 pounds, visited K-State once, but nothing came of it. Northwest Missouri State was also interested, but Schadler opted to head to Wichita State and run track.
Schadler, according to his mother, loved the opportunity at Wichita State. But it didn’t take long to realize that he missed football. That’s when a unique connection intervened. When Schadler was at Hesston High School, a former K-State football player named Eric Childs had served as an assistant coach. Years earlier, Childs had played high school football in Irving, Texas, for a coach named David Beaty. And when Beaty was hired at KU last December, Childs sent a text to his old high school coach. There was a kid from Hesston he needed to check out.
“One of 5,000 that I got,” Beaty says, smiling.
In truth, KU assistant Clint Bowen, who recruited most of Kansas under Charlie Weis, was already familiar with Schadler’s story. And with the Jayhawks in desperate need of depth — and Schadler looking for a chance to return to football — it was a natural fit.
“The guy can run,” Beaty says. “Fast dude.”
Schadler is still adjusting to his new surroundings. As part of the process, he is not allowed to speak to reporters — a rule that Beaty has instituted for all freshmen. For now, Schadler will continue his role on kickoffs while offering depth in the backfield. But in a program looking for any possible edge, Schadler offers something you can’t coach or teach: His legs.
“Some things come down to speed,” Bowen says. “You can’t fake it.”