MANHATTAN, Kan. — All great free spirits start somewhere, and Ryan Mueller’s tightrope walk between genius and madness starts in third grade. It starts with a giant sheet of white paper, a pile of utensils and one simple instruction from his teacher.
"Be creative," she says.
He’s charged, along with the rest of the third graders, with making a hat to present to his mom for Mother’s Day, a token of his affection. The world is his canvas, the only limits being time, tools and his imagination.
And once you let Ryan Mueller’s imagination out of the barn, captain, it’s gone. Like Secretariat.
A short while later, Valerie Mueller gets a call. Ryan’s teacher.
"I wanted to call you ahead of time and tell you about your hat," the teacher says.
How odd, Valerie thinks. Then comes the punch line:
"It’s a toilet seat."
Chain. Hinges. Everything. You could even lift the lid, up and down, as it sat on top of your head. Cute.
"I didn’t know whether to call you or Hallmark," the teacher continues. "We’ve never had any of the kids make anything like that before."
One of a kind, our No. 44.
"She just wanted me to make sure it would be OK, because the other moms were going to be getting hearts and flowers," Valerie says now, "and my little genius was going to be making this toilet-seat hat."
Ryan Mueller has always been the original’s original, his own man, his own mind, always danced to the throbbing beat of that personal drum machine inside his head. When the good Lord made him, He threw away the mold.
Kansas State’s senior defensive end is a quarterback’s nightmare and a lexicographer’s dream. Quirky? Bizarre? Idiosyncratic? Odd? Off-the-wall? Peculiar? Strange? Unconventional? Unusual? Wacky? Weird? Far out? Freakish? Freaky? In left field? Kinky? Out of the ordinary? Outre? Unorthodox? Way-out?
All of the above?
"I don’t know; I haven’t seen many people like him," Wildcats linebacker and running mate Jonathan Truman chuckles.
"He’s just a guy that’s — I don’t know. People say it’s ‘too good to be true,’ but I don’t think so, just because I’ve known him five-plus years. That’s just … it’s Mueller. I don’t have a whole lot of other words to explain it other than ‘Mueller.’"
So, yeah, basically, all of the above.
Kansas State’s media guide devotes seven separate lines to listing Mueller’s career honors, most of any other Wildcat player in 2014 other than return ace Tyler Lockett. A former walk-on out of Leawood, Kan., a landscaping whiz in his spare time, Mueller scrapped his way up the depth chart, year by year — recording 11 1/2 sacks last fall as a junior, tying a single-season school record in his first season as a full-time starter. He’s the defensive lynchpin for one of the Big 12’s dark horses, a preseason Top 20 bunch earmarked to raise a little hell across the Plains.
He’s also a proud supporter of BeTheMatch.org, the national registry for bone marrow donations. It’s a cause near and dear to a big heart, a path he’s encouraged K-State teammates and friends to follow.
Val says that within 60 days of him signing up, he was identified as a match. When someone asked Ryan if he would rather go through the marrow donation process or play for a national championship, the big lug replied:
"No question — be a donor."
"He’s got a huge heart, along with his passion for the game of football," Truman continues. "Outside of the football world, he can also be one of the kindest guys you know and a guy that you know is going to help you out when you need it.
Kansas State defensive end Ryan Mueller joins the registry for the Be The Match bone marrow donor organization.
"He’s a guy that knows when it’s appropriate to goof off, and it’s always a fun time when you’re around him. But he’s also a guy that understands the meaning of hard work."
If Collin Klein was the Ultimate Wildcat, a two-star tight-end-hybrid-quarterback-athlete who scrapped and willed his way to a Big 12 title and the Heisman Trophy ceremony, the underdog-turned-champion, then Mueller might be the Ultimate Bill Snyder Wildcat.
Despite all-state honors as a prep at St. Thomas Aquinas in football and letters in basketball and track, Mueller didn’t receive a single scholarship offer for football coming out of high school, even after visits to Missouri State and Pittsburg State. His father, Steve, had walked on at Kansas, and his grandfather had KU ties, too. No dice. Take a Rock Chalk Walk, kid.
K-State defensive line coach Joe Bob Clements invited Mueller to walk on, just as he had done some 15 years earlier. The Wildcats didn’t care about a 6-foot-1, 240-pound body — they saw a 6-foot-6, 290-pound motor.
"Let’s put it this way: Ryan has a lot of fun," defensive coordinator Tom Hayes says, "and he has a lot of fun with our entire team. But they all know, when he comes out to practice every day, how serious he is about his business.
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"And that’s what I admire about him. Whatever he does on his way up to the locker room, those kinds of things, that’s up to him. But when he’s out here, he’s all business. And that’s what’s important."
Of all the players who’ve embraced The Tao of Snyder — hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard — Mueller might be the Wildcat who physically embodies that ideal the most.
"I think that comes innately, just his DNA, just being the underdog," Val says. "He was never the best student, maybe. But always his teachers would say, ‘He works really hard; I’m never disappointed in his effort.’"
"Quit" isn’t just a four-letter word. It’s a sin. The ultimate white flag.
"I definitely have brought those expectations upon myself," Ryan says. "Is it easy to do that? No. Because it’s like you have a lot of pressure to always be perfect, always striving for perfection. And at the end of the day, nobody’s perfect. But I’m going to try my best to be the best player — and person — I possibly can be for this team."
When you’re a fighter, you kind of naturally latch on to other fighters, kindred spirits. Mueller found one such spirit almost two years ago in Kaiden Schroeder, a boy out of McPherson, Kan., who was battling acute lymphocytic leukemia — a form of cancer in which the white blood cells attack bone marrow and slow production of red blood cells, white blood cells and platelets.
"He just looked up to Ryan, and Ryan was relatable," Val says of their first meeting at Kansas City’s Children’s Mercy Hospital and Clinics shortly after the Wildcats played in the 2013 Fiesta Bowl.
"(Kaiden) said, ‘I just, like, want to play a video game.’ And Ryan said, ‘Me, too.’ He immediately could come down to an 8-year-old level. He knew what buttons to push to make him happy."
"I think that was one way he made himself feel better," Val says, "was helping other people who were less fortunate, or considered the underdog, or struggled in any form or fashion."
From a football perspective, Ryan’s form has never been better. As the reigning Big 12 Defensive Lineman of the Year, Mueller is the watch-list king of summer. Preseason All-Big 12. Preseason All-American. Athlon. Phil Steele. The big boys’ favorite big boy.
"I’m more concerned about ‘Will I be on that (list) at the end of the year," Mueller says. "And what leads to that is a good team and winning ballgames. You don’t get good awards unless you’ve got a winning program or a winning team."
Or, in some cases, if you’re a winning guy. Of all the awards, all the watch lists, Val has one in particular underlined for 2014: The Lott IMPACT Trophy, presented annually to the college football player who represents the ideal combination of personal character and athletic excellence.
"She likes them all," Ryan says with a grin. "But my mother doesn’t care about if you were the greatest football player ever. At the end of the day, did you have integrity, did you have leadership? Are you the same person Monday through Thursday as you are Friday and Saturday night? Because obviously, in college football, in the world we live in today, your actions and your decisions and your choices can be glorified on a social media map. So that award represents a lot more than just playing ability, no doubt.
"Any awards you get, whether it’s the ‘Best Peanut-Butter-And-Jelly-Sandwich Maker,’ I will take it. Any award is a great award to get. And the Lott award is no different. Any award that represents character, effort and your play on the field, yeah, I’d love to win that award. Love to be a part of that award."
Ryan Mueller is a frequent visitor with K-State fans at KU Medical Center — and with his sister Caroline, a nurse in the hospital’s Cancer Center.
Inside his head, in between the drumbeats, he even has the scraps of an acceptance speech mapped out, so many dang people to thank. Clements, his old D-line coach. Blake Seiler, his current one. Meshak Williams, for setting the bar as a holy terror off the edge. Jordan Voelker, for showing him the ropes as an underclassman. Dad. Mom.
Especially Mom. Toilet seat and all.
"Fortunately for me, I came from a mother and father, working parents, who cared about a lot more than just putting food on the table and clothes on your back," Ryan says. "(They said,) ‘We’re going to teach you a lot more, because we can provide that. We’re going to teach you values. We’re going to teach you how to work hard. We’re going to teach you respect.’ Some kids and players don’t have that opportunity. And you know, I did."
With that, No. 44 grins.
"Was it easy to adjust to that and follow Mom’s rules? No," Mueller says. "Am I better for it now? Yes."