MANHATTAN, Kan. — The MVP of Kansas State’s 2014 spring football game nailed the handoff but missed the hint. On Friday, the family of Wildcats star defensive end Ryan Mueller called up Jenny Schroeder in McPherson, Kan., to tell her the good news:
"Operation: Kaiden’s Play" was a go.
Jenny and Chris Schroeder’s son, 9-year-old Kaiden, is battling acute lymphocytic leukemia (or ALL), a form of cancer in which the white blood cells attack bone marrow and inhibit the production of red blood cells, white blood cells and platelets. The routine these days involves chemo treatment in his spinal fluid, the kind of regimen that leaves Kaiden with crushing headaches and nausea, and Mom with a broken heart.
At any rate, Kaiden and Mueller are buddies, and Big No. 44 had gotten the green light for Little No. 44 to not just watch the April scrimmage from the sideline, but to actually suit up in his own K-State uniform, dress at his own locker at the Vanier Football Complex, the works. If they were going to do this, they were going to do it up right, baby.
"And we just asked him ‘what if’ questions, to see if he would be shy (about it)," his mom recalled.
It’s something Kaiden will remember the rest of his life. … (It) just gives guys the opportunity to reach out to the community and lift somebody up who has kind of had a rough go.
-- Ryan Mueller
Kaiden knew his pal Ryan had set him up with a sideline pass. Jenny tried to play the rest of it coy, play it cool, all while her spirit was doing triple Salchows in the breeze.
"Kaiden," she asked. "What if they put you in? What if they needed help?"
Kaiden pondered this.
Kansas State? My Wildcats? The team he’d watched pound Michigan into queso dip down at the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl a few months ago, needing his help?
"Awesome," he said.
"So at that point," Jenny recalled, "we knew he would do whatever they wanted him to do."
Curry Sexton caught eight balls for 88 yards (and would’ve had more, if a rainbow in the end zone hadn’t slipped through his grasp). Quarterback Jake Waters flashed a clear rapport with wideout Deante Burton (six catches, 48 yards). Charles Jones ran for 73 yards of power with the starters, while Jarvis Leverett Jr. rambled for 69 more with the reserves. The Purple (first team) outlasted the White (second and third team) by a score of 23-13.
But Kaiden was the highlight, the shining star of a shimmering April afternoon.
"It was just awesome," said Mueller, the brainchild behind it all. "It’s something Kaiden will remember the rest of his life. It also kind of takes things off (football, and on) what’s really important. And just gives guys the opportunity to reach out to the community and lift somebody up who has kind of had a rough go."
Last April, Jack Hoffman, a 7-year-old cancer survivor, took a handoff in the Nebraska spring football game, the mother of all viral video clips. Mueller said "Kaiden’s Play" was neither an homage nor a Huskers rip-off — they had planned to do the same thing with Kaiden during K-State’s 2013 spring game, but the boy was too weak to participate because of treatments.
Saturday? Different story. Better ending.
"He showed up and I said, ‘Well, let’s go down to the locker room and get our minds right for the big game,’" Mueller said, grinning. "I showed him his locker …"
And there it was: Christmas in April.
Mini K-State helmet. Mini K-State pants. Mini K-State pads.
And a mini No. 44 purple jersey with "SCHROEDER" stitched across the back. Even a nameplate, same as the rest of the Wildcats, with his hometown printed on it, atop his very own stall.
"He was speechless," Mueller would say later. "His jaw just dropped and he couldn’t believe it."
And this is a tough kid. The toughest. Kaiden was diagnosed with ALL when he was 4, in the spring of 2009. It’s the kind of cancer that typically crops up in children younger than 5, the cruelest of the cruel, a malady that starts in bone marrow, then spreads to other parts of the body — including the liver, spleen, lymph nodes, brain and spinal cord.
"You know the battles that he has overcome and is constantly fighting," said Mueller, who first met the Schroeders in January 2013, a week after the Fiesta Bowl, while Kaiden was being treated at Children’s Mercy Hospitals and Clinics in Kansas City.
"To spend so much time in the hospital — being 8 years old, you know, you’re spending your Christmas and your birthday parties in there. That’s something none of my teammates have ever had to experience. Who wants to spend their childhood doing that?"
The good days outnumber the soul-crushing ones, but the leukemia is still there. A bone-marrow transplant in February 2013 didn’t quite take, and the cancer fought back last fall. Kaiden is slated to travel to Philadelphia this summer for six weeks of a trial treatment.
He was 70-something pounds when Mueller brought over a pair of game-worn K-State jerseys to the hospital two winters ago. Kaiden’s at roughly 81-82 pounds now.
The battle rages on. Week to week, month to month.
"It’s rough — he gets headaches; they make him sick," Jenny Schroeder said. "But a day later, he’s better. He’s bounced up."
You can’t keep a good Wildcat down. In the third quarter, with the Purple team in control, Little No. 44 finally got his number called. Mueller led him out to meet the first-team offense. Waters gave him a low-five. K-State coach Bill Snyder, the living legend, brought the boy over to the sideline, put his arm around him and whispered a few words.
Then, as Kaiden was getting ready to rush onto the field, Snyder — a stickler for details to the last — quickly grabbed the 9-year-old by the scruff of his shoulder pads and held him on the sideline for a second until things were set. After a few seconds, the old coach let go, patted him on the back and gave him his cue.
Little No. 44 took the handoff from Waters, veered to the right and, behind a wall of Wildcats, scampered for a 30-yard touchdown.
"That’s something I’ll never forget," said Waters, who "guided" Kaiden on the play and escorted him into the end zone.
"I know for a fact I’ll never forget that moment. And you know, the look on his face — he was so happy. So that was definitely the highlight of (Saturday)."
"It was fun for him," Snyder said, "and enjoyable for all our players at the same time. You love seeing things like that. You really do."
You loved seeing Kaiden carried out of Bill Snyder Family Stadium on the shoulders of the Wildcats, his heroes. His teammates. His brothers.
You loved seeing grandpa Steve Lolling cradling the nameplate from the locker room, carrying it like an Academy Award. Grandma Sandra Lolling, meanwhile, wondered what Snyder had whispered in Kaiden’s ear, all those plays ago.
"Kaiden," she asked, "what did Coach tell you?"
And Kaiden pondered this, too.
"I don’t know," he said. "I couldn’t hear him."
You can follow Sean Keeler on Twitter at @seankeeler or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.