Kaiden Schroeder, the 9-year-old boy with leukemia who has been adopted by the Kansas State University football team, got to run onto the field Saturday.
It was Senior Day, and Kaiden rushed out of the tunnel with the team, then ran alongside star defensive end Ryan Mueller to Mueller’s family as more than 50,000 fans cheered.
Still, it won’t be Kaiden’s biggest thrill this season.
He’s just learned that he — and his family — will get to travel to K-State’s bowl game in a month, thanks to the generosity of scores of Wildcat devotees who in a matter of weeks have raised the funds to make it happen.
The fourth-grader, who has had to spend two birthdays and two Christmases in the hospital and will undergo another round of treatment in Philadelphia early next year, was stunned by the surprise. Now he’ll get to see Mueller, an All-American and his favorite player, in the final game of his college career.
Overwhelmed by the outpouring of support, Chris and Jenny Schroeder shared the news with their son on Thursday.
“We have been completely blown away,” said Jenny Schroeder. “This will be such an amazing spirit-lifter as we get ready for another six weeks away from home.”
Once the regular season wraps up in early December and college bowl games are announced, the McPherson, Kan., family of five will find out where they are headed.
Those who came together to make it happen say that’s what the K-State family — the enduring bond between a 9-year-old, thousands of fans and scores of burly athletes — is all about.
“It was just an idea that blossomed into something amazing,” said Justin Barton, who with his brother, Andre, organized the effort through a Facebook page called Wildcat Salute. “We’ve hit a goal we never even imagined.”
The Schroeders got to meet the Bartons and many of their other fans while tailgating Saturday prior to the K-State/University of Kansas game.
As well-wishers stopped by, Kaiden and his little brother and sister played catch with a football.
“I found out on Thanksgiving,” the beaming boy said of the bowl game. “It’s going to be awesome.”
The signs started surfacing at the end of Kaiden’s first year in preschool.
Low-grade fevers. A sinus infection that wouldn’t clear up. And so much fatigue that the usually energetic boy had started taking naps again after school.
The bruises are what finally tipped off the doctor.
“We got referred to an oncologist in Wichita that day, and he was put in the hospital,” Jenny Schroeder said.
Kaiden was diagnosed with acute lymphocytic leukemia on Memorial Day weekend in May 2009. It occurs when abnormal white blood cells accumulate in the bone marrow. The cancer, which progresses rapidly, replaces healthy cells with leukemia cells that can’t mature properly. Those cells are carried in the bloodstream to other organs and tissues, where they continue to grow and divide.
Kaiden began what was expected to be 21/2 years of treatment. But he suffered a relapse after a little more than a year and had to start all over again. He relapsed again in November 2012, the day before his baby brother, Bryson, was born.
In early 2013, Kaiden underwent a bone marrow transplant at Children’s Mercy Hospital in Kansas City. His little sister, Ashlyn, then 4, was the donor.
To try to cheer Kaiden up, some friends in Manhattan wanted to get the little Wildcat fan some kind of K-State memento. Mueller’s mom, Valerie, of Leawood, saw the request on a K-State message board.
“I emailed the guy and said, ‘What’s his name and how old is he? We’ll be sure to get something for him,’” she said.
Valerie Mueller told her son about the request. “And he said, ‘I’ll get something, and when I come home from the bowl game, we’ll go see him.’”
K-State played in the Fiesta Bowl in Glendale, Ariz., on Jan. 3, 2013. After the team returned home, Valerie Mueller asked Ryan what he was planning to give Kaiden.
“He said, ‘I’m giving my jersey to that little boy.’ I said, ‘Really? A lot of the players frame them or keep them forever.’ And he said, ‘Mom, it’s just a piece of fabric.’ And I thought, ‘OK, my little boy has actually matured into a man.’”
As a precaution, Ryan Mueller figured he’d better make sure he actually could give his jersey away. He told associate head coach Sean Snyder about Kaiden and how his little sister had just donated her bone marrow.
And Sean Snyder suggested that Ryan Mueller also give a jersey to the little girl.
Ryan and Valerie Mueller went to Children’s Mercy on March 2, 2013 — Kaiden’s 8th birthday.
“I was just coming home from the experience of a lifetime in Arizona,” Ryan Mueller told The Star this past week. “It felt great to have the opportunity to represent my team and my school by doing something good for someone else.”
When he walked into Kaiden’s hospital room, the 2013 Big 12 Defensive Lineman of the Year said that “it felt like another world.”
“This bald-headed little guy in the bed was grinning ear to ear,” he said.
The Muellers met Kaiden’s parents, grandparents, Ashlyn and 3-month-old Bryson.
“One thing I remember was Kaiden watching and just taking everything in,” Ryan Mueller said. “I think he liked seeing his family smiling.”
Mueller also gave Kaiden some handwritten notes from the football team.
“After everyone left, his dad asked if I could stay and play a video game and talk to Kaiden,” he said.
They played NCAA Football.
“He beat me in the video game,” Mueller said, “and that day changed my life forever.”
Since then, the two families have developed a bond, especially when the Schroeders bring Kaiden to Kansas City for his hospital visits.
“We’ve celebrated Christmas with them, had New Year’s dinner with them,” Jenny Schroeder said. “Kaiden even gets to sleep in Ryan’s bed when he’s not there. They’re amazing.”
Although many probably see him as taking on a big brother role to Kaiden, Mueller said in reality it’s quite the opposite.
“Kaiden does the hard stuff,” he said. “I look up to him tremendously.”
When the two get together, the talk often turns to sports and education.
“He asks me about the guys on the team he knows, upcoming opponents,” Mueller said. “We talk about his school, his sports, what his aspirations are when he comes to K-State.
“What we don’t do is talk about hospitals, his illness or doctors. I try to be the fun guy. I am his break from all that.”
Valerie Mueller said that on one visit, Ryan gave Kaiden some flash cards about state capitals.
Ryan told Kaiden he would quiz him the next time they were together.
“I’m only in third grade,” Kaiden said, as Valerie Mueller remembers. “That’s not until fourth.”
And Ryan said, “Well, when you get to fourth, you’ll know them all.”
Since then, the entire team has adopted Kaiden. They have sent him cards, posed for pictures, talked to him on the phone. He’s even had FaceTime calls with some of the players and head coach Bill Snyder.
“I like for our players to be invested, whether it’s in community service or engaged in those who are less fortunate,” Snyder said. “It’s valuable in their lives to be able to do so.”
Kaiden relapsed again in November 2013 and had to start back on chemo at Children’s Mercy. After that, his parents decided to place him in a clinical study at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.
The procedure involves removing T cells from his blood, then genetically reprogramming them to recognize and destroy the leukemia cells.
The family went to Philadelphia in February to have the T cells collected. They were to return in June so the modified cells could be put back in Kaiden’s body.
In the meantime, another surprise was brewing in Manhattan.
Kaiden’s parents knew something was in the works for the annual spring football game, but they didn’t know any details.
When they arrived at the stadium on April 26, Kaiden was escorted to the locker room.
“We got in there and Ryan goes, ‘Hey, if we need you to run a play, can you do it?’” Chris Schroeder said. “And that’s when we saw Kaiden’s locker.”
On the outside was a large nameplate for Kaiden. Inside were pants, socks, a No. 44 jersey with his last name on the back, cleats and a helmet.
During the third quarter, Kaiden said, Snyder came over and spoke to him: “He asked me if I was ready.”
Kaiden ran onto the field and took a handoff from quarterback Jake Waters. Then, to the delight of the players and fans, he ran 30 yards for a touchdown.
“The fans didn’t know what was going on at first, then they really got into it,” Chris Schroeder said. “As soon as he scored, the whole sideline was gone.”
The players rushed into the end zone and hoisted Kaiden onto their shoulders.
It was the highlight of the game, not only for Kaiden, but for the players and fans.
“I don’t think I’d ever called a touchdown with tears in my eyes before,” said Dave Lewis, who as the “voice of the Wildcats” is the public address announcer for the games.
Snyder was moved too.
“When the bench emptied, I told our players they were closer at that time than they have ever been,” he said. “When they huddled up, all 130 of them raised Kaiden up above their shoulders. They were all invested in it.”
Jenny Schroeder said Kaiden was overjoyed.
“He’s a kid of very few words,” she said. “But after that day, we got in the car and he said, ‘That was the most awesome day ever!’”
The video, “Kaiden’s Play,” was an instant hit on YouTube, and the story made headlines in newspapers and on sports networks.
Justin Barton, who later started the bowl game fundraiser, didn’t make it to the spring game, but he saw the video. He quickly friended the Schroeders on Facebook and invited them to join the Wildcat Salute page.
“I wanted to let them know that there are people in our family who are praying for them and want to encourage Kaiden as he battles his disease,” said Barton, of Springfield, who attended K-State in the 1990s and works in Kansas City.
With Jenny Schroeder’s permission, Barton started posting her blogs about Kaiden’s progress.
A month after the spring game, the family returned to Philadelphia for six more weeks of treatment.
Despite a heavy training schedule at K-State, Mueller found a rare three-day weekend to fly out with a sister to spend a day with the family. They went sightseeing, ate Philly cheesesteak sandwiches and played video games. NCAA Football, of course.
“I was Alabama and he was Oregon,” Kaiden said. “I won. I’ve now won two games, and Ryan’s won three.”
Among Kaiden’s favorite activities: running up the stairs at the Philadelphia Museum of Art — made famous by the “Rocky” movies — and posing with Mueller in front of the Rocky statue.
Now, though, Kaiden faces another long stay in Philadelphia.
“He’s done well,” Jenny Schroeder said. “The problem is that the modified T cells only stayed in his body for about two months. You want them to last at least a year or so.
“With his relapse history, there’s a strong chance of relapse again. So we’re going back. We requested to go after Christmas so we can at least be home for Christmas and New Year’s.”
The bowl game idea just seemed to evolve.
The Schroeders wanted to buy tickets to Senior Day. Barton tried to find them some, began to wonder if someone might donate tickets, and then …
“My brother and I got an idea,” Barton said. “Why stop there? Why not send Kaiden and one parent to K-State’s bowl game?”
So once K-State became bowl eligible in October, Barton set up a fundraiser on gofundme.com.
“Let’s show the world what K-State #FAMILY really means,” he wrote.
Barton also put the request on Twitter and several other K-State social media sites, hoping for $1,500.
Immediately, the donations started pouring in, the amounts ranging from $5 to more than $1,000. Many were for $44, in honor of Mueller’s number.
The amount raised has topped $5,500, enough to send the whole Schroeder family.
“The response has been amazing,” said Andre Barton of Manhattan.
K-State will find out which bowl game it will play in after the final regular-season game with Baylor on Dec. 6.
Justin Barton said the tickets would be purchased through the alumni association, with any extra funds donated to the Schroeders for travel and medical expenses.
During a recent interview in the family’s central Kansas home, Kaiden proudly displayed some of his prized K-State possessions. Mueller’s Fiesta Bowl jersey. A helmet with quarterback Jake Waters’ autograph. A photo of Bill Snyder with a handwritten note.
Like Kaiden, Mueller has a prized possession displayed in his room.
It’s a letter Kaiden sent to the football team last year as the players were about to start their fall training camp with its grueling two-a-day practices.
Kaiden described what it was like to have cancer — how he’d spent birthdays and holidays in the hospital; how the chemo made him throw up and just when he was starting to feel better he’d have to go back for more; how he’d had more than 25 spinal taps, nine bone marrow aspirations and 10 surgeries.
“I have learned that there are two types of strong,” he wrote. “The kind that lets you lift 200 lbs, and the kind that forces you to get up and play even though you feel sick and yucky.”
The courageous boy closed his letter with a line that will be even more meaningful now:
“So stay strong and practice hard because I cannot wait to watch you guys play!”