Kansas State’s Ryan Mueller overcame long odds and is hungry for more

08/21/2014 10:59 AM

08/22/2014 12:02 PM

Ryan Mueller insists the following story is true.

His mother, teammates and coaches also vouch for its authenticity.

They each go out of their way to do so, because they know Mueller’s journey from unknown high school football player to college star is rare. Even at Kansas State, where Bill Snyder has become famous for coaching walk-ons into pros, Mueller’s story is extreme.

Then again, there was no ordinary path for him to take. So they share his past with pride.

The story began on a hot day at Blue Valley High School, near Mueller’s home in Leawood. Mueller was hoping to volunteer at a Kansas State football camp taking place there. He thought it was for children. Instead, it was a showcase for top area talent.

He showed up uninvited, but the K-State coaches on hand allowed Muller, a 6-foot-2, 245-pound senior from St. Thomas Aquinas, to work out with the recruits they were there to see. They made him run longer and harder than anyone else, expecting him to quit. When he was still standing four hours later, they told Mueller to enroll at K-State and join the football team as a walk-on.

“Ryan just displayed a relentless, unending motor the entire day,” said then-assistant Joe Bob Clements, who’s now at Oklahoma State. “It was a hot camp, maybe 110 degrees on the field. He just wouldn’t stop. I knew right then he was a guy I wanted.”

Mueller was out of breath and stunned. After countless failed attempts with programs such as Northern Iowa, Kansas and Missouri State, Mueller had finally convinced a major-college coach to take a chance on him. All it took was a perfect mixture of luck and determination.

“I was totally unfamiliar with Kansas State and what was going on there,” Mueller said. “But I knew they played in the Big 12 and I wanted to play at the highest level possible. I said, ‘Sure, I will go play for the guys in purple.’ Things have worked out ever since.”

Indeed, Mueller has rocketed up K-State’s depth chart, from a scout-team tackler to a special-teams contributor to a backup pass rusher to an all-conference defensive end.

He earned a scholarship before his sophomore season and tied the program’s single-season sack record with 11 1/2 as a junior. He enters his fifth and final year at K-State as one of the best pass rushers in the Big 12, if not the nation.

The progression is striking. To say Mueller came out of nowhere is not much of an exaggeration. When he showed up for his first K-State practice, a limited number of coaches knew his name.

Now strangers stop him to ask for autographs and pictures.

Not bad for a guy who didn’t receive a single scholarship offer above the NAIA level and had to crash a tryout to land at K-State.

***

Valerie Mueller pulled a crisp $100 bill from her purse and placed it in her son’s hand.

It was a bribe.

He wanted to play football at K-State as a walk-on. She wanted him to do the same at Villanova or accept a scholarship from Benedictine College in Atchison, Kan.

Mother and son argued for weeks. She offered to pay for him to attend Villanova, where he could continue his Catholic education and study at the same school as his sister. He said no. She hyped the values of a small college within driving distance such as Benedictine. Again, he said no.

One by one, she voiced her hesitations about K-State. Mueller’s father, Steve, was a former walk-on quarterback at Kansas and Mueller grew up a KU fan. None of them knew much about Manhattan. And Mueller’s high school coaches warned it would be difficult for him to see playing time there. Still, that’s where he saw the brightest future.

Frustrated, mother told son he would receive no financial support if he chose K-State. When that didn’t scare him, she tried a new approach and offered him $100 to simply visit Benedictine College before making a final decision.

“It seemed like a good investment,” Valerie Mueller said. “But when he got home from the visit he said, ‘I am going to Kansas State even if I have to pay for it myself.’ I said, ‘That’s good, because you will.’ ”

Mueller’s journey was already blocked with obstacles, and now he faced one more.

On top of trying to prove himself to an army of doubters, he would have to do it while working side jobs to fund his college education.

***

Everyone who knows Mueller talks about his “motor.” It is a clichéd way to say that he is full of energy, and that he will come at you with maximum effort on every play. He would rather line up at fullback than rest while the offense is on the field.

That motor, more than anything else, has helped him shine in the competitive world of college football.

“He practices like you would want everybody to practice in terms of his effort, and it’s consistent,” Snyder said. “When you are on the field for 10 hours, his last effort is as good as his first. That carries over to the performance level on game day. He is going to play 60 snaps and he is going to play all of them as hard as he can possibly play.”

Added position coach Blake Seiler: “He might be the hardest-working guy I’ve ever been around.”

“He’s crazy,” said former K-State tight end Travis Tannahill. “He is crazy and he is awesome. He never, ever stops. It’s all energy all the time. I’m sure he gets tired at some point, but I have never seen it.”

Where does that energy come from?

One could argue it stems from his desire to prove people wrong. He has long seen himself as a future NFL defender, even though he never had as much as a recruiting profile on Rivals.com. He is driven to achieve his goal no matter what others say about his chances.

Or maybe his energy was born out of his passion for yard work.

As far back as she can remember, Mueller’s mother says her son has worked outside. He pushed a plastic mower across the lawn as a toddler, and he ran a landscaping business in high school.

His fall days were always grueling: School, football practice, work, homework. Repeat. He didn’t have enough free time for hobbies.

Football and landscaping were his two passions, and he excelled at both, starting as a defensive end and a fullback in high school and growing his landscaping business so large that he hired employees.

“The phone was ringing off the hook at our house,” Mueller’s mother said. “He was an enterprising young man with boundless energy.”

Mueller sold his landscaping contacts before leaving for K-State, and that money helped him survive away from home. But he couldn’t focus on football entirely.

To pay the bills, he had to continue picking up landscape work. Nights were spent mowing lawns in Manhattan. Sundays were spent driving home and working in suburban Kansas City.

Somehow, his grueling schedule had become more taxing.

He never let that stop him from performing on the practice field, but coaches had concerns when they discovered his side jobs.

“Joe Bob called me one day and said, ‘We don’t like to see our players working that hard,’ ” Mueller’s mother said. “I told him this was his choice. He wanted to come to K-State and this was how he was going to pay for it. If they wanted him to work less, they should have given him a scholarship.”

That is what Mueller was working toward. A scholarship was his ticket to a football-centric life. He pestered his coaches about the possibility monthly. At the end of each season, he scheduled meetings with Snyder to present his case. For two years, Snyder told Mueller to show him more.

Then Mueller recovered a fumble in the Cotton Bowl as a redshirt freshman, and things started to change. Next came an impressive spring and the phone call he had been working toward. The following summer, Clements told Mueller he was getting a scholarship.

Mueller was working on a neighbor’s lawn at the time.

“He told us things were about to get easier,” Mueller’s mother said. “He was ecstatic, and not just financially. He proved himself. He accomplished something no one else thought he could.”

***

For the first time in his life, everyone is expecting something out of Mueller.

He is a captain, a proven playmaker and a preseason nominee for national awards. His transition from anonymous walk-on to recognizable star is complete.

Of course, some will argue it already was when he soared through the air and, in one fluid motion, stripped the ball from Baylor quarterback Bryce Petty last year. The highlight was replayed across the Internet and is still mentioned today.

“That was one of the sweetest plays I have ever seen,” K-State quarterback Jake Waters said. “It was all effort. That is what Ryan is all about. At that moment, you could tell this was more than him just playing well in a couple of games. He was good.”

Within the K-State program, that belief had already been brewing.

Ask Snyder when he first knew Mueller was going to be special and he answers without a moment of thought.

“After two or three weeks you could tell he was a talented youngster,” Snyder said. “When your offensive linemen are having trouble with, and complaining about, a scout-squad player, you start paying attention.”

Mueller grabbed attention during his first practice in pads, a setting so new that he didn’t know any of his scout squad teammates. But he made sure everyone knew him.

Midway through, someone told Mueller to take out the lead blocker on a punt return, giving defenders an easy path to the returner. Mueller executed the play to perfection, colliding with Tannahill so viciously that he knocked the team’s starting tight end unconscious.

“That was my introduction to Ryan’s world,” Tannahill said. “He smoked me. He knocked me out cold in his first college practice. Most scout-squad guys pat you on the shoulder and make you look good on special teams, but Ryan is trying to knock you out every single play. He doesn’t care what the situation is.

“He even hit Collin Klein. That was the year he was really banged up, and if there was one rule in practice it was that you definitely don’t hit Collin. Well, Ryan broke that rule. I had never seen Joe Bob so mad. Ryan didn’t do it on purpose, but that’s what happens when you play full speed all the time.”

That mind-set, combined with work ethic, has made Mueller a star.

Just don’t tell Mueller he has arrived.

“I’m always going to have a chip on my shoulder, because people are still doubting me,” Mueller said. “ ‘Can he do what he did last year again? Should we move him to fullback? Could he do this at the next level?’

“There is always something. ‘He’s got red hair and freckles.’ It’s an endless ordeal. ‘He’s got an ugly-looking dog.’ There is always something wrong with you. I just throw that all out the window and try to play my game.”

***

Mueller is proud of his story. He shares it in hopes of inspiring future overlooked high school athletes. But he doesn’t like it when people describe him as a rags-to-riches player.

He grew up in a nice Leawood neighborhood and attended a private school. He spent his early years living on a golf course in Houston and others offered to pay for his college education. He has enjoyed a privileged life since birth, with his family welcoming him into the world while Nolan Ryan pitched his seventh no-hitter.

Naturally, they named him Ryan. He was bound to be good at sports.

His journey only sounds scripted because he chose to work hard when others told him not to.

“I don’t want to boast about me personally, but Kansas State has given me an opportunity to excel that not a lot of other programs would,” Mueller said. “They have given me a fair opportunity to show what I am capable of. I have taken full advantage of it, but that opportunity is open to anyone who is willing to put in the work.”

To reach Kellis Robinett, send email to krobinett@kcstar.com. Follow him on Twitter: @kellisrobinett.

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