One Atlanta Falcon who isn’t taking this storybook Super Bowl run for granted is starting right tackle Ryan Schraeder.
After all, it wasn’t that long ago when Schraeder was fresh out of Maize High School and living a football-less existence while working at a meatpacking plant in Wichita.
“It’s kind of crazy to think about it that way — I’ve never really have had time to think about that,” Schraeder said, when asked to sum up how it feels to go from that existence to preparing to play in a Super Bowl. “It’s unreal, it’s surreal and I’m fortunate to be in this position.”
Schraeder, 28, didn’t even play high school football. But a seven-inch growth spurt his senior year put him at 6 feet 4, and by the time he decided to shake up his life, quit the plant and try college life, he was 6 feet 7.
“I started growing into this guy — I looked like a big Gronkowski tight end and I was like, ‘Man, I have to do something with myself,’ ” said Schraeder, who is now listed at 6 feet 7 and 300 pounds. “I was an athlete my whole life and I felt like I was missing something.”
His father — who coached him in peewee football — encouraged Schraeder to keep going, and he walked on the football team at Butler Community College, where he redshirted for a year and played a season at left tackle.
But during his early days there, he still wasn’t quite sure football was for him.
“I remember saying, ‘Man, I could just go to college and have a good time and continue doing what I’m doing,’ ” Schraeder said. “It was a tough adjustment — I was just a kid off of the street. I could have picked up basketball or lifted weights, but it’s a whole different deal.”
But Schraeder stuck with it, and furthered his career by transferring to Valdosta State, where he played for two years and won the Division II national title as a senior in 2012.
And while Schraeder was on some teams’ radar — including the Chiefs, who interviewed him prior to the 2013 NFL Draft — he went undrafted. Schraeder said he almost decided to sign with the Chiefs as an undrafted free agent, but instead opted to go with Atlanta, which was close to Valdosta and where he saw a greater opportunity to play.
He impressed the Falcons early with his size, agility and potential, and though he was a raw technician, he stuck around and started four games as a rookie.
“Football-wise I had to catch up,” Schraeder said. “I’d stay after practice, do extra pass sets and put in the extra work and bust my tail. It was not easy … but I kept telling myself keep going, push through, be resilient.”
When the Falcons hired Dan Quinn as coach before the 2014 season, he brought in a new offensive line coach in Chris Morgan, who also liked what he saw.
“You liked the size, and he’s a smooth mover — you could tell he had basketball in his background,” Morgan said. “You could see on film he liked to compete, and he’s continued to put the work in.”
The work started to pay off in a big way. Schraeder started 10 games in 2014, and all 16 games in 2015, officially locking down the job. He did the same in 2016, and in November, he inked a five-year extension worth a maximum of $33 million that only mildly disappointed his family, which wanted to see him play closer to home.
“Trust me, my family was pulling hard, saying ‘I hope Kansas City gets you,’ ” Schraeder said with a laugh. “And I’m like ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah.’ I wanted to be here, obviously, and I’m glad I’m here.”
And the Falcons, obviously, are happy to have him.
“It’s cool to see what he’s become … his whole story is so unique,” Morgan said. “They’ll probably make a movie about him one day.”
But Schraeder isn’t allowing himself to think about that. He’s only focused on winning the Super Bowl and, hopefully, inspiring people in the process.
“Don’t be afraid to dream,” Schraeder said. “In order to achieve your dreams, your goals, you’ve got to put in the work. It sounds simple but it’s hard and you’ve got to be persistent and keep working on what you want to feel good about yourself in life.”
Schraeder also hopes to represent the city of Wichita well on Sunday against the Patriots.
“Oh man, the city of Wichita has been huge my whole life,” Schraeder said. “It’s a quiet city (and) it’s a good place to raise a family. A lot of humble people come from there, a lot of good people.
“To be able to represent those people in this big stage will really represent Wichita. Hopefully, I’ll do that well and we finish this Sunday with a win.”