Throughout his youth and first few years as a college athlete, Ryan Schadler never felt quite right.
As a child, his parents, Donna and Melvin, would take him to see doctors, and inevitably Schadler would improve, but the pain in his stomach and the sense that something was wrong inevitably returned.
Schadler wished he could shake what ailed him the way he did defenders as a standout running back at Hesston High. However, bouts with body aches, bloating and nausea accompanied him as he pursued his football dreams at the University of Kansas.
One of the fastest players in the program from the day he arrived on campus two years ago, no one ever would have guessed Schadler, who returned a kickoff 91 yards for a touchdown in his debut with the Jayhawks in 2015, had any sort of health issues, let alone jumbled organs.
But even before that, and over the course of more than two years, he fought through countless days of what felt like a flu.
Schadler's determination only could carry him as far as a breaking point, which happened to coincide with the start of 2016 preseason camp.
“I was bloated and in so much pain,” the junior KU receiver recalled. “I had to be doubled over and I couldn’t run 10 yards without just gasping for air, and just felt like I was going to pass out.”
This time, Schadler experienced discomfort in his back, too, so Murphy Grant, KU’s director of sports medicine, had him go in for a scan — nothing new to the 21-year-old, who had done the same his “whole life” in search of answers to his mysterious torment, even visiting the renowned Mayo Clinic at one point.
Finally, a scan came at the right time at Lawrence Memorial Hospital, showing Schadler had a previously undetected birth defect — a malrotation of his small and large intestines, as well as his appendix. The organs, doctors explained, had moved back and forth in his body through the years and happened to be in normal position when scanned in the past.
The results relieved Schadler’s built-up frustrations and brought on a decision. After consulting with his parents and doctors, including Grant, he decided to undergo surgery for his condition, rare and complicated because of how long it went undiscovered. Little did they know how timely that resolution would be.
When Schadler went in for surgery this past August, at Wichita’s Wesley Medical Center, his disorder had reached a more critical state.
“My appendix was up by my heart, full of waste, getting ready to burst,” Schadler shared. “If that would’ve bursted by my heart, they said I probably wouldn’t have made it.”
His mother, Donna, a high school counselor in Hesston, still feels overcome by emotion when thinking back on that day and the sense of unease leading up to a four-hour surgery.
“The unknown was really scary,” she said.
A bevy of surgeons observed as five tiny mechanical arms entered Schadler’s abdomen — each through a different incision — and a surgeon at the controls meticulously began working toward making everything right.
In the waiting room nearby, his mother’s worry dissipated when hospital staff informed the family Schadler’s patient number was 33 — the same two digits he had worn on his football jerseys since the third grade.
“That’s kind of silly,” Donna admitted, “but at that time I thought, ‘He’s going to be OK.’”
Eventually, Schadler would be. But after emerging from a successful surgery with what he jokes look like five bullet wounds in his stomach he had no idea how difficult a recovery he had in front of him.
A couple days after the procedure, a man known for his running ability couldn’t even muster the will power to walk.
“I was in so much pain I was like passing out,” Schadler said.
His family called 911, and he returned to Wesley Medical for another week as doctors monitored his progress. The incisions healed as expected, but fatigue from the surgery put the Division I athlete down and out for “a few months.”
Her son, Donna will tell you, always had done everything fast — talk, eat, homework, running, you name it. So he wanted to heal with speed. When that wasn’t possible, his mother said his temperament propelled the KU football player through a challenging time.
“If someone or something tells him he can’t, he will prove that he can,” Donna said. “I think that — besides his faith and God’s miracles — just his personality has helped with the healing process, as well.”
Schadler’s family considers KU football head athletic trainer Grant and former KU basketball star Wayne Simien, who often conversed with Ryan throughout his ordeal, as key to the process, too, because they helped him reach the point where he was cleared to run and lift weights and feel like a football player again.
Deep into the season, he finally was cleared to be a limited participant at Kansas practices. Coaches put a red jersey on him as a precaution. Soon, he was allowed to resume contact in the days leading up to the home finale versus Texas.
So jacked to feel like himself again, Schadler tried to convince head coach David Beaty to use him as a kickoff returner against the Longhorns — if Grant would sign off on the idea.
The eager Jayhawk gave it a shot, but the team’s doctor wasn’t as enthusiastic.
“Are you kidding me?” Schadler related of Grant’s response. “You’ve been out for how many weeks, and you’re going to go in and run full-speed and get hit?”
Reflecting on it now, Schadler realizes he was too eager.
Though his official return was delayed, Schadler at least entered the offseason with his 5-foot-11, 191-pound frame back to 100 percent. His relentless nature and speed made him stand out in winter workouts leading up to spring football.
It was during a 6 a.m. Friday team run a couple months ago when new offensive coordinator Doug Meacham approached Schadler, then a running back, about playing as a slot receiver instead.
It was a move he gladly accepted. Even family members previously had brought up “little receivers” they saw watching NFL games and asked Schadler if he could do the same.
By Day One of spring practice in mid-March, Schadler had gone from a back-up at a crowded position, to lining up in the slot with the first-team offense.
“He came in the first day of practice just killing it,” junior receiver Steven Sims Jr., said. “You would think he’s been playing wide receiver. He’s really impressed me, route-running, his releases, things like that.”
Now when Meacham wants Schadler’s attention at practices, he’ll sometimes bark “Little Edelman” at him, likening the team’s newest receiver to 5-foot-10 Julian Edelman of the New England Patriots.
Schadler already has stood out enough this spring to be selected with the ninth overall pick in KU’s spring game draft, only heightening his anticipation for his unofficial return to the Memorial Stadium turf on Saturday at 1 p.m.
Beaty marvels at the fortitude displayed by Schadler since he transferred to KU in 2015, after spending one semester with the Wichita State track program. The Jayhawks’ head coach said the Hesston native must be “superhuman,” because Schadler even looked exceptional in summer workouts just ahead of his dangerous surgery.
Around Anderson Family Football Complex, Beaty said Schadler’s teammates look up to him because of his work ethic, athletic ability and what he’s overcome. The third-year head coach is glad to have the converted receiver as an offensive weapon, but Beaty is happier Schadler is healthy.
“I wasn’t sure he would ever play again. I was really just concerned about him, because you just don’t hear of that very much,” KU’s coach said, adding anything the junior is able to give the program on Saturdays is a bonus, considering what he has endured over the past several months.
As Schadler balances school, football and planning a May wedding with his fiancée Madison Caffrey, it’s hard not to look back on where his health was at in August, and what might have been had that successful scan not come along just in time.
“It definitely makes me appreciate the game a lot more,” Schadler said. “It makes me excited to play, because I remember that feeling of sitting on the sideline watching, wishing I could be out there helping the team.”