RCW: A True Identity
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The world of sports is filled with stories of success, many of which include overcoming adversity. Whether it be unfavorable conditions growing up, family tragedy, or health and injury problems, each presents an obstacle that athletes must conquer in reaching their goals.
However, with all of the similarities, each experience is unique to the individual. Such a story can be found on the Kansas football field from junior wide receiver Ryan Schadler, whose scary medical condition resulted in him finding his true identity.
Schadler grew up in Hesston, Kansas, a small town of less than 4,000 people just 35 miles northwest of Wichita. Without much else to do, sports became a staple in Schadler’s life from day one.
“Ever since I was little I always had a ball in my hand,” Schadler said. “I always played whatever I could. Growing up in a small town, that type of thing is pretty popular. Between my sister and me, my parents did not have a free day throughout the school year or summer. I remember there were times I would have weights in the morning, two summer league basketball games and then a baseball doubleheader at night.”
With his parents, Mel and Donna Schadler, also engaged in a variety of different athletics, it made sense that their son’s life would include much of the same.
“From a very young age, he had a lot of ability athletically,” Mr. Schadler said. “I played all kinds of different sports and so did my wife. We were both very athletically involved, so I think that it was natural that our kids also got involved.”
Athletic success became common in Schadler’s life as he went on to complete a decorated sports career at Hesston High School. Setting six different school records in football in his time at Hesston, Schadler became a two-time First Team All-State running back and First Team All-State defensive back his senior season. Schadler is second in the state in rushing yards in a single game after he racked up 525 yards and eight touchdowns in one showing.
Along with his success in football, Schadler also won three state championships in track and was a Second Team All-State member of the Hesston basketball team his senior year which won the state championship.
“Luckily, I have been on some amazing teams,” Schadler said. “In basketball, we went 26-0 and won state, we were good in football and then I won some individual state titles in track as well.”
With all of his accolades, Schadler was presented the opportunity to continue his athletic career at the college level.
“I committed to Wichita State out of high school to run track,” Schadler said. “I got there and really missed football. My dorm overlooked the track where Kapaun (Mt. Carmel Catholic High School) played its games. Fall came and it was killing me. I felt that maybe I had made a mistake. I turned down a lot of offers in high school and was beginning to regret that. Ultimately, I decided I was not going to live life with regret, and decided to decommit.”
Luckily, it became an easy choice as he had the full support of his family and friends.
“We told Ryan that no matter what decision he made, we would support him 100 percent,” said Mrs. Schadler. “We told him that he needed to live his life without regret, so if that’s what he needed to do, then we supported him and to go for it.”
Although it may not have been the original decision, Schadler’s journey ultimately brought him to Lawrence to become a member of the Jayhawk football squad.
“When I left (Clint) Bowen was the interim head coach at the time,” Schadler said. “He told me that he wanted me to come join the team. I had (offers from) Northwest Missouri State, Missouri State, Pitt State and other smaller Division I and Division II schools. Ultimately, I decided (on) Kansas as opposed to running track and playing football at Pitt State.”
Despite all of his success, there was something going on behind the scenes that would prove to be bigger than anyone could have imagined. He was experiencing grueling pain in his abdomen that seemed to have no explanation.
“It started as an infant when he was really young,” Mr. Schadler said. “My wife would take him to the doctor because we could tell that something just wasn’t right with his stomach. We did this throughout the years.”
While the pain was severe when his symptoms suddenly flared up, it was infrequent enough that it was something Schadler just seemed to learn to live with.
“Growing up it was every so often,” Schadler said. “But it was never like, ‘Oh man, we need to get him help right now’ or anything like that. They would give me something and I would be okay for a couple of months before something happened again.”
But as he grew older, the pain got worse and symptoms began to occur more often.
“We would be somewhere such as eating out and he would just double over in severe pain,” Mr. Schadler said. “By the time we would get to the hospital he would be feeling better. They told us the same thing over and over throughout the years — that he was constipated and to give him suppositories. This became a theme whenever we would take him in to the ER.”
And with the same answer each time, Schadler just continued to live the life that he always had. Unbelievably, he even continued to excel at a level beyond his peers, despite the unsure conditions of his health.
“In high school, there was a league track meet, a regional track meet and a state track meet,” Mr. Schadler said. “We were at the regional meet and he was doing the long jump, something he is very good at, and wasn’t doing as well as he should have. He said he just wasn’t feeling well. Probably not being the best dad, I told him to suck it up. So he got really mad at me and ran his best 400 (meter) time ever. But that is when we first noticed that he was really struggling.”
It then became clearer that Schadler’s conditions were something more than simple bowel issues. As he got to Wichita State he searched for answers, but still nothing was found.
“The summer leading up to my first year of college I felt really sick and just couldn’t get any answers,” Schadler said. “When I got to Wichita State, I just wasn’t myself. I did everything that I could and talked to every doctor that I found.”
Growing up with a solid foundation, Schadler was lucky to have a support system. Despite any previous doubts, it was clear that he needed help, and his family was determined to find the answers.
“I remember the summer before college I told Ryan, ‘I will fight for you,'” Mrs. Schadler said. “And if you know moms, you know the claws were coming out. We would go to the doctor and I would say, ‘No, do more tests, do more tests.’ It didn’t matter what it cost or what we had to do, we were going to find the answer.”
But as the time went on, Schadler was told the same thing over and over: everything was ok. Experiencing the pain and fatigue that he had, Schadler knew that was far from the truth.
“Tests would come back and they would say nothing was wrong. I remember not knowing whether or not I was going to die,” Schadler said. “I would wake up so sick that I didn’t know if I was even going to make it.”
Along with this physical pain, Schadler began to experience mental fatigue as well. He searched for answers wherever possible, including at the Mayo Clinic with the top professionals in the world, but nothing was ever found. Hearing the same thing over and over begins to mess with an individual’s mindset.
“I can’t even describe it,” Schadler said. “The amount of depression and anxiety it brings you. Just knowing that something is wrong with your body and going to the best in the world at Mayo Clinic, and they say everything is fine is, the worst feeling ever. It’s really frustrating. It definitely wears on you emotionally, physically and spiritually.”
So without any real answers and the frustration and pain building, Schadler continued to live out his dream and made the trip to Lawrence, Kansas. Little did he know, it may have been destiny.
“I got here and played a year off and on, feeling ok,” Schadler said. “But then in my second fall camp, I was just feeling awful to the point that I had to go to the emergency room because of the pain in my stomach. The scan came back and I had what was called a malrotation of my small and large intestine. Basically, everything in my abdomen was twisted up and in the wrong place.”
Finally, while it may have been overwhelming, there was finally an answer to what had been going on for the last 20 years.
“I remember Ryan said, ‘See, I knew something wasn’t right,'” Mr. Schadler said. “But I think there was a sense of relief. Even though we knew he had a battle to deal with going forward, I think there was relief for Ryan, and for us as parents, that at least now we knew what we were dealing with and we could fix it and move on.”
The condition was life threatening, as the intestines could have died if there was blood loss. It was going to require surgery, and while there was hesitation by Schadler at first, advice from his family and friends ultimately resulted in the decision to go through with it.
“After the four-hour surgery, the doctor told me how lucky I was to have gone through with it,” Schadler said. “They spent hours trying to find my appendix, and finally found it tucked away in my upper abdomen. There are basically bands around your intestines that were getting twisted up and if they got tight enough, could have potentially cut off blood circulation.”
With a football game’s worth of surgery in the books, Schadler still had a battle ahead of him. He sat out his entire sophomore season as it took him months to fully recover and to start feeling the benefits of the surgery.
At this point in Schadler’s story, the same question probably crosses everyone’s mind. How in the world has he done what he’s been able to do? And even further, some might question why he continued to push himself to the point he has, despite such a scary and painful situation. Luckily, there are answers to both.
“It is my dream,” Schadler said. “Ever since I was a kid, I wanted to play on the big stage. I wanted to play in college, in the NFL. I was in the backyard always pretending I was one of those guys.”
From a young age, Schadler developed a sense of determination that proves to be unlike that of many of his peers.
“He has always been a child, from birth, that if you tell him he can’t do something, he will prove you wrong,” Mrs. Schadler said. “It is just his personality. He pushed himself and is a really hard worker.”
Like those before him, and those who will come after, Schadler knew what was required of him to reach his dreams.
“We were told by almost every coach that he had that he was the hardest working, most dedicated kid they had ever seen,” Mr. Schadler said. “He would spend hours and hours practicing. Even by himself in the driveway or the backyard, from the time he was little he would spend hours practicing.”
But hard work is only a part of it. There was something much bigger in Schadler’s life that had been laying a foundation from the very beginning. Faith.
“My relationship with my Savior is strong,” Schadler said. “I just really relate everything back to that. I think that He gives me some kind of passion and drive and will. I don’t want to fail. Not that retiring or giving it up is failing, because there is obviously much more to life, but God has me here for a reason.”
This foundation was cultivated growing up in a household that taught the values of believing in Christ.
“Faith has always been a big part of our family,” Mr. Schadler said. “My wife and I have been believers throughout our lives, at least through our whole married life. We both were raised in church. I’m not saying we are perfect by any means, but it has been important to have Christ in our lives and we have shown that to our kids. I’m so proud of Ryan and our daughter because they have kept it as a part of their lives.”
Outside of his faith, the biggest thing in Schadler’s life was always sports.
“I found my identity in sports,” Schadler said. “Coming from a small town, where you’re kind of a star, you get put on this pedestal and I found my identity in that. Whether or not I performed well that day, that is what affected my life.”
Then, as a result of his medical condition, Schadler was sidelined for the first time in his career, forcing him to step back and reevaluate what was really important.
“You can’t find your identity strictly in something like that,” Schadler said. “That is where you are going to find sadness and it’s just never going to be enough for you. So I try to tell people, ‘Find your identity in Christ.’ And then let Him pour out into those other things like family, sports, school, friendships, career, just everything. I think that if you put your identity in one thing you are going to fail.”
While it would have been easy to use the malrotation as an excuse to quit or to feel sorry for himself, Schadler harnessed the adversity and capitalized on the lessons he was able to learn.
“Now my mindset is a little different,” Schadler said. “It is all for His glory. When you go through trial, it is how you respond that shows your real faith. I think that is something that I try to do now. When I go through something, I have to decide how I am going to respond and that helps drive me.”
Responding through the tests that he faced, Schadler has come out even stronger than ever before.
“God maybe didn’t give me this disease, but he is going to use this disease as a story for me going on,” Schadler said. “And that’s what He has done, is (to) show me my identity is not only found in football, but in much more than that.”
Since finding his true identity and purpose, Schadler now plays the game he loves for more than just himself.
“When I first got here I was kind of selfish,” Schadler said. “It was all about me. I wanted to play Division I. I wanted to start. But now it’s not like that. It’s more about how I can impact others and those around me. And it’s ultimately about how I can glorify God’s name in doing it, so that’s what I try to do every day as much as I can.”
This proves to be a story of the impact that faith can have in one’s life.
“I thank God every single day for His miracle and for what He has done for our son,” Mrs. Schadler said. “I get emotional just thinking about that. The first game of the football season, who is out there crying? His mom. Just because I knew a year ago we had no idea what the outcome was going to be or if he was even going to survive. But I thank God every single game.”
And every single game, Schadler’s family is still there, cheering him along every step of the way.
“People sometimes ask me when they (the Jayhawks) are playing on the road, ‘You’re going to travel out of town to watch them play?'” Mr. Schadler said. “And I just tell them, ‘Heck yes I am, my son is playing.’ The thing is that you never know when it is going to be your last opportunity to see him do that, due to injury or anything else. We will always be supportive in whatever he does, and we are so thankful we get to watch him.”
Now back to full health, Schadler is halfway through his junior season. Along with the support from his parents, sister Emily, teammates and friends, Schadler has another line of unconditional support from his wife, Madi.
“I went back home for a track meet that my uncle was coaching,” Schadler said. “She was there and came up to talk to my uncle. So I went home and friended her on Facebook and asked my aunt to text her about me. We met again the next week at another track meet that her brother was in and my uncle was coaching. Then it just kind of went from there.”
His efforts worked. Schadler scored his last first date, and two years later, the two were married.
“Our first date was really good,” Schadler said. “I remember I came home and right away, I told my parents that I was going to marry this girl. It was the right time and it is going well. I think that we can be a testament to others people seeking Godly relationships.”
The story of Ryan Schadler is impressive by the simple fact that resiliency and hard work led to overcoming significant challenges on the way to reaching his dreams. But his story is much more. It is the story of God showing His love and power and using an illness to show the way. It led to a young man finding his purpose and identity, and his testimony will be shared for years to come.
“I just want to add to this story and this testimony,” Schadler said. “I want to go back and speak to kids and tell my story. I want to help people who might not be going through the exact same thing, but are going through struggles and need some support and some help. I think I can do that.”