Unconventional Path Leads Schraeder to NFL

Unconventional Path Leads Schraeder to NFL

Jay Adams

Published August 21, 2013 at 11:32 AM

The path to the NFL has been carved and formed by those who follow convention.

A kid plays youth football and moves on to high school ball, where he turns out to be pretty good. He draws attention from colleges and starts pulling in scholarship offers. He chooses a school, plays there for three or four years to build his draft stock and then is tossed into the professional process of NFL Combine, Pro Days and, finally, the NFL Draft.

That’s how you make an NFL team. At least, that’s how most make an NFL team.

But what if you don’t even play high school football, because you enter your senior year standing just 5-foot-7, and then spend two years delivering meats to restaurants after graduation?

Hardly conventional, but that’s the route that has led Ryan Schraeder to the NFL.

It’s a long, winding story that starts in Wichita, Kan., where the undrafted Falcons rookie started his final year of high school no taller than the average kid his age and finished it at 6-foot-4 and 180 pounds. His father had experienced a similar growth spurt, where he ended up being a late bloomer, so Schraeder could sense that it was coming eventually. But it’s not like Schraeder had ever planned on doing anything with his size.

He played youth football — lining up at quarterback and running back as a skinny, quick skill position player. He turned out to be pretty good, but the odds of making any noise at the high school level standing 5-7 weren’t great, so he ended his football career before things really got going.

The growth spurt came suddenly and with a seeming vengeance as Schraeder shot up nine inches in the span of one school year. His weight didn’t quite catch up right away, so he left high school as a very tall, very skinny graduate, who didn’t quite know what life held for him.

“I came out of high school and I was kind of lazy,” the right tackle said this week. “I didn’t really know what I wanted to do. I needed to grow up a little bit. I was a good kid; I just needed to grow up. I wanted to be a firefighter, so that’s what I was doing part-time. I felt like I wanted to do something more than that. I wanted a degree for my parents.”

That’s when a chance invite to visit Kansas State University changed Schraeder’s path. A friend asked Schraeder to accompany him to Kansas State and the door swung open for an education that would lead, well, somewhere, right?

Schraeder spent a year at Kansas State without much of a direction. He still didn’t know what he wanted to do with his life, but college provided at least a more narrow path to something bigger and better than delivering steaks. He liked basketball, so he’d play from time to time just for fun. His height, which had sprouted upwards of where he currently stands at 6-7, made him an easy selection for fellow students looking to play a pickup game here or there.

During one particular game, Schraeder was playing when the Kansas State football team was holding a spring camp. It was storming outside, so the team moved inside and Schrader caught the eye of one of the coaches.

“He saw me hooping and said, ‘Hey, why don’t you come in and see if we can get you to walk-on,’ ” Schraeder said. “I kinda just said, ‘Whatever.’ I was happy being a student.”

The coach was relentless in his pursuit, however, and he approached Schraeder the next spring. By then, he had caught Schraeder’s attention and the idea of playing again became attractive. Schraeder had put on an extra 100 pounds by then so his weight was a little more in line with his now impressive height, so he figured he’d give it a shot.

But because he never took the ACT standardized test, Schraeder couldn’t qualify to play at Kansas State. He was faced with the choice of staying put and finishing his degree — the easy path — or going to junior college and starting his path to football basically from scratch.

The whole journey to this point could have been thwarted right there, but Schraeder — who had grown up as a person in the two years to that point — decided to take the road to football to see what would happen.

He enrolled at Butler Community College and red-shirted his first year. When he got on the field as a 6-foot-7 player pushing 300 pounds, he was put at a position he had never experienced before. Sure, he knew what the offensive line was for and how important it was, but the skills and technique weren’t anything he picked up during his youth football days. He knew how to throw, how to run and shift directions; not pass block and defend against the swim move.

“That first camp, I got thrown on my face for two weeks straight,” Schraeder said. “I just got tired of it.”

Things started clicking right then. The fact that he hadn’t learned anything as far as technique goes was something that Schraeder used to his advantage. He hadn’t developed any bad habits from his days in youth football, so the Butler coaching staff could mold him into anything it wanted.

Luckily, Schraeder is a quick learner. He picked up the technique and the little nuances that would help him against oncoming defensive linemen. The next year, he helped lead the Grizzlies to the NJCAA National Championship game. He was an All-NJCAA selection and quickly outgrew — pun intended — the junior college level.

While he never made it back to Kansas State, he moved on to Valdosta State — a Division II program in south Georgia that has boasted the success of former Falcons linebacker and current Ring of Honor member Jessie Tuggle, as well as two D-II national titles. Schraeder would help lead the Blazers to their third in 2012.

He left Valdosta State without much fanfare. There was the chance he’d make it to the NFL one day, sure, but getting selected in one of the seven rounds of the NFL Draft was a longshot. His route again would have to be a bit more unconventional.

He was signed on with a crop of more than 20 undrafted free agents with the Falcons in the day or two following the conclusion of the draft and melted in with the rest of the rookie linemen during OTAs and minicamp.

Rumblings started around the beginning of training camp, however, that Schraeder might be someone to keep an eye on. The injury to Mike Johnson that will keep him out for 2013 threw the entire line — and the Falcons’ plans at right tackle — into flux. Despite the negative circumstances, an opportunity had presented itself.

Schraeder, who had primarily done work at left tackle behind Sam Baker to that point, moved over to the right side for a bit and, as it turns out, he’s found himself in a heck of a battle with second-year tackle Lamar Holmes. He’s made the most of his chance so far and he’s impressing all the right people.

“Here’s a guy who’s a late bloomer,” offensive line coach Pat Hill said. “Only played three years of football, and I’ll tell you what, the thing that he has is he has incredible balance. He really has great balance. His hips, he plays with leverage. He’s a very smart kid, but I think … his ceiling is very high. … You talk about a guy that’s had a heavy dose, he’s had a heavy dose and I think he’s responded very well.”

The 25-year-old rookie lineman is in a prime position to earn a spot on the 53-man roster, and the path to this point is one that he sometimes has to stop and think about as the whirlwind of life in the NFL continues to consume him.

He’s surrounded by players younger than him and, in any other year, would be the oldest rookie the Falcons have in camp. With 28-year-old linebacker Brian Banks in the mix, that title is taken, but the two years that Schraeder spent discovering what his path would be turned out to be more beneficial than any time spent watching film or hitting the sled.

He’s mentally and emotionally more able to handle the load that’s been thrust upon him because of his time spent driving around, fulfilling restaurant orders. He gained perspective during those tough times that have helped him get through those hard days of training camp when things may not always go so well, or the times when a Pro Bowl defensive end gets the better of him.

Because of the path he’s taken to get here, he feels as ready for this as he ever has about anything, despite his relative lack of experience compared to his peers.

“I’m two years more mature. I’ve been in the real world, worked full-time. I know what it’s like to have to pay bills,” Schraeder said. “I’ve gotten a little taste of the real world. I’m a year, two years older than most of the guys so I feel like I’m right in there with them.”

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