There's the type of strong that makes tackles on the football field and lifts heavy weights in the gym, and then, there's Kaiden strong.
Kaiden is eight years old, and in May of 2009 he was diagnosed with Acute Lymphocytic Leukemia. He's been strong through chemo treatments and he's been strong through the many birthdays and Christmases spent in the hospital. He's been strong through spinal taps and bone marrow transplants. Even when he doesn't feel good, he's been strong.
And when his calendar flipped to November, the day he has been waiting for was finally in sight: K-State football vs. Oklahoma - Kaiden's first K-State football game at Bill Snyder Family Stadium.
You see, Kaiden is a K-State fan. His hospital room is decked out in purple with posters of his favorite players lining the walls, and since his name begins with a 'K,' his nurses have, appropriately, written 'K-State Room' on the windows.
So last January, when he got a visit from K-State football junior defensive end Ryan Mueller, you can imagine his excitement.
"Kaiden loves Ryan," Jenny Schreoder, Kaiden's mom, said. "It is so fun to watch Kaiden watch the football games on TV knowing that he knows somebody. We've always watched the games, but when you know somebody, it's just so different for him."
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It all started with a message board post.
One day last January, Mueller was scrolling through the many online posts about K-State football, and one caught his eye. It was posted at 4:44 p.m. by a friend of the Schroeder family and asked if there was any way to get some type of memorabilia - a football, a poster from the team - to Kaiden who was undergoing treatment in Kansas City.
Mueller wears No. 44, and is from the Kansas City area (Leawood, Kan.), so the coincidences in the message board post stood out.
One thing led to another, and the week after the Fiesta Bowl Ryan was set to make his first visit to see Kaiden.
"When Ryan came back from the Fiesta Bowl he said he was going to bring a football to this little boy, and he was also thinking about brining him his Fiesta Bowl jersey," Ryan's mom, Valerie Mueller said. "So he went and asked Sean (Snyder) if it was okay."
Sean Snyder was completely supportive of Ryan's idea.
In Sean Snyder's office, Ryan continued to talk about Kaiden and his family. Kaiden has a four-year-old little sister, Ashlynn, and Ashlynn is Kaiden's perfect match for bone marrow. She's always there for her brother; the two are a team.
"Well Ryan told him the story about how Kaiden's little sister was the perfect match for him, how they're such a team and Sean said, 'Well are you going to get her one too?' So now, one has the purple and the other has the white Fiesta Bowl jersey," Valerie continued.
The football and jerseys were hand delivered to Kaiden and Ashlynn by Ryan, and it was then that the friendship between Ryan and the Schroeder family began.
"Ryan's really taken Kaiden under his wing and has been there for him," Sean Snyder said. "It's really neat, in all honesty, to watch a player who is so passionate about what he's doing. It's neat because (head coach Bill Snyder) really reaches out to these players to be involved in the community, to be involved in people's lives and care for the right reasons. This, with Ryan, is for the right reason."
When Ryan returned to Manhattan, Kan., he told his teammates about his new friend. The team FaceTimed with Kaiden in the locker room (I was told even Bill Snyder got in on the video chats a few times) and made sure he knew he was a part of their Wildcat family.
"The boys on the team have such big hearts," Valerie said. "If any one of their family members had anything wrong or needed anything, I don't think there's a kid on the team that wouldn't reach out and support them. There's a very, very close bond on this team, it's just incredible, and in this case, when Ryan asked his teammates to support this little kid, it was not a problem. He had a pile of letters from the team ready to take to the hospital."
The entire team began taking part in what Ryan had started and by August - at K-State Football's Fall Football Kickoff - Kaiden got his first look at his favorite team up close and personal.
"Everybody gets to go do autographs, but Kaiden thought it was so cool that he was waiting in line to meet the players and then when he did, they all knew who he was," Jenny laughed. "So it was funny because he was waiting to see them and they were waiting to see him and it was just really cool. He definitely feels like part of the family, especially because everyone kind of knows him in the program."
Back in January, Ryan told Kaiden that he could be his special guest at any football game he wanted this season - and Kaiden chose Oklahoma on Nov. 23.
This weekend, Kaiden will be back in Bill Snyder Family Stadium and, like the Fall Football Kickoff, everyone will know who he is - the team knows he's going to be there.
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"He is eight years old and he is into anything sports," Jenny said over the phone.
Kaiden's your typical rough, tough, energetic little kid with a smile that will simply melt your heart, and like many eight-year-old boys, Kaiden is a huge sports fan.
"He follows anything sports, football, basketball, whatever. The doctors wouldn't let him play football this last fall, they hadn't cleared him, but he gets to play basketball this season through the Y, third grade basketball," Jenny continued. "He loves to be outside. He just loves to kick the football, throw the football - anything to do with football. Even with treatment, it'll knock him down some, but he still wants to get up and play."
Jenny said Kaiden has every player on the Wildcat roster memorized - height, weight, number, position and hometown - and can't wait to get on the field with these guys.
"It doesn't take much to make Kaiden happy, or any kid going through this, putting a smile on their face goes a long ways for them," Jenny said. "He looks past treatment, and when November came, on November 1st he said, 'This is the month I get to go see the K-State game!' it gives him something to look forward to and it really means a lot to him."
Making a difference in people's lives is something K-State head coach Bill Snyder takes to heart.
"Ryan got to know Kaiden and we really wanted to do all we could, so there's all kinds of things that we've sent to him and interaction that has taken place," Bill Snyder said. "We get an awful lot of that from all over the country, and we respond to all of it in a variety of different ways with auction items to help people with fund raising things, and a lot of notes and cards and letters, things that are just trying to be encouraging to let them know that we think about them. Our players are awfully good about anything that you ask them to do in that regard and they enjoy it."
Bill Snyder's message of giving back, making a difference and putting a smile on someone's face has, no doubt, rubbed off on his players.
Often, it doesn't take much to make a difference in someone's life.
"The team is a family and they have taken one of the littlest Wildcats in as one of the brothers. They want to support him in his fight as he has supported them as a fan," Valerie Mueller said about Kaiden. "It has humbled all of them to know what a difference small things have made to Kaiden and his family. The message in this story is to reach out make a difference in someone's life every day."
But it's not just the team who has made a difference to Kaiden - Kaiden has also made a difference to the K-State football team.
He knows what it's like to be tough, so before the season kicked off, when Ryan told Kaiden his team was about to start its two-week-long, strenuous fall camp, Kaiden sent a letter of encouragement.
Through the letter he shared his story with K-State football. He talked about what it was like being diagnosed with cancer when he was four years old, and he encouraged them to stay strong even when things in camp get tough.
"I have learned that there are two types of strong," Kaiden concluded in his letter. "The kind that lets you lift 200 lbs, and the kind that forces you to get up and play even though you feel sick and yucky. So stay strong and practice hard because I cannot wait to watch you guys play!!!
Tomorrow, the day Kaiden has been waiting so long for will finally arrive, and Ryan and the K-State football program are excited to welcome one of their biggest little fans.
*Above, right to left: Ryan Mueller holding Bryson Schroeder, Curry Sexton (14), Kaiden Schroeder, Ed Brown (27), Glenn Gronkowski and Ashlynn Schroeder at K-State's Fall Football Kickoff on August 17, 2013. All photos courtesy of Valerie Mueller.