Kaiden Schroeder, the central Kansas boy who was adopted by the K-State football team and won the hearts of Wildcat fans across the country, died on Friday after an eight-year battle with leukemia.
The 12-year-old received a hero’s welcome home Friday night as vehicles from the McPherson Fire Department escorted his body to the funeral home.
“His courage and character was an example to all of us,” said Fire Chief Jeff Deal on a Facebook post informing the community. “He has left an indelible mark on this department, and his presence is woven permanently into the fabric of our culture.
“We are truly saddened by his passing, but he has and always will be our hero. Rest peacefully, Firefighter 1.”
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The news was devastating to the thousands of admirers who have followed the McPherson boy’s roller-coaster journey since his cancer diagnosis at age 4.
“My words cannot explain the ache I have in my heart right now,” said Justin Barton, who runs the Wildcat Salute Facebook page and became friends of the family during Kaiden’s struggle. “Heaven gained a mighty warrior.”
Diagnosed with acute lymphocytic leukemia on Memorial Day weekend in May 2009, Kaiden began what was expected to be 2 ½ years of treatment. But he suffered a relapse after a little more than a year and had to start all over again. He relapsed again in November 2012, the day before his brother, Bryson, was born.
In early 2013, Kaiden underwent a bone marrow transplant at Children’s Mercy Hospital in Kansas City. His little sister, Ashlyn, then 4, was the donor. To try and cheer Kaiden up, some friends in Manhattan wanted to get the little Wildcat fan some kind of K-State memento. Valerie Mueller of Leawood, mother of K-State defensive lineman Ryan Mueller, saw the request on a K-State message board and told her son.
After the team played in the Fiesta Bowl in January 2013, Ryan Mueller went to visit Kaiden at Children’s Mercy. He gave his #44 jersey to the ecstatic boy, along with some handwritten notes from the football team. That was the beginning of a long-term friendship, not only with the Muellers but the entire squad.
In 2014, Kaiden made headlines when he got to run for a 30-yard touchdown in K-State’s annual spring football game. A YouTube video of the play has received more than 160,000 views. Later that year, Barton and his brother, Andre, organized a fund-raising effort to send Kaiden and his family to K-State’s bowl game in January 2015.
Over the next 2 ½ years, Kaiden underwent another bone marrow transplant, was in and out of remission multiple times, and started a trial drug in hopes of destroying the leukemia cells. Through it all, he faced the cancer head-on, never giving up hope as he continued to go to school, play baseball and lead as normal a life as possible.
But in July, Kaiden relapsed for the sixth time and started on low-dose chemotherapy while doctors tried to find another treatment for him.
Over the years, Jenny Schroeder has religiously documented her son’s progress on the Caring Bridges website. On Nov. 14, the news was heart-wrenching.
“For the past several days now I have been trying to figure out how to make this post,” she wrote. “How to be both informational and sensitive. We know many, many people read these updates, from complete strangers to family and friends and from ages old to young.”
If she and her husband, Chris, could define the word “Kaiden,” she wrote, it would be like this: “Brave, Strong, Wise, Intelligent, Hero, Courageous, Leader, Compassionate, Amazing, Battler, Friend, Cousin, Nephew, Grandson, Brother and Son!”
For 8 ½ years, Jenny Schroeder wrote, Kaiden had fought “with every ounce of strength in his body,” enduring more than any person should ever have to endure.
“He has only truly complained a handful of times when we throw chemo, radiation, more chemo, more radiation, more chemo, bone marrow transplant, modified T Cells, another bone marrow transplant, trial and investigational medicine after investigational medicine, and more chemo at him,” she wrote. “Why his leukemia has not responded for the long term to these things is not fair.”
The past week, she wrote, had been the longest one they’d ever been through.
“While in Kansas City earlier last week we came to the heartbreaking realization that this new medicine we had hoped would be full of magic, just simply isn’t,” she said.
Kaiden’s leukemia was not responding to it, she said, “and his blast count is the highest it has ever been right now.”
“We have made the decision to stop that chemo,” she said. “We have NOT stopped treatment, we have started him back up on low-dose chemo pills, and we have brought Kaiden home….Our focus for his care has shifted. We have always been chasing the cure, and while we still hope the cure is somewhere out there to be found, we are now focused on the comfort…
“Our time with Kaiden is precious, and we want to spend as much of it at home, and doing things as a family…”
For those who want to know what they can do, she said, the main thing is to pray.
“Pray that Kaiden feels well for as long as possible,” she wrote. “Pray our other kids handle this shift in care for their brother the best that they can. Pray for peace for all of us as we continue during this difficult time.”
The McPherson community has rallied behind Kaiden since the beginning, holding fund-raisers, posting encouraging signs around town and wearing T-shirts bearing his name. Just two Fridays ago, the McPherson High School football team honored Kaiden during its sub-state playoff game. The players, wearing helmets marked with a “K,” pushed Kaiden onto the field in a wheelchair as the team and fans cheered.
During a 2015 interview with The Star in the family’s central Kansas home, Kaiden proudly displayed some of his prized K-State possessions, including Mueller’s Fiesta Bowl jersey and a photo of head coach Bill Snyder with a handwritten note.
Mueller posted a picture of himself and Kaiden on Instagram early Friday evening.
“My heart’s in a million pieces,” he wrote. “I’m crushed. My brother was a hero. Kaiden did more for me than I could ever do for him. The impact he had on people during his time on earth was remarkable. I don’t know why this happened. I’m so sorry. I loved you so much man. I will see you again and I’ll never let go I promise bro.”
Mueller will never forget the letter Kaiden sent to the football team in 2013 as the players were about to start their fall training camp with its grueling two-a-day practices.
Kaiden described what it was like to have cancer, from the birthdays and holidays he’d had to spend in the hospital to the way the chemo made him throw up to how he’d had more than two dozen spinal taps, nine bone marrow aspirations and 10 surgeries.
“I have learned that there are two types of strong,” he wrote. “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.”
Online condolences have been pouring in from Kaiden fans around the country.
“Kaiden will forever be in our hearts, memories, and prayers,” wrote Abbey Fiser. “He has touched the lives of so many people at such a young age that most people can’t say they have done in a lifetime.”
“I think all of Wildcat Nation’s hearts are breaking,” wrote Lori Rognile. “Heaven has a very special angel now.”
And Jane Ehret Ferris expressed in nine simple words what a multitude would agree with: “A great little Wildcat warrior can now rest peacefully.”
How to help
Those wanting to help the family with expenses can visit a GoFundMe.com page established in Kaiden’s name by the Wildcat Salute Facebook group.
“Kaiden fought a battle no child should ever have to face,” said Justin Barton. “But he did it with such strength. He has a loving family and friends that stretch from all over. We wish to give assistance once again to help in any way possible.”