MAYER – Riley Krueger’s life changed in an instant.
In the middle of his sophomore year, Krueger was a skinny and athletic basketball player who caught the eye of new Mayer Lutheran head coach Pat Buchanan. To Buchanan’s misfortune, he would have to wait and see what Krueger could do at the varsity level. He would have to wait even longer than he thought.
THE BEGINING OF THE STORM
In his first year as head coach of the Mayer Lutheran boys’ basketball team, Buchanan was taking in a junior varsity game in early January. While watching intently, he noticed a sophomore with great potential.
“He caught my eye in my first year here when he was a sophomore,” Buchanan said. “I was looking at this little, quiet kid. He can go unnoticed because he’s so quiet. I started watching a couple of the junior varsity games and I said, “Man, this dude can help us right now. We can back up Garrett.”
While the idea of having Riley on the varsity would be a nice addition, Buchanan was forced to wait.
“We couldn’t play him because he transferred in,” Buchanan said. “He wasn’t eligible. At that time, I saw something special in him. That’s when I really started to see something special and started to look forward to his junior year.”
Waiting a season to have Riley on his team didn’t seem like the worst thing, but life has plans of its own.
The first few days of Riley’s junior year put a wrench in Buchanan’s vision and Riley’s basketball goals. What started as a simple illness quickly became more serious.
Shortly after school started, Riley was complaining about flu-like symptoms and stayed home from school. His parents thought it might be food poisoning, and things began to improve for him.
A few days later, the symptoms returned for Riley. After missing two days of school, his parents decided to play it safe and take him in to get checked out.
“I kind of thought of it as not a big deal,” Riley said. “I just assumed it was the flu or food poisoning or something. After a week or so, it kind of went away. Then it came back, with another week of vomiting and stuff. That’s when we knew we had to check it out.”
While it seemed certain that something wasn’t right for Riley, the worry turned into action. Riley’s dad, Dennis, was out hunting when he got a call from his wife, Sherri, that stopped him in his tracks.
“We thought it was food poisoning when he first was sick and throwing up,” Dennis said. “I was actually out bow hunting. She was going to take him to the doctor to get checked out because he was throwing up so much. I was literally in my tree stand. I typically don’t have my phone on. I noticed I had a few missed calls. I finally got a hold of her and she told us that I needed to meet them at Children’s Hospital. She didn’t say why. She didn’t want to say anything in front of Riley. I was a little frustrated because I was wondering what’s going on because she wouldn’t say anything. She just said that I need to meet them there.”
The timing of Riley’s illness added another challenge for the Krueger family.
“We were selling our house at the time,” Sherri said. “He was sick and then went back to school. Then about two weeks later, it was the night before our house was going on the market. In the middle of the night, he comes upstairs and says he threw up again. At that point, I knew this wasn’t food poisoning, but you don’t know what it is. You never think it’s anything serious.”
Upon Riley’s first visit to Children’s Hospital, there was a feeling of uncertainty. At first, doctors and staff weren’t sure what they were looking for. Once they found a problem area, they needed to make sure what was going on before announcing it to Riley and his parents.
“What I remember about that is the person who came in to do the ultrasound said she was going to do the gallbladder,” Sherri said. “I thought it was going to be the whole abdomen, but she was like, ‘Nope. It just says the gallbladder.’ Then, all of a sudden, she jumped up and said she’ll be right back. That’s when I was like, something is wrong. She probably knew right away and didn’t say anything. Then I remember when the doctor shook my hand and said ‘good luck’. At that moment, I thought it was bad the way he said it.”
As doctors continued to do tests on Riley, the Kruegers finally got some confirmation on what was going on. Riley had cancer. Upon hearing the news, the Kruegers had to wait more than a week to find out what would be the plan of action going forward, as they still had to identify which type of cancer Riley had.
“It was hard,” Dennis said about the waiting game. “The main doctor at Children’s came in and told us he has cancer, but they didn’t know what type. They couldn’t start treatment until they knew what it was. There are so many different types that you need to know how to treat it. You can’t just start giving him something when you don’t know the type of cancer he has. It was over a week until we actually found out. That was the hardest part. Knowing he had cancer, but not knowing how bad it was. They couldn’t say anything.”
Throughout the week of waiting for the diagnosis, worry set in for Riley’s parents. While there was nothing they could do at the time, Sherri and Dennis knew their son was a fighter.
“The whole team of doctors was there,” Sherri said. “I remember one guy asked me, ‘what is my biggest fear?’ That’s when it finally hit me. It was if they said they can’t do anything. That was my biggest fear. I didn’t care if we have to do this for a long time or what the treatments are like. Riley’s tough. He’ll do anything he has to do. He’s tough and he’s a fighter.”
While Riley’s parents were constantly thinking about what might come of this situation, Riley chose a different way to handle it. He handled the wait like he does all things. Not thinking about things he can’t control, and relying on his faith.
“At the time, I just tried not to think about it,” Riley said. “That’s just the kind of way I deal with stuff. Don’t think about it until I know for sure. I wasn’t getting worked up about it, but I didn’t know for sure what it was. It was pretty scary and stuff. Just praying and reading Bible verses gave me some comfort. I had that stuff to help me get through it.”
After more than a week of waiting for the official news from the doctors, Riley and his family got the report. Riley was diagnosed with diffuse large B-cell lymphoma, a cancer that starts in white blood cells. It usually grows in lymph nodes—the pea-sized glands in the neck, groin, armpits, and elsewhere that are part of the immune system.
The news that your kid has cancer is a scary moment for parents, but the doctors and medical staff quickly showed optimism for Riley.
“Once they finally figured out what it was, the doctor was able to come in and tell us what it was,” Dennis said. “He told us that this is one of the most treatable and curable cancers you can get, and we don’t use the world curable often when we talk about cancer. That was the best news we could hear.”
News about Riley’s diagnosis quickly spread around Mayer Lutheran. Within days, Riley’s basketball coach was there in his hospital room to offer his help in any way possible.
“It didn’t go to basketball for me,” Buchanan said about hearing the news. “When it came to me, I didn’t think about basketball. Basketball wasn’t important to me anymore. It was this kid going through something terrible. I wanted to know how could I support him the best – him and his family. The thought was how could I be there for him. I don’t know what they’re going through, but I wanted to be the best supporter that I could. That was my only thought.”
Among the good news of Riley’s diagnosis also came hard news. Riley’s goal of playing varsity basketball would be put on hold at the very least, and possibly forever.
“The first thought was he’s never going to play basketball again,” Sherri said. “Right in that mindset, Pat came into the hospital. He came up there and told us that we don’t have to come to the parents meeting for basketball and that we’ll just let you know what’s going on. I was like, ‘let us know what’s going on? He’s not playing basketball ever. What do you mean let us know what’s going on?’ I didn’t think there was anything to know about the season.”
As Sherri was unsure about her son playing basketball again, Buchanan made sure he had Riley’s jersey waiting for him when he was able to return to the floor.
“Pat’s next question was asking Riley what jersey he wanted,” Sherri said. “He was like, ‘you might not play this year, but you’re still on the team.’ I hadn’t really thought about it that way. That was huge. That was huge for Riley. From that moment, he knew he was still a part of the team.”
Riley began chemotherapy following the diagnosis. While there were certainly tough times for both Riley and his parents, Riley stayed steady throughout.
“I was a little nervous because he never showed any emotion,” Dennis said. “Through the whole process, he never cried once. To me, it was hard to keep it together when we were in front of him. We were trying to be strong. It was just hard for me to understand that he fully believed the doctors when they said he was going to beat this. It was a hard process. For him to totally believe, 100 percent, and not be worried was amazing.”
Steady as a rock throughout, there was never a doubt in Riley’s mind he would not only beat cancer but also return to the basketball court for his senior year.
“I had a lot of trust with the doctors and nurses,” Riley said. “They told me right away that this was curable and that they’ll make sure everything goes well. I knew I would get through this. The goal was to be ready for my senior season.”
As Riley began to work his way through treatment, his mother was right there beside him every step of the way. To see what Riley had to go through to get back to where he is now will always stick with her.
“The things he had to do,” Sherri said. “You don’t really realize it. I remember him having to do 10 squats. He could barely do them. You look and realize how difficult it was to do 10 squats in a hospital room during chemo. You look at that then, and now he’s sprinting up and down the court and starting to dunk. He had that mindset for sure.”
A COMMUNITY OF SUPPORT
Riley and his family were not alone throughout his battle with cancer. From his basketball team to the volleyball and football teams, as well as Mayer Lutheran as a whole, the support for the Kruegers was there from the beginning.
Throughout the volleyball season, the Crusaders wore #Play4RI T-shirts, including at the state tournament. The football team would carry a flag with the same message, all in support of their teammate, friend, and classmate.
“It made him feel like he was still a part of what was going on,” Dennis said. “Even though he wasn’t there, he still was part of it. It was very nice to have support from everybody.”
Riley’s basketball teammates found their own way to honor him, as well.
“That was the most important thing that year,” Buchanan said about Riley. “We were going to honor him every single day in whatever way we could. Whether we’re walking around in school, or we’re out here playing this game. We left his jersey number (No. 32) untouched. That was his. He was on that roster. The wristbands just unified us as a team and showed that we were there for him. We wanted to let it be known that we were there for him.”
The support for Riley and his family went beyond Mayer Lutheran. All of Riley’s nurses, doctors, and medical staff did anything possible to help make this battle easier for him and have him be able to come home and be with his team.
“They bent over backward for him,” Sherri said. “They would schedule transfusions on the day before a game so he wouldn’t be dizzy. All his counts and everything would be high enough. They bent over backward for him to be able to make games. They would count down the hours to make sure things worked for him so he could come sit on the bench.”
Having his jersey set aside, seeing his friends and classmates wear shirts for him meant the world to Riley. It was something that helped him throughout his battle with cancer.
“It meant a lot,” Riley said. “The school has been really good throughout my whole battle with cancer. All the sports teams, student sections, and teachers were incredible. It was just really good.”
THE RETURN TO THE GAME HE LOVES
Dec. 3, 2019, will be a special day for the Krueger family for years to come. After battling cancer and beating it, Riley would play in the first varsity game of his career to open the season for Mayer Lutheran. While Riley saw some time on the court with his team in the summer, he would be making his first official varsity appearance.
“In the summer, he got a couple of games in with the same coach and teammates,” Sherri said. “I remember it was like that feeling when you drop your kindergartener off at school for the first time. We looked up and he was taking his first free throw. You just felt he was my baby again and I didn’t want anyone to hurt him.”
Taking on the Bloomington Kennedy Eagles, Krueger checked into the game for the first time in the first half, for the first time since beating cancer.
“There are things and someone bigger than us out here in this world,” Buchanan said in an interview after the Bloomington Kennedy game. “To see a kid go through and fight cancer that he has been fighting, and to see him step up on the floor, it’s special. At the end of the day, basketball doesn’t matter. You look at that. Basketball doesn’t even matter. We’ve supported him and we were excited for him. Finally, he was in the huddle with us. We’re going to enjoy this. He’s going to enjoy this.”
Riley’s first game back was a goal for him all along. He finished with just four points in his first game back, but reaching his goal and playing the game he loves was the most important thing that night.
“It just feels great,” Krueger said following the game against Bloomington Kennedy. “After a whole year without it, I just really appreciate being back. Basketball, I just can’t live without it. Last season just made me really appreciate it.”I just wanted to play with all my heart and go from there.”
The moment wasn’t lost on Riley’s parents either.
“It was special,” Dennis said. “Very special. It was emotional to watch him go out there and play.”
With Krueger back at full strength, he’s been a big piece to the success for the Crusaders all season long. While basketball is certainly an important part of Riley’s life, his coach has been making sure his team can learn from Riley and what he’s already accomplished in his young life off the basketball court.
“We all go through certain things, but I don’t think any of us have gone through what he’s personally went through as a young man,” Buchanan said. “You can battle through everything. He’s a true testament to that. Some people think it’s a cliché statement, but it’s not. It’s true. When you’re able to battle through things like that, what’s going to hold you back from doing anything in this world? You can fight through a lot of things. It’s not just about the game of basketball, but to be able to help you through that in life. I think that’s the biggest lesson we can learn from that.”
While having Riley back on the court this season has been a blessing for Buchanan and the Crusaders, it pales in comparison to everything else he and his family have in front of them.
“It’s just the joy that he gets to do a lot of things in life now that may be in a nine-month span he never thought he would be able to do,” Buchanan said. “He gets the chance to watch his favorite teams. He gets to hug his mom and brother and dad. He gets to be with family and hang out with his good friends at school. I know basketball and being with this family is important too, but just the fact that he can wake up every morning right now and live a normal life is bigger. That’s a great blessing there that we got from above.”
As Krueger and Mayer Lutheran gear up for the section tournament and fight to keep their season alive, Buchanan will forever be grateful for the relationship the two of them have built on and off the basketball court.
“He’s a great kid,” Buchanan said. “Behind his quietness, there’s a super funny kid in there. I think you’ve got to be really lucky and really blessed to see that part of him. I think I’m lucky and blessed to see that part of him. He’s a special kid and I wish the world for him. I know he’ll accomplish great things.
Riley’s return to the Crusaders goes deeper than his coach. Fellow senior and lifelong friend Brady Harnung had to watch his friend go through one of the hardest times of his life at an early age. Flash forward to the present, and the two of them will finish off their high school basketball careers together on the court, something that wasn’t a given a year ago.
“It’s been great to have him back,” Harnung said. “He’s right back to where he left off. It’s just crazy to see the journey he’s been through. It’s just great to see him back. Being friends with him since sixth grade just makes it a lot better. It’s been so long that we’ve been playing together. Senior year has a lot of emotion with everything, so we’re just glad that we get to play together again. He inspires us to work hard for sure. He worked hard to conquer cancer. Now we need to work hard to get us to state. That’s our goal.”
Krueger and the Crusaders open Section 2A play Saturday, Feb. 29 when they host Cedar Mountain. While it will be Krueger’s first varsity playoff game, he knows how important this journey he’s been on is.
“This season has already gone by super fast,” Riley said. “Now, I’m thinking that I’ve got to work my hardest so we can finish the season the way we want to.”
Being forced into a battle with cancer at a young age takes its toll on you. Riley never gave up. He never will, and it’s taught him to make the most of every moment.
“It gives you a new outlook on life,” Krueger said. “It’s taught me to try the best in everything you can because you never know what could happen.”