In late January, Illinois basketball made headlines, but not in the most traditional of ways. After a string of unfortunate injuries and suspensions, the Illini bench was growing thinner and thinner. With little options to add depth, head coach John Groce was forced to improvise in order for his team tp be able to maintain a complete roster. With the heart of the Big Ten season approaching, there was no time to work out new guys for the program. But just when it seemed as if the Illini would have to traverse the rest of the season down a man, Groce found a solution.
Enter Ryan Schmidt.
A basketball team manager, Schmidt, a senior, was among others in charge of recording stats, prepping equipment and assisting the coaching staff. A former high school basketball star at Bloomington Central Catholic (Ill.), Schmidt also served on the Illini practice squad, learning the upcoming opponent's playbook in order to prepare the team for the new scheme they would be facing that game. While he had been one of the better members on the scout team, never had he thought he would have the opportunity to try his luck at the next level.
"I never really expected to suit up for the orange and blue," Schmidt said in a press conference after Groce had informed Ryan of his promotion to team member January 23rd. "My room's decked out in Illini gear."
Groce, however, saw it as a fantastic solution for a deserving young man.
"Ryan's a great kid and has been the entire time I've been here," he said. "Obviously, played in high school, and was a really good high school player."
This unorthodox move started a media frenzy and was picked up by everybody from ESPN to our own SBNation. As fellow team manager Adam Metzger put it, Schmidt was "[living] out every manager's dream".
It was only going to get better. After retaining much of his manager duties while suited up in uniform, Schmidt finally had the opportunity to play in a game when the Illini took Michigan to overtime on February 12. After tying the game late, Illinois was able to pull away in OT to take a commanding lead. With fourteen seconds left in the game, Groce motioned over for Schmidt, who threw off his warm up cover and ran out on the floor to a deafening ovation at the State Farm Center. While he did not shoot the ball in those final seconds, he lined up on the baseline for free throws and was able to dribble the ball.
Schmidt saw three more appearances later in the year, each at the tail end of games for a minute at a time. Yet even though the playing time was short lived, the memories live on, both for Ryan and his family.
"I got my camera out when they called that timeout with 14 seconds left in the event that he did get in," Randy Schmidt said after the Michigan game. "I mentioned to Ryan’s mom that it looked like he was going to get in. ... She was just screaming for 20 straight seconds. It was almost like a dream come true."
While Ryan graduated yesterday from University of Illinois with a bachelors degree in accounting, he will return in the fall for graduate school as he will try to earn his CPA. When asked about the future, Schmidt expressed interest in returning to help with the program if he has time.
If there's any take away from this story, it's the dream of the underdog. A kid who mopped floors, served water and carried luggage for the better part of three years was given the opportunity to be something more than a face in the crowd. It's a story of hope that every dream, even the biggest ones, have the ability to come true. For Ryan Schmidt, the Illini experience doesn't get any better than this.