DEEP INTO THE 2010 football season, Stanford offensive lineman Andrew Phillips emerged from the training room after a day of classes and practice and stepped into the night with a bag of ice wrapped around a sore shoulder.
A few months earlier, Andrew’s father, Bill Phillips, and youngest brother, Willy, were on an Alaskan fishing trip when their floatplane crashed nose first into a hillside in the fog and rain. Bill was killed and Willy, despite severe foot and leg injuries, crawled out of the wreckage and up a mountain to flag down a bush pilot, saving the injured who survived the crash.
In the aftermath of the tragedy, Andrew received an outpouring of support. But after a few weeks, it dissipated as life moved on and Phillips grinded through his fifth and final season. As Phillips unlocked his bike, teammate Konrad Reuland walked by, also retrieving a bike for the ride home.
With a tap on the shoulder, Reuland asked, “Hey man, how ya’ doin’?”
“All good,” Phillips said. “Just getting ready for the game this week. How about you?”
As Phillips awaited an answer in their exchange of pleasantries, he looked up and noticed a look on Reuland’s face, one of sincerity.
“I know stuff’s been going on and I haven’t had the chance to really check in on you for a while,” Reuland said. “I know you’re OK, but … are you sure you’re OK?”
In the silence, Phillips’ eyes filled with tears. Then came the deep sobs. For months, Phillips maintained a strong presence for others without fully coming to grips with all that happened. Stoicism dissolved into the embrace of a friend.
They walked their bikes past Maples Pavilion and stopped by the football practice field. When they were done talking, they shook hands, and Phillips left toward El Camino Real, while Reuland pedaled toward Campus Drive.
That conversation takes on great meaning today for Phillips, one year after Reuland died of a ruptured brain aneurysm at age 29.
“We are not going to forget Konrad,” Phillips said. “I feel very strongly for the need to remind his parents, his brothers, the Stanford community, and the world in general, what this guy meant to us.”
KONRAD REULAND WAS a 6-foot-5, 260-pound tight end who grew up in Orange County, California, and, as one friend described, “looks like Ivan Drago.”
Unlike Drago, the blond square-jawed nemesis of Rocky IV, Reuland lifted people up instead of knocking them down. He made people better.
Each of the Reuland boys – Konrad was the oldest, followed by Warren and Austin -- spent eighth grade in Heiligenhaus, Germany, the family’s ancestral home. Konrad was the biggest in his class.
The other big kids made sport of bullying a smaller boy.
The abuse was so bad the parents went to the principal. The biggest kids were brought into the office. The parents began berating Konrad.
“Why are you picking on someone half your size?” one asked in an accusatory tone.
“No,” the boy interrupted. “He’s been protecting me. He’s my friend.”
“Konrad,” the principal said. “You’re free to go.”
As a high school sophomore, Reuland transferred to Mission Viejo at the same time as Mark Sanchez, the USC and NFL quarterback. The two played on travel basketball teams together and joined another transfer, a lanky kid from North Carolina named Sonny McCracken, to form a tight friendship as their football and basketball teams won South Coast League and CIF-Southern Section championships.
“Konrad would love to talk, would love to tell stories, and was really passionate about things that you believe in,” McCracken said. “You knew you had his full attention. When you spoke to him, you were never too small, and he was never too big. When you were talking to Konrad, you felt like the most important person in the world.”
McCracken recalled that when Reuland spoke with conviction, which was often, he shook his head from side to side.
“When I went to Konrad to complain, he was like a loudspeaker,” McCracken said. “He’d take what you say and amplify it back to you. He’d say, ‘What?! He said that?! No way, man! And then you’d hear it repeated back to you. You’re almost like, ‘Hey, maybe this isn’t such a big deal. Konrad, calm down a little bit.’ You end up calming him down because he just had your back so much.”
REULAND DIDN’T PLAY football until he was a sophomore, but within three years, he was the nation’s No. 1 tight end. He could go anywhere in the country and Stanford was his dream school. But Cardinal football was languishing and Reuland instead chose Notre Dame. Midway through his sophomore season in Indiana, Reuland became disillusioned and left.
Konrad’s brother Warren, younger by two years, was coming to Stanford to play receiver, and that cemented Konrad’s decision. Their lockers were placed next to each other. Warren was No. 87 and Konrad No. 88.
“I do think that I was Konrad’s best friend and he was certainly mine, but I was always a distant second to his family,” McCracken said. “So much of who Konrad was, his ability to stay humble, or not change when he became big time, was because of how grounded and secure he was in his family.”
Reuland needed to be humble at Stanford. Six tight ends on the 2009 team -- Jim Dray, Zach Ertz, Coby Fleener, Ryan Hewitt, Levine Toilolo, and Reuland -- would play in the NFL. Stanford earned a nickname: Tight End U.
Jim Harbaugh, hired as head coach in 2007, rode Reuland hard. There was no sympathy for the former five-star recruit, who often found himself on the sideline at practice.
“We were third-teamers at the time,” said former center Sam Schwartzstein. “And one of the things Konrad liked to do while watching practice was crack jokes about all the guys’ last names, turning them into puns.”
On receiver Doug Baldwin: He’d say, “Doug is losing his hair. It’s not really a loss, it’s a Bald-win.”
On kicker Aaron Zagary: “I saw a movie last night. There were a lot of blood and guts. It was a Za-gary one.”
“The thing with football is, you’ve got to look straight, even if you’re not paying attention,” Schwartzstein said. “He would try to get me to crack the whole time.”
Reuland was back in action in 2009, but with a hernia. The ailment hampered him all season. Still, he gutted it out while the Cardinal vaulted to an 8-5 record, its’ best in eight years, behind quarterback Andrew Luck and running back Toby Gerhart. Reuland had surgery after the season.
The difficulties in establishing himself left Reuland questioning just about every aspect of his life. His struggles led to a spiritual awakening. Reuland always related to people in personal and meaningful ways, but this transformation gave him more of a purpose in serving others, a deeper perspective on mortality, and a deeper-rooted determination.
Through it all, Reuland was respected and admired by his teammates. It showed in the massive celebration that accompanied only Stanford touchdown reception, a two-yarder early in the fourth quarter of a 37-35 victory over USC in 2010.
“Any time he walked into a room, the room would light up,” said defensive back Michael Thomas, now with the Miami Dolphins. “You had no choice but to smile when you were around Konrad.”
Reuland had good hands and was a strong blocker and could start for probably any other team in the country. Yet, the presence of Fleener and Ertz, two outstanding pass-catchers, made him earn every snap during a 12-1 season that ended with three long Fleener touchdowns in a 40-12 rout of Virginia Tech in the Orange Bowl.
“You understood that you had to basically put on your best show every single day at practice, and make sure you perform in the games, just to maintain where you were at,” Fleener said.
Harbaugh didn’t have much sympathy for injured players, but Reuland won the coach over with his effort and willingness to play through pain.
“He was full speed, he was high effort, high energy,” said David Shaw, the Bradford M. Freeman Director of Football and an assistant at the time. “There was no dropping down a gear for Konrad. There was no halfway doing anything. His heart was in everything that he did. The players loved him for that.”
Reuland had 27 catches for 351 yards in two seasons at Stanford and his so-so pass-catching totals likely hurt his stock. Harbaugh’s stock, however, was soaring. He left for the San Francisco 49ers and signed Reuland to the practice squad.
Thus began the life of an NFL journeyman. Reuland never quite overcame the stigma of being undrafted, or the politics of pro football. He produced when called upon, starting three games for the New York Jets in 2012 before a knee issue stifled his productivity.
The Jets let him go. So did the Indianapolis Colts before he was picked up by the Baltimore Ravens in 2015. Coach John Harbaugh, Jim’s brother, loved Reuland and went to bat for him when it came time for personnel decisions, but it was not his call and Reuland was released again, after playing in four games with one start. His NFL career numbers: 12 catches for 90 yards and no touchdowns in 30 games with two teams over three seasons.
The New Orleans Saints’ Fleener, a second-round draft pick in 2012 and now in his sixth NFL season, said Reuland’s ability was not the main factor in his uneven pro career.
“Konrad’s career in the NFL was more indicative of the NFL than it was of Konrad’s talent level or willingness to work hard,” Fleener said. “If you’re fortunate enough to get on the right team at the right time and the coaches like you and management likes you, that’s great. Then you can stay there and build a little base of a career.
“But it becomes more challenging if there’s less invested in you up front. The NFL views you as more expendable because they don’t have as much money invested in you. And if they can see on your resume that you’ve been with a couple of other teams, it leads to some preconceived notions to your skill set that are hard to overcome.”
WITH A DEGREE in communication, Reuland returned to Orange County.
In the next few years, Reuland developed a special, if unlikely, friendship he would treasure. He called Kimiko Lindsey-Schroder his inspiration.
Kimi was 4 years old when a strange limp led to the discovery of stage 4 neuroblastoma, an almost universally fatal cancer of the nervous system, brain, and spinal cord. The niece of close family friends Chris MacDonald and Dee Schroder MacDonald was part of the Reulands’ lives since birth.
Since the diagnosis in 2010, Kimi has endured what seems like countless rounds of treatments. Since there is no cure, there are no limits to the drugs put into her system. Treatment is considered among the most painful in the cancer world -- surgery, radiation, stem-cell transplants, experimental clinical trials and chemotherapy. Each toxic medicine warns of organ failure or death.
Konrad’s father, Ralf, a doctor, said that one advantage, if it can be called that, of experiencing this so young is that Kimi has no pain threshold. She has nothing to reference as an adult would.
“This is all she’s ever really known,” said her father, Peter Schroder. “This is her normal.”
Despite this misery, a doctor walks by her room and waves to the nurses to come look. As faces crowd against a window, they see Kimi, hooked to her IV pole, dancing and twirling. They marvel at how this little girl, who’s throwing up multiple times a day, in extreme pain, and with enough drugs to take down the best of us, can be so happy.
“We had an oncologist who recognized her personality and he said, ‘That’s what’s going to keep her alive,’” Peter said. “People ask me all the time: ‘Where do you get the strength to get through this?’ You know what? I get my strength from her.”
Sophie, her best friend at City of Hope, didn’t make it. There were others as well. Kimi views death not with dread, but as an entry to heaven. She saw angels outside her window one night and insisted they were real, pointing to their location. She giggled, laughed and sang to their presence, though others could not see them.
The first time Konrad made a special visit to her home in San Diego, Kimi sat by the window, chin on her fist, staring until he arrived. Before he reached the door, Konrad could hear the pattering of her feet in excitement as she yelled, “He’s here! He’s here!”
Konrad visited at least once a week while he was home, taking her to the park, singing Taylor Swift songs on her karaoke app, playing video games, joining her in ballet, or just talking and joking. He picked her up and carried her on his broad shoulders. She was queen of the world. He stayed so long at the hospital that the doctors and nurses had to kick him out.
When he left, admiring nurses saw this handsome man walking down the hall, and asked Kimi, “Who’s that?”
“That’s my friend Konrad,” she said proudly. “He plays in the NFL.”
When all three Reuland brothers visited, Kimi decided to paint their faces with a makeup set, whose package read, “Washes right off.”
She painted their nails yellow, blue and green, and worked on their faces with shades of pink, purple, and magenta.
“You have to wear it all the way home,” she demanded. “And take a picture with your mother.”
The next day, Peter got a text from Konrad: “It didn’t wash off.”
“He adored her,” Peter said. “And it would not be an understatement to say Kimi absolutely adored him. He made her laugh. It was a genuine friendship on every level. I’ll always be grateful for all he did for my daughter.”
McCRACKEN MOVED TO San Francisco, but returned to Orange County to visit friends and family when he and his fiancée, Courtney, met Reuland at a small Corona del Mar restaurant on November 26, 2016, to catch up.
Though he hadn’t been on a team since being let go from the Colts’ practice squad earlier that season, Reuland and his agent were receiving multiple calls as NFL teams were competing for playoff positions. He tried out for the New England Patriots and others. Reuland was confident that his return to the NFL was around the corner and was the fittest he’d ever been.
Konrad ordered a meal and Sonny and Courtney each had a beer. Afterward, Konrad returned to his condo in Irvine and worked out before he was to visit his family. Warren was home from medical school in New Orleans and Austin had graduated from Yale in the spring. That week the Reulands spent their first Thanksgiving together in years.
Konrad called Warren around 10:30 p.m.
“Hey, can you talk?” Konrad asked. He described a “click” behind his left eye, and a headache on that spot. Warren passed the phone to Ralf, who told Konrad to get to the ER immediately. They found the aneurysm on a CT scan.
McCracken woke up early the next morning for his return north and noticed a text from Konrad.
“Hey Crack Dog, I had such an amazing time with you and Courtney last night. It was really great getting to see you. It had been too long. Oh, by the way, I had an aneurysm last night.”
“This must be a misdiagnosis,” McCracken responded. “There’s no way you had an aneurysm and you’re texting me.”
“Yeah, I’m in Mission Hospital right now. We’re figuring out what we’re going to do. I’m going to be OK.”
Of course you’re going to be OK, McCracken thought. You’re Konrad.
When being transported to the Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center, Reuland was scared.
Other than the headaches, Konrad seemed himself for the next several days. He got to know the doctors and nurses, and laughed with his friends.
Mary offered encouragement.
“Konrad, you are the strongest, hardest working person that I know,” she wrote in a text. “There is no way this is going to defeat you. I love you so much. Let’s prepare for the fight of your life.”
Konrad responded: “Thanks for the pep talk. I’m about to kick this thing’s butt with the help of God. He has something big in store for me and this is something that will help manifest what it is. I can’t wait to see where His will takes me.”
On November 30, Konrad felt tired and his family left for dinner. Soon, Ralf received a call from the nurse. Konrad had a terrible headache and was drifting in and out of consciousness. The aneurysm, in the middle cerebral artery, had ruptured.
At midnight, doctors began surgery. Seventeen hours later, they stopped the bleeding. However, they couldn’t stop the swelling and did everything they could to cool the body, increasing the risk of infection.
Just when it seemed Konrad had stabilized, he was struck with pneumonia. It had to be stopped. If he couldn’t breathe, his brain would be starved of oxygen. But putting Konrad on his stomach to clear his lungs created more pressure on the brain.
Ralf and Austin, in a desperate attempt to clear his lungs, massaged his back by using elbows, hands, thumbs, and fingers -- anything to clear the phlegm and mucus.
“It was a Hail Mary,” said Chris MacDonald, the family friend.
The doctors conceded defeat, turned Konrad onto his back and instructed family to contact anyone they could to say goodbye. For 45 minutes, the sadness was palpable and intense, and the crying did not stop.
“You’ve been fighting this really hard,” McCracken said to him. “You don’t have to fight this anymore if you don’t want to. If you want to go, you can go.”
There was a knock on the door and the doctor pulled Ralf aside.
“We’ve never seen this before,” the doctor said. “The lungs started to clear when he was on his back. That should not happen.”
The battle was back on. For a couple of hours, there was a spike of hope, but It only delayed the inevitable. The pressure in Konrad’s head was too great.
On Monday, December 12, Konrad Reuland was pronounced dead.
“The swelling … we couldn’t overcome the swelling,” Warren said. “They did everything they could. He was just given an unfair fight.”
SCHWARTZSTEIN HAD KEPT Stanford teammates apprised -- a whole network of friends and teammates followed the ordeal – and was at work when he received the news in a text.
“I booked a conference room,” he said. “It had clear windows. I’m watching everyone else going about their day. And I’ve got my list of telephone numbers that I’ve got to call. That was a rough day.”
In San Diego, Peter Schroder wanted to be the one to tell Kimi.
“She was devastated,” he said. “She couldn’t understand how someone so strong and muscular could go like that.”
John Harbaugh made the news public in a Ravens’ postgame press conference, such was Reuland’s impact on a team he played only a handful of games with. The Ravens held a moment of silence before their next home game with a picture of Reuland on the scoreboard.
For two days after his death, the hospital kept Konrad’s body on life support. By fighting off the pneumonia, his body was healthy enough to be harvested for organ donations.
In March, it was revealed that Reuland’s heart and kidney were donated to baseball Hall of Famer Rod Carew.
In an emotional meeting with the Carew family at the Reulands’ home in San Juan Capistrano, Ralf listened to his son’s heart through a stethoscope. Mary didn’t need the stethoscope. She simply put her head on Carew’s chest and listened for herself.
Konrad’s heart remained strong and healthy and each pump seemed to be a statement of reassurance from their son. His lifeblood flows and he continues to help others, not only through Carew, but through everyone he has touched and influenced.
There is the woman who received Konrad’s other kidney and wrote a letter saying she just finished a three-mile walk and was looking forward to seeing her 3-year-old granddaughter grow up. A man received Konrad’s liver, and others received his cornea and skin grafts.
The organ donation did not require much thought, just signing a form while renewing a driver’s license. But it was an appropriate way to be remembered and an extension of how Reuland lived -- giving, sacrificing, serving.
“He was always there for everybody and always made people feel good about themselves,” Shaw said. “It’s just kind of what you’d expect from him.”
As they sat together on the couch, Mary turned to Carew and said, “You are now part of our family.” Carew agreed. Yes, they were united through Konrad.
Now, it’s Kimi who needs hope. She recently relapsed for the fifth time. She found out the day before Thanksgiving. The cancer had been in remission since June. Her hair grew back. She started middle school. Now this.
Kimi already has begun treatment, which consists of chemotherapy every day and a dose of anti-bodies to target the neuroblastoma cells.
“The hope is that 4-6 rounds will get it to remission or we’ll have to reevaluate,” Peter said. “In the neuroblastoma world, you want to get to the next six months and hope for something new. She’s probably never been healthier or stronger and she’s keeping a positive attitude. But she’s got a tough road ahead.”
Kimi is 11 now. She takes ballet lessons, plays the guitar, played Little League baseball, was school president and is in Girl Scouts. She’s funny, smart, and has a big personality. What she doesn’t do is feel sorry for herself.
She is a living miracle who has achieved “no evidence of disease” four times through sophisticated experimental treatments. The hope is that she will do it again and that her body can achieve spontaneous remission. That would mean her immune system finally will be able to defend her.
“She’s beaten it before,” Peter said. “If anybody can beat this, it’s Kimi.”
Last week, for this story, Michiko Lindsey-Shroder asked her daughter what her favorite thing about Konrad was.
“He was the adult most like a kid I’ve ever met,” Kimi said. “Being friends with him made me feel special.”
Michiko said, “Kimi and Konrad had a special connection. Our lives were made better for knowing him. He was a good, good man.”
AT STANFORD, REULAND’S legacy lives on through his teammates.
“He is the definition of what a Stanford athlete should be, and he should be remembered that way,” Schwartzstein said. “He came from somewhere else, chose to be here, worked his way up from the bottom, and did it with a smile, making 100 friends along the way and being loved by every team he played on.
“That’s what makes a Stanford man, someone who never stops fighting, is always smiling, and always bringing people together. Everyone who comes through this program should know Konrad and his story.”
We’ll finish with this.
On January 1, days after Reuland’s funeral, MacDonald came to Konrad’s gravesite to pray. The prayer was intense and MacDonald drifted into a meditative state as he asked God for a sign that Konrad was going to be OK.
Suddenly, a laser-like sunbeam came from the sky and shined on the grave.
“I’m thinking, something divine is going on here,” MacDonald said. He took a photo and texted Ralf.
At the same time, Mr. and Mrs. Reuland were sitting in the kitchen when Mary said, “I wish there was a sign that he was all right.”
A buzz came to Ralf’s cell phone. It was a photo. He turned the phone toward Mary. They didn’t say a word.