UConn Baseball Pitcher/Grad Student Ryan Radue Didn’t Let Cancer Call the Play
On the baseball mound, UConn pitcher Ryan Radue can strike out his fiercest opponent with the combination of a steely gaze, a powerful right arm and a sizzling fastball.
If only cancer were that vulnerable.
Ryan was diagnosed in the fall with Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma—one of the meanest of the mean cancers. Friends and family, professors, coaches and healthcare workers are in awe of Ryan’s determination, perseverance and outlook. He refused, they said, to let cancer call the play.
Ryan was able to complete his undergraduate degree in accounting, with a certificate in management information systems, in December 2015, a semester early. Then he started his master’s degree in accounting—all while undergoing six brutal rounds of inpatient chemotherapy.
His most recent tests, conducted at the end of January, showed no sign of the disease, and he now refers to himself as a cancer survivor.
“Ryan has always been a person who gives 100 percent toward everything– from school work, to tests, to ACTs. He puts forth his best and never needs the ‘spotlight.’ That’s Ryan,” said his mom Joan Radue. “So to watch him fight cancer with such strength isn’t a surprise to [his dad] Mark or me.
“This is not what a 21-year-old is supposed to be doing,” she said. “As parents we want nothing more than to protect him. We were wishing that God had given this to us, not to him.”
‘Maturity Beyond His Years’
A native of Appleton, Wisc., Ryan spent last summer playing baseball with the Green Bay Bullfrogs, a collegiate league. His game was in great shape and Ryan, an honors student, was more excited than ever to return to UConn.
In the early days of fall training, Ryan felt a nagging pain in his right knee, his speed was down, and he generally felt a bit off. That’s when doctors discovered a tumor in his knee. An initial test came back benign, but a second test confirmed that he had cancer, both in the knee and in his neck.
Head baseball coach Jim Penders was with Ryan when the doctor delivered the horrible news. Ryan’s response was astonishing, Penders recalled. Ryan took a deep breath and slowly exhaled, and his next question was to ask how to defeat the disease. There were no tears and certainly no self-pity, Penders said.
“He has maturity beyond his years,” the coach said. “I wouldn’t want this to happen to anyone, but if there was one guy who could handle it and get through it, it is Ryan. He has a maturity and toughness that are rare these days. He has great heart and, though he doesn’t talk about it often, he is very spiritual. Faith is important to him. And his family… they are wonderful people.”
Ryan describes the way he coped with the news.
“It had been a great summer, both on and off the field,” said Radue. “I was looking forward to returning and helping the team. Then this hit and it was a quick 180,” he said.
“Once the shock went away and there was a plan, I settled into a groove. I approached each day with the attitude, ‘What can I do today? What can I do this hour to get better?’ I literally took it hour-by-hour.”
‘Your Teammates Have Your Back’
Ryan developed a love for baseball on his first birthday, when his parents gave him a plastic bat and ball. At Fox Valley Lutheran High School in Wisconsin, Ryan played three seasons of varsity baseball and earned unanimous Conference MVP honors and set school records for innings pitched, strikeouts in a season and wins in a season. He was also the valedictorian.
Though far from home, Ryan chose UConn because of the baseball program and the academic rigor. Many semesters he has achieved a perfect 4.0 in the classroom.
On the field, Ryan has a 3.06 ERA in 28 career appearances for UConn. He redshirted with an elbow injury during his freshman year, so he is eligible to pitch this year and next.
“I just love being on the mound and in so much control of what’s going on. Everyone is waiting for you to pitch,” he said. “But another part of the excitement is the ‘family’ aspect of baseball. Your teammates have your back, and that came out more than ever these last few months.”
When roommates and fellow players Nico Darras and Joseph DeRoche-Duffin heard the news that Ryan had cancer, they rallied around him, even taking him out for a steak dinner to boost his spirits. They, and the rest of the team, shaved their heads in a show of support once Ryan’s hair began falling out.
“Our team responded the way you would expect for anyone going through hard times,” Penders said. “Ryan is the guy who did all the right things all the time. I never had to reprimand him, ever. I think his teammates have found an even deeper appreciation for him. He is so upbeat and mentally tough.”
UConn Support Was Wide-Reaching
The one thing that Ryan knew for certain was that he wanted to stay in Connecticut, and continue his studies, while fighting the disease.
His treatment included six chemotherapy sessions that each required a five-day hospitalization at UConn Health in Farmington. He’s battled through, despite terrible side effects that caused mouth sores, which made it difficult to eat and to talk, fevers and even pneumonia.
He excelled during his final exams, despite the side effects of chemotherapy, which can leave patients a bit mentally foggy and struggling with memory.
“It would have been much harder to get through the chemotherapy without school. Otherwise, I’d just be focused on ‘the fight,'” Ryan said. “Staying in school, and being around my friends, that really helped me.”
He also has become a favorite of the staff at UConn Health.
“Five days of chemotherapy can be really, really long,” he said. “The nurses made it go by quickly. All the nurses were wonderful. In fact, they are even talking about coming to one of our baseball games.”
In the School of Business, his professors went out of their way to help.
And, when Penders mentioned Ryan’s health issue in a university coaches meeting, the response was immediate.
Football coach Bob Diaco, who had never met Ryan, sent him some 90 notes of encouragement. Men’s hockey coach Mike Cavanaugh reached out to him several times. And after speaking with retired men’s basketball coach Jim Calhoun, a three-time cancer survivor, Ryan said he had a new outlook.
UConn President Susan Herbst recently met Ryan and applauded his academic prowess. His coach said Ryan has more private cell phone numbers than he does.
“I’m in awe of what he has endured to get through the moment. He has incredible strength to win over this horrible disease,” said his mother, a high school math teacher, who took a leave from her job to be with her son through his treatments. Ryan’s father and sister visit often.
“He had passion inside to get the degree and move on,” she said. “He found the strength to say, ‘Cancer is not going to beat me.’ He had the fire.
“When we got confirmation from the PET scan that there was no sign of disease, I can’t express the joy and relief. That confirmation was the most incredible Christmas gift any parent, any family member, could want!,” she said.
Just Worrying about Now
Ryan will receive radiation treatment over the next month, this time in New York, as an insurance policy against the disease returning. Following a month of recuperation, doctors expect he will be able to resume practicing and playing with the team. His coach is looking forward to the pitcher’s return.
“I want to call him ‘Coach’ sometimes,” said Penders. “I’m supposed to be motivating, inspiring and teaching these players, but those were things that Ryan did from the moment he arrived on campus.”
Ryan has accepted a summer internship with PricewaterhouseCoopers in Minneapolis. His plan is to work for one of the Big Four accounting firms after completing his master’s degree.
In the meantime, Ryan will be a guest speaker at the 7th Annual White Coat Gala, which benefits UConn Health, on April 16 at the Connecticut Convention Center in Hartford. He will rub elbows with top cancer researchers and other pioneers in patient care. The gala has raised more than $3.5 million since its inception.
He hasn’t figured out exactly what he’ll say that evening, but Ryan has some tried-and-true advice about getting through any difficult situation.
“You don’t bite off more than you can handle,” he said, instead focusing on the small steps.
“What’s changed for me? I’m not worrying about the past or the future; just now. You see a lot more little things and appreciate a great deal more when you live life that way.”