Former Bullfrog Ryan Radue Beats Cancer
After beating cancer, UConn pitcher Ryan Radue hopes to be back on mound by April
FARMINGTON — The large double doors swung open on the sixth floor at UConnHealth, and Ryan Radue walked out, trying to act surprised when he saw his teammates in the hallway.
He turned and faced the UConn baseball team, and, choking back tears, said, "It's so important everybody's here."
"It went by like that," Radue said, snapping his fingers for emphasis. "Kicked the hell out of it, and we're ready to kick the hell out of this," Radue said as his teammates applauded. Coach Jim Penders handed him a sock stuffed with baseballs — signifying it's almost time for the pitcher to get back to work.
Weeks of powerful chemotherapy had wiped out the cancer discovered in Radue's knee and neck, with a month of radiation still to come. But neither the illness nor the harsh effects of treatment separated him from school, where he graduated in December, a semester early, or his teammates. Now his fight is in the late innings and he let everyone know he was winning. He hopes to be pitching by the end of April.
"That's all him," said outfielder Joe DeRoche-Duffin, one of Radue's closest friends. "It just shows you the internal fight that he has, and it's so inspiring. He's just been amazing."
Radue, a 6-foot-5 righthander, had come back to Storrs in August with high hopes for a breakthrough senior season as a key part of the Huskies' relief corps. "I had the best summer of my life," he said. He'd pitched for the Green Bay Bullfrogs of the Northwoods League, where he was hitting 95 mph with his fastball, striking out more than one batter per inning pitched.
"Then one day we were throwing on the side," said Nico Darras, Radue's roommate, "and he kept saying, 'Man, there's something wrong with my knee.' He couldn't plant his leg and push off, his velocity was low — and I'd seen him hit 95."
Radue had an MRI, then UConn team physician Matt Hall ordered an X-ray. When Hall looked at the results, he told Penders, who brought Radue to the office to be with him when he got the information. Hall told him he saw a tumor on Radue's knee.
"Ryan inhaled and exhaled," Penders said. "No tears. And he said, 'OK, how do we attack this.' From that moment, he was ready to fight, ready to compete, and he became our coach. He coaches us on how to handle a situation like this."
There would be a week of limbo — the worst part, Radue remembers — during which more tests were done, including a false negative, before a PET scan confirmed cancer.
Ryan's family came from Appleton, Wis., expecting to bring him home. Both his parents had gone to the University of Wisconsin, and only after the official visit in 2011, his mother recalled, did she look Penders in the eye and tell him they would trust him to take care of their son. Now, Ryan told them he wanted to stay in Storrs.
"You need to hold on to somewhat of the life you had," he said. "It helps with the coping, it gives you a little something to distract yourself with."
When Darras heard the news, "I ran over to the dorm and hugged him and we cried," he said. Then Darras and DeRoche-Duffin took Radue out for a steak dinner.
"We realized this was his life now, UConn was his life," said Joan Radue, Ryan's mother. "His support system was in Connecticut."
Joan took a leave of absence from her job as a high school math teacher in Appleton and has spent the fall and winter in Connecticut.
"Your purpose in life is to protect your child, to keep them happy, to keep them from having to go through something like this," she said. "My husband, Mark, and I were looking at each other, 'Oh, gosh, is he accepting of it? Is he ready?' You don't know, he's 21, and 21-year-olds aren't supposed to go through this. He just had such inner strength, such courage."
As the team began its fall workout schedule, Radue was going through cycle after cycle of chemotherapy. It was decided he was strong enough to endure stronger doses. Penders met with him continually, and one day Penders sent the family to the basketball training center for a chat with Jim Calhoun, who has beaten cancer three times. As Joan Radue remembers, Calhoun told her son, "You're young, you're physically fit, you're going to beat this and you're going to be back on that dirt."
Ryan recalls the feeling he had when he left the legendary coach's office. "I just remember walking out of his office feeling relieved, as if some of the weight had been lifted off," he said. "Almost with a sense of joy. It was weird. It was awesome, but it was weird."
Longtime UConn basketball coach Dee Rowe, also a cancer survivor, offered more encouragement, as he has each time Joan Radue has been on campus since. Angie Cretors, from UConn compliance, and the other mothers on the baseball team became Joan Radue's support system, sending Christmas ornaments to her temporary home.
Then the letters began arriving.
Ryan would return to his apartment after a round of chemo and his mailbox would be stuffed. Football coach Bob Diaco, whom he had never met, was sending handwritten notes nearly every day. "Inspirational messages," Ryan said. "Maybe a quote he liked. Exams were starting and he'd write, 'Get ready for the grind.' It's no exaggeration; I have more than 50 of them."
On Thursday, Radue plans to meet with Diaco to thank him in person. On Monday, he and his mother met UConn President Susan Herbst.
Radue had left it to his close friends to share the news with the rest of the team, but was concerned that his illness might become a distraction. "I told them I wanted them to keep it as normal as possible," Radue said. "They had my back, I knew that."
One day in the dugout in October, they cut their hair and shaved their heads to show solidarity with Radue, who would be robbed of his hair by the chemo, and they tweeted out a team photo.
Ryan tossed a baseball between cycles, but by December the chemo made that impossible. He was developing mouth sores that made it difficult to eat or speak.
Just before Christmas, with his mother, father and sister Abby, he got the news at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York that it appeared the cancer was gone from his knee and neck. A week later, remission was confirmed. Penders got the text from Radue at 10 p.m. on New Year's Eve.
By then, Radue had finished final exams to complete his degree in accounting, with a certificate in management information systems. "You get 'chemo brain,'" he said, "where you can't focus, you can't remember anything. I thought, 'This isn't going to go well.' But it turned out all right."
He has begun working toward a master's degree in business.
With his final round of chemo Jan. 27, Joan thought it would be a great idea if the team surprised him at the hospital to celebrate. But a few of the players mentioned it in a group chat and Ryan caught wind of it.
"It wouldn't be our team if they had kept the secret," he said. "I would have been more worried if they had kept it."
It didn't take away from the moment, though, when Ryan came out and told his teammates he had kicked the hell out of cancer and chemo. Radue will speak, and his story will be told with a video, at the seventh annual White Coat Gala: Honoring Heroes and Healers in Hartford April 16, a benefit for UConn Health.
"He is the most inspirational dude I have ever met," Darras said. "Can you imagine? He plays baseball and he graduates early with honors — with cancer? He had one of the gnarliest forms of cancer there is, and he not only beat it, he beat it in record time."
The last leg of the race against cancer is a round of radiation to help keep it away. Radue and his mother will be in New York for about a month of five-day-a-week treatments. He's bringing that sock full of baseballs with him.
Radue refused to let cancer take away his school life, his studies, his sense of humor. But it has taken baseball away for six months. That is about to end. He has been attending UConn's practices and began light tossing this week.
"How was practice?" he asked assistant coach Jeff Hourigan as they crossed paths at Gampel Pavilion Sunday. "Strikes. Are the guys throwing strikes?"
As he begins radiation, the Huskies' baseball season begins at Texas-San Antonio Friday night. Darras plans to hang Radue's No. 15 jersey in the dugout until the team returns. After a month of games in warm-weather climates, the Huskies' home opener is scheduled for March 22 against Yale at J.O. Christian Field.
Radue, who is about 10 pounds below his usual playing weight of 217 pounds, hopes to rejoin the team by then and take the mound in April.
"I have no doubt," Darras said. "It's going to be full circle, and he and I are going to be in right field playing catch before the game, talking about the coolest stuff, anything but cancer."
Said DeRoche-Duffin: "Just to have someone around who is inspiring like that, it gives you the motivation to do whatever you want. He's going to be one of the main pieces of our team this year, in whatever aspect he wants to be."
Joan Radue remembers Ryan whacking the plastic baseball off the tee. Through T-ball, Little League, the Babe Ruth World Series, college, he has played baseball. On Easter, the family plans to attend services at Messiah Lutheran in South Windsor, the church she picked out when Ryan first came to UConn, and then she expects to go back to Appleton to resume teaching.
But when Ryan gets back on the mound, the family will have to make the trip back out. "There are so many things about Ryan," Joan Radue said. "But baseball is his dream. And he is going to get his dream back."
Radue has a 3.06 ERA in 28 career appearances for UConn. Having redshirted with an elbow injury his first year, he has another year of eligibility and hopes to pitch from the start in 2017.
"It's ridiculous how much this experience has changed me," he said. "I don't even go day by day anymore, it's hour by hour. People say the most precious thing is time, but I disagree. The most precious thing is what's happening right now."