Above photo of Gary Ruckman (center) by Pat Carrigan/First Down Photos
BELTON, Texas- Watching Gary Ruckman step up as a team captain and leader in UMHB’s passing game this season, it is hard to believe his college career nearly never occurred.
The senior tight end has tallied 12 catches for 159 yards and two touchdowns this season, starting all seven games. It has been a welcome fifth year for Ruckman, who had anticipated the spring to be his final year with the Cru before the NCAA granted an additional year of eligibility to all D-III athletes.
“I thought the spring was going to be the last season I played football,” Ruckman said in a recent interview with True To The Cru. “Having the opportunity to come back this fall and chase after it with the team has been awesome. We’ve been off to a quick start, but I think there’s still a lot of things we want to work on improving with three games left.”
The spring was not the first time Ruckman had expected his football career to conclude, only to see it reignite. Despite a solid high school career at Indian River High (Philadelphia, New York) that included a state championship victory his senior year, the then-6’4, 230 lb receiver had no interest from college programs.
When his father, serving in the U.S. Military, was stationed in San Antonio following Ruckman’s senior year, he moved to the Lone Star State, and began classes at a local community college. With his cleats hung up, and focused on pursuing a degree, he had few thoughts about continuing his time on the gridiron. In fact, the fifth-year senior went through an entire year purely as a student.
“I thought I was done playing football after high school,” Ruckman recalls.
But around that same time, one small opportunity jumpstarted what has resulted in a five-year college career. His younger brother Ethan, then a high school senior, and now the starting right tackle on UMHB’s offensive line, got a college promoter’s offer in order to increase recruiting exposure amongst college coaches. And as a kind gesture, they offered to add Gary’s film to the package as well. That film was seen by UMHB’s recruiting coordinator at the time, Josh Gonzales, who soon reached out to Ruckman.
“He was like, ‘Hey, are you this tall? Are you this big? We’d love for you to come on a visit’,” Ruckman said of his initial conversation with Gonzales. “So I went and it just so happened that I loved the school, I loved the facilities, and the coaches. I decided to come to UMHB and play.”
While the decision to become a Crusader happened quickly for Ruckman -he received an offer to play for the Cru in July and reported by August- his opportunity to see the field as a member of the varsity roster came at a much slower pace. Three years in fact. His first season in Belton, 2016, saw the tight end earn reps on the Junior Varsity squad before sitting out during both 2017 and 2018. It was not until 2019, when he started 12 games, that the 6’4 Ruckman played his first varsity game with the Cru.
A part of that was due to the transition of getting back into game-shape, considering it had been close to 18 months since he had seriously played football when he stepped onto the field in 2016.
“Coming down to Texas in and of itself was hard, because the food is amazing,” Ruckman siaid with a laugh. “I’d never had Whataburger, or Raising Cane’s or the barbeque like I had. Not being an athlete for a year, and just going to school, I was not in shape coming into the fall.”
That soon changed, however, as Ruckman saw first hand the high level work ethic put in across all members of UMHB’s program. That 2016 season featured the first national championship team in school history, with the likes of Blake Jackson, Haston Adams and Matt Cody leading the Cru to success as seniors.
“Coming in after a year of not playing, and it being the 2016 national championship team, it was playing at a different level,” Ruckman said. “I had to catch up there. It was an eye-opening experience for sure. It was cool to see the chemistry they had and what it took to be a national championship caliber team.”
Those experiences have stuck with Ruckman throughout his time in Belton, and over the last two seasons as a senior, he has worked to set the same example for the younger players on the roster.
“The way [the 2016 team] practiced was the way they played,” Ruckman notes. “It was 110 percent effort at all times. That has transitioned to how I play now. We always try to pass down the traditions and the work ethic that Coach Fredenburg always talks about. It’s being that role model and passing down the legacy of those who have passed it down to us before.”
Work ethic is not something Ruckman lacks, especially when you consider the amount of dedication he put into the program before he even saw the results, going three seasons with zero varsity playing time.
“Missing out on those two seasons were rough,” Ruckman siad. “But it is more than just football here at UMHB. It is really about the family-type atmosphere that we build, the brotherhood that we build. That is what kept me going. I really wanted to go out there and prove to my friends, my brothers on the field, that I could do it. That I was somebody they could rely on.”
Ruckman has certainly proved reliable for UMHB starting quarterback Kyle King this season, and as blocker, has been an efficient part of the Crusaders’ rushing attack, which ranks second in the ASC. Over the last two seasons, he has gotten the rare opportunity to line up on nearly every play next to Ethan, the team’s starting right tackle.
“It’s definitely been awesome,” Ruckman said of playing alongside Ethan. “There’s not many guys that can say they play at the college level right next to their brother. It’s definitely been a blessing to have him out there and it’s been memorable.”
Ethan is not the first of Ruckman’s brothers to play D-III college football. His older brothers, Nathan and Michael, each saw action for Christopher Newport a little less than a decade ago. During Michael’s sophomore year, he played on the team that lost to UMHB 59-7 in the first round of the 2010 playoffs. Watching them compete for CNU was Ruckman’s first experience with D-III football.
“It was pretty cool seeing them when I was growing up, going to their football games and things like that,” Ruckman said. “It’s kind of crazy to think about, my older brother actually played against UMHB in the playoffs back when they played at Belton High School.”
The program has changed in a big way from the years the Cru called Tiger Field its home, but the level of excellence has never wavered. That stems from the coaching staff and the team’s leaders, including Ruckman, who is looking to make the most of his final season as a Crusader.
“It was fun in the spring and our goal was to get that conference title which we are able to do,” Ruckman said, “but you come to UMHB to win it all. Not having that opportunity in your senior year [was tough]. So having the opportunity to come back this fall and chase after it with the team and try to make it to that national championship has definitely been a blessing.”