Photo of Ethan Ruckman by Russell Marwitz/True To The Cru/russellmarwitz.com
BELTON-For a time, Ethan Ruckman thought that the 2022 season would be the final chapter of a decorated collegiate career as one of UMHB’s most consistent offensive linemen.
But in many ways, the 49-14 loss to North Central in last year’s national semifinals changed that.
On a team full of fifth-year seniors, from quarterback Kyle King to defensive lineman Sante Parker Jr., that road defeat marked the final time many of UMHB’s starters, especially on offense, donned the purple and gold and wore “Crusaders” across their chests. There was no option to return for another season with their eligibility exhausted. But Ruckman, however, had an extra year of eligibility, due to Covid, remaining. And a chance to continue the fight of 2022’s fifth-year seniors for one more season.
“Going into last season, I saw it as it was going to be my last year,” Ruckman told True To The Cru. “But going out like we did against North Central and seeing the look on all my best friends’ faces from the last four or five years, I felt like I needed to come back to right that wrong for the guys that don’t have an opportunity to do that.”
His commitment to his teammates–both present and former–is notable. So is the passion with which he plays, working tirelessly on the offensive line, paving the way for UMHB’s running backs and protecting the quarterback on passing plays. The offensive line is undoubtedly an underrated position group, and its value on an offense’s success is seldom appreciated. Ruckman knows this fact well, having been an offensive lineman for most of his time on the gridiron. And it is an aspect of the position he embraces.
“I’ve always called it the ‘Behind-the-scenes operators,’” Ruckman said. “We’re the guys that are the backbone to the offense. Whether we’re passing the ball or running the ball, we have to give the quarterback enough time to go through his progression and we have to open up the holes for the running backs.
“A lot of times, when things are going really great, people overlook you a little bit. But when things are going really bad, they start to pinprick and tear you down a bit. We try to block out all the outside noise.”
With a young group–three of UMHB’s five starting offensive linemen are in their first year as starters–that can be a challenge. UMHB’s 0-3 start has not helped when it comes to criticism. But that is where Ruckman’s experience pays great dividends. Not only is he a leader on the line, he is an experienced voice for the team itself. The highs and lows of college football have come throughout his career in Belton, which began in 2020, and it has formed a strong voice that is necessary especially in times of “trials and tribulations”, as UMHB head coach Larry Harmon has often said in recent weeks.
“I’ve always felt like I’m a very passionate player,” Ruckman said. “But being a vocal leader is something I’ve had to grow into. I’m more of a lead-by-example kind of guy. Coach has challenged me this season to be more of a vocal leader, bring the guys along, and teach them the things that this program was built on.”
Of course, he knows that his time in Belton will only last so long. 2023 will be the conclusion of a career that has included three All-ASC honors, the 2022 ASC Offensive Lineman of the Year Award, and a pair of All-America honors. But the hope is that his presence now can help guide UMHB’s offensive line into the future.
“That’s the big thing. It’s hard to walk the fine line of being a leader. You have to be a friend to the younger guys, but you also have to let them know that you’re not going to let them slide with any of the smaller things. When I’m gone, somebody is going to have to step up in the O-Line room. I’m trying to mold these guys into someone that can be a leader, because they’re all young now, but next year, they’re going to be that guy.”
Ruckman took an interesting path to UMHB, and an unconventional one, considering he stepped away from football for a significant period of time before finding his way back. After playing at San Antonio’s Johnson High School for the final two years of his prep career, he went to Incarnate Word in 2017. But it wasn’t the right fit.
“We’re a huge football family,” he said, noting that his older brothers Michael and Gary, played at Christopher Newport and UMHB, respectively. “So I’ve always wanted to play college football. But when I got to UIW, I felt like it wasn’t the right fit for me. And I didn’t see any other options to play.”
Fast forward a couple years down the road. Gary, who took a similar path to a college career, was suiting up as a tight end for The Cru. UMHB was plenty interested in Ethan’s talents too, and once he saw the excitement that college football had given Gary, decided to give UMHB a shot as well.
“[Coach Fredenburg] asked Gary every week, ‘When’s your brother coming?’ So finally, I told Coach Fred that I was ready to come and Gary and I got to go win a national championship together. It’s something I’ll always remember and it’s one of the greatest memories we’ve had together.”
The two years spent playing alongside Gary marked just the second time the brothers, who are two years apart, had ever taken the field for the same team. Beyond the wins and moments, Ruckman took something else away from those seasons.
He watched Gary step up as a leader, and bring motivation and passion to a national championship group. Now in 2023, it is his goal to do the same.
“One of the greatest things about playing this game with Gary is the fire that he had to go out and be great. I’ve always mirrored my game off Gary’s game. And I feel like that’s really allowed me to grow as a person and as a player. He played with so much passion all the time.
“He was a leader. He lit the fire in everybody else. That’s exactly what I want to be for the team this year.”