Matthew Gordon. 30th April, 2008 - 11:01 am
Mike Rucker isn?t a legend, and he more than likely won?t be in the Hall of Fame. He only made the Pro Bowl once, and he didn?t start for the first two seasons of his career. He isn?t a household name, but in a media climate replete with stories of drunk driving arrests and assault allegations, maybe he should be.
Rucker hung up his cleats last week, retiring at the young age of 33. After nine seasons, all with the Carolina Panthers, he eventually decided that a worsening injury situation and the desire to spend more time with his family motivated this decision.
Rucker was one of those players who had an impact both on and off the field, as a hard-nosed pass-rusher and as a family man who cared about his community. Originally from Missouri and having attended college in Nebraska, North Carolina was a new place for him, but he took to it well.
On the football side of things, he was a player who?s been an integral part of the Panthers for almost a decade. Second in total regular-season sacks in team history at 55.5, Rucker is behind only 28-year old phenom Julius Peppers, who?s recorded half a sack more. His twenty pass deflections, including five in 2002 and four in each of 2004 and 2005, and fourteen career forced fumbles, are reminders of his ability to use his height and quickness to get at the ball. His Pro Bowl season, the 2003 season when the Panthers reached the Superbowl, saw him record a career-high twelve sacks and pick up the slack for an up-and-down season on Peppers?s part.
Having only played for one team, an increasingly rare feat given the tumultuous nature of NFL free agency, means that he?s celebrated as a Panther but also suffered as one. The team?s dismal 1-15 campaign in 2001 was potentially worthwhile in hindsight as the team was able to draft Peppers. But, no one was happy about losing fifteen straight. (As an odd statistic, the Panthers were actually 1-0 in the summer that season. I doubt that was much consolation.) Rucker raised an important point during his recent Q&A with Panthers.com about his retirement, though; he cited that abhorrent season as an important character-building experience that helped him appreciate winning the NFC two seasons later. Rucker stated that ?[a] memory I'll never forget is the Super Bowl run. You think 1-15 is something you that you wouldn't want to remember, but it showed me the work that we had to do and where we came from. I think sometimes you've got to understand your past to get to your future. We didn't want to go back there.? Rucker was a driven player who understood the hardship of losing and then worked to correct that season?s wrongs, posting ten sacks and a career-high five pass deflections in 2002 and then his aforementioned Pro Bowl season in 2003.
Not only did Rucker play all of his games for one team, but he played in nearly all of those games. Lacing up in 139 of a possible 144 contests, he showed remarkable durability, which makes his recent injury history all the more difficult to accept. His 2006 season was an unremarkable one by his standards (five sacks in fourteen games) but with a smattering of good games. One highlight was his NFC Defensive Player of the Week performance against St. Louis, in which he stuffed Rams quarterback Marc Bulger for a sack and a safety in a shutout. The way it ended, though, was horrific ? a torn ACL that took all offseason to rehab and that put his career in jeopardy.
Last season was a fitting victory lap, if an unsatisfying one. The team was injury-riddled at key positions and mired by a mid-season five-game losing streak, a disappointing result for such a talented roster. Rucker?s three sacks were his lowest since becoming a starter, even though he managed to play in all sixteen games. What he did accomplish was to end his career on his terms, walking off the field a winner in Tampa Bay instead of being carted off in excruciation.
Where Rucker might have made the biggest impression isn?t in football. Along with former Panthers Mike Minter (retired last offseason), Stephen Davis and Muhsin Muhammad, Rucker is part-owner of the conspicuously-named Ruckus House, a child care centre in North Carolina that now has two locations. The Ruckus House prides itself with ?caring for, teaching and growing children with excellence? (from its official site), providing a curriculum that promotes education and healthy living. Rucker has also worked with United Way, Habitat for Humanity and other charitable organizations, and has spent time with children suffering from muscular dystrophy. He also serves on the board for the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Foundation.
Rucker?s emphasis on family is so high that he mentioned a family trip ?back home to Missouri for Easter? as a chance for him to reflect on the advantages of not having to take a 300-pound beating every Sunday on the field. A father, amateur offseason fisherman and overall nice guy, Yahoo?s article on his retirement conference notes that he was known for asking team employees about their families. Panthers owner Jerry Richardson called Rucker ?a role model for the organization and the community.? Comments by defensive co-ordinator Mike Trgovac and head coach John Fox mirrored those sentiments, with Fox?s statement that ?Mike couldn?t be held in any higher regard not only as a football player but also as a person? serving as a telling indicator of Rucker?s esteem.
Rucker was a formidable pass-rusher who was at the heart of Carolina?s two greatest playoff runs and is still a valuable member of his community. He won?t be easy to replace on the Panthers? defensive line or in the locker room, but his positive impact continues to be felt. Learning about his off-the-field contributions, I couldn?t help but think that it?s too bad that players like him aren?t in the news more often. Generous in life and tenacious on the field, Mike Rucker is truly a pro football player who sets a positive example for society. Young defensive ends should watch tape of him, but anyone can follow his lead.