AUBURN, Ala. — Nick Ruffin takes nothing for granted on the football field.
Hearing that the next play could be your last will do that. A few years ago, that was a distinct possibility for Ruffin. During his sophomore season at St. Pius X in Atlanta, he began coughing up blood for no apparent reason. In addition, he had trouble breathing. Try as they might, doctors couldn’t figure out exactly what was ailing him.
After being put on medications, Ruffin’s symptoms went away.
What remains is that no one knows what caused the issue in the first place.
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“The only explanation (doctors) gave us was that I had swelling in my lymph nodes, which was causing an excess of blood to flow through, and it was flooding my lungs, and causing me to cough up the blood,” Ruffin said in a phone interview Friday .That was the only explanation they could give, but they were never able to diagnose exactly what it was.”
In the early stages, Ruffin admitted it could have been life-threatening — one more bad hit, his parents told him, and it could be over. Another possibility is that his body would have slowly broken down over time.
Even though those worries are behind him, they still serve as a sobering reminder.
“I think when you’re faced with a situation like that — where you don’t know when your next snap is going to be or if you’ll be able to ever have another one — being able to step back on the football field makes you want to cherish every single play and every single moment that you have,” he said. “Because you really don’t which one will be your last. It puts me in the perspective that I’m not invincible. I know as a teenager a lot of times I feel like, ‘Hey, there’s nothing that can touch me.’ But I know now that I’m not invincible. There’s always something that can take you down.”
Two years after overcoming his nameless enemy, Ruffin stood as one of the nation’s top cornerback prospects in the Class of 2014. Last May, he pledged to Auburn. That commitment never wavered, and he was on campus last weekend as the Tigers hosted a handful of incoming freshmen on official visits.
From meeting other members of the 2014 class to conversing with upperclassmen, Ruffin couldn’t have been more pleased with the way the visit turned out.
“The thing that stood out most to me was just how inviting and relaxed the football players are,” he said. “There’s a lot of places you’ll go where football is the sport that everybody looks to, so other people act that way as well. But these guys are very, very down to earth. ... A lot of them just kind of took me under their wing and accepted me as their teammate and they really didn’t know me.”
If Ruffin has his way, people will know his name soon enough. Given all the injuries the Tigers’ secondary suffered last season, the expectation is that Ruffin will be able to compete for a starting job immediately.
“(The coaching staff) said they have no doubt that I’ll work hard as far as getting stronger and getting into the weight room goes, but they want me to learn the system more than anything,” he said. “As far as the expectations for myself, I expect to be able to come in and contribute, as I’m sure that every guy wants to.”
One thing that Ruffin noted he needs to polish up?
Ironically, cover skills.
“I’ve got to work on being able to play off-ball coverage,” he said. “I’m more of a jamming corner, more upfront kind of guy. So I’ve got to work on being able to play off the ball.”
Last season at St. Pius, he played exclusively at safety. Admittedly, his transition back to corner is a work in progress. He doesn’t think it will take him too long to get back into the swing of things, though.
It takes a receiver to think like one, after all.
“Being able to understand routes and read routes before a play starts — being a former wide receiver, I know different depths and different splits and certain routes that you’ll run out of your splits,” he said. “I think that’s one of my strengths: my knowledge of the game.”
But it’s his intellect in the classroom Ruffin wants to be defined by.
He understands that people hold negative stereotypes of college athletes — and Ruffin acknowledged some don’t do their fellow athletes any favors by living up to those bad reputations.
That won’t happen with him.
“The importance of academics to me come from watching my mother and father,” he said. “My mom graduated high school in three years and went on to get her degree at LSU. My dad graduated high school with a 4.0 GPA. My brother went to Brown University, so academics in my household growing up was strongly (emphasized).”
Familial achievements notwithstanding, most of the pressure Ruffin deals with is internal. To him, nothing is more important than receiving his college degree. It’s far more than just a piece of paper in his mind.
It’s the culmination of years of hard work.
“When you have a degree in your hand, that stands for something. To me it shows a man not just of confidence, but of substance, that he’s taken the road less traveled,” he said. “Because there a lot of people who choose not to get a college degree. That to me shows a man that says, ‘Hey, I want to stand for something in my life. I want to hold something that’s mine and that I earned.‘”
So yes, Ruffin wants the Tigers to do well in the years to come — that should go without saying.
If “football” is the only word that pops into people’s heads when his name is uttered, however, Ruffin would be crestfallen.
“I want to be that man that people look back and say, ‘Hey, he wasn’t just about football. He had his priorities straight and he wants to be something more than just a football player,’” he said. “I don’t want to be remembered for winning at football; I want to be remembered for making a difference. And a big part of making a difference is having the knowledge and the education to go out and educate others.”