AP

College football at 49? North Dakota lineman has right stuff

Oct 6, 2022, 9:09 AM | Updated: 9:28 am

Ray Ruschel, a 49-year-old freshman football player for the North Dakota State College of Science, ...

Ray Ruschel, a 49-year-old freshman football player for the North Dakota State College of Science, takes his turn on the blocking sled on Tuesday, Sept. 20, 2022, in Wahpeton, N.D. Ruschel had not played football since he was in high school in Pennsylvania. The Army veteran is a night-shift mechanic at a local sugar beet factory. He is seeking a degree in business management after his most recent deployment with the National Guard. He hopes to become a supervisor at work. For now, he is holding his own with 19- and 20-year-old football players on a team with national title hopes.. (AP photo/Dave Kolpack)

(AP photo/Dave Kolpack)

WAHPETON, N.D. (AP) — When North Dakota State College of Science suffered a heartbreaking loss in early September — foiled at the goal line as time expired in a jolt to their national championship ambitions — it was a backup defensive lineman who stepped forward with a pep talk to lift the locker room.

Forget it, 49-year-old Ray Ruschel said, according to his junior college teammates. Focus on the rest of the season and things will work out.

“There were just kind of emotions everywhere. Everybody did not handle it,” wide receiver Marselio Mendez said after the loss to rival Minnesota State Community Technical College. “Ray came up and said, you know, it’s not really failing, right? He said we just have to put the emotion to the side and we still got the rest of the season and playoffs to show who we are.”

When it comes to inspiration, the Wildcats could do worse than look to Ruschel’s own story, and the path that brought him to a small, vocational-minded school in the wide shadow cast by nearby NCAA power North Dakota State.

After nearly two decades in the Army and National Guard, Ruschel was working as a night-shift mechanic at a North Dakota sugar beet factory when he decided to enroll at the College of Science. The school offers two-year programs in manufacturing, skilled trades, health care, and the liberal arts.

That sounded good to Ruschel, who hoped to move up at the factory and decided to study business management. Then he learned the school had a football team among its six sports — and that, despite his age, he was eligible.

“Something just clicked in my head, like why not play?” recalled Ruschel, whose last game action came when he was a high school senior in Pennsylvania, more than 30 years ago.

When Ruschel asked head coach Eric Issendorf — one year younger — for a tryout, Issendorf said sure, even though he worried that Ruschel might get hurt.

Instead, Ruschel has held his own and earned the respect of the other players. He now plays about a dozen snaps a game.

“Guys that he’s playing against are bigger, faster, stronger than him,” Issendorf said. “But he’s been able to manage it. His personality …. he’s just a really likable guy with an ambition not to leave any stone unturned. As long as he’s here on this earth.”

Wahpeton, a mostly industrial town of about 7,800, is home to the Minn-Dak Farmers Cooperative, one of the largest sugar beet producers in North Dakota and Minnesota. That’s where Ruschel works an overnight shift, then fits in a couple of hours at the gym after he gets off at 8 a.m. each day.

After a few hours of schoolwork online at his apartment near campus, Ruschel grabs some rest before afternoon practice, which runs until about 7 p.m. Then it’s back to his apartment, where Ruschel showers and eats before lying down for whatever rest he can get before it all begins again with his overnight shift.

How does he pull off such a grueling schedule?

“That’s a good question.” said Ruschel, a single father of two grown children. “It’s because I choose to prioritize certain things and other things have to be sacrificed. They just have to be sacrificed right now.”

The college campus is home to about 3,000 students, anchored by its historic Old Main that dates to its founding in 1903. A recruiting brochure boasts of a 97% employment rate for graduates.

When it comes to football, it’s no North Dakota State — a perennial national champion in the NCAA’s second tier, with a $25 million budget, a dome that seats 19,000 and numerous alumni in the NFL.

But it’s not bad, with facilities among the best in junior college football, including a 4,100-seat stadium, four practice fields and a locker room with 90 modern stalls.

The Wildcats went 9-1 last season, second-best in school history, and finished at No. 4 in the Division III junior college rankings. After a 37-6 win over Vermillion Community College — a six-hour bus ride to far northeastern Minnesota — and a homecoming win last weekend t hey are 4-1 in a season they hope can end with a national championship.

Players say Ruschel fits in with his teammates despite the obvious musical and cultural differences that come with such a big age gap. On that bus ride to Minnesota, for example, Ruschel spent the hours scrolling through Facebook, listening to music on his head phones and “staring out the window mostly.” No Instagram or TikTok for him.

“The players will come up to me and ask me what I’m listening to,” Ruschel said, chuckling. “I tell them country music and that will be the end of that.”

Ruschel, who made sergeant while in the Army and said he aims to stay active in the National Guard until he’s 60, has served in Afghanistan and Jordan, though he declined to talk about the tours.

Linebacker Manny Garcia said Ruschel’s Army experience and his willingness to take on players less than half his age give him credibility with his teammates.

“You know, we hear Ray’s stories about the military and listen to those and make sure we try to translate those to the football field, for sure,” Garcia said.

Five games into the season, the 6-foot, 225-pound Ruschel, a workout buff, said he feels no pain on the field.

“All in all I’m no more sore than the rest of these kids,” he said. “I’ve just got to keep stretching.”

Word of a 49-year-old college football player has attracted national media attention and Ruschel has at times apologized for taking the spotlight away from others, Issendorf said. Before Ruschel arrived, the program’s claim to fame was Errol Mann, who kicked for the NFL’s Oakland Raiders and was part of their Super Bowl-winning 1976 team.

“I told Ray, you know, we’re embracing it,” Issendorf said. “Our institution loves it. Our administration loves the attention. It’s great marketing. But it’s also a really good story.”

___

More AP college football: https://apnews.com/hub/college-football and https://twitter.com/AP_Top25. Sign up for the AP’s college football newsletter: https://bit.ly/3pqZVaF

Copyright © The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

AP

President Joe Biden speaks at a campaign rally Saturday, March 9, 2024, at Pullman Yards in Atlanta...

Associated Press

US shoots down ‘nearly all’ Iran-launched attack drones as Biden vows support for Israel’s defense

Joe Biden cut short a weekend stay at his beach house to meet with his national security team as Iran launched an attack against Israel.

23 hours ago

Protesters in Phoenix shout as they join thousands marching around the Arizona state Capitol after ...

Associated Press

Abortion ruling supercharges Arizona to be an especially important swing state

A ruling this week instituting a near-total abortion ban supercharged Arizona's role, turning it into the most critical battleground.

2 days ago

Former President Donald Trump, center, appears in court for his arraignment, Tuesday, April 4, 2023...

Associated Press

Manhattan court searching for jurors to hear first-ever criminal case against a former president

Jury selection is set to start Monday in former President Donald Trump's hush money case — the first trial of the presumptive nominee.

2 days ago

Emergency personnel arrive on the scene after a  an 18-wheeler crashed into the Texas Department of...

Associated Press

1 dead and 13 injured in semitrailer crash at a Texas public safety office, with the driver jailed

A driver rammed an 18-wheeler though the front of a building where his renewal for a commercial driver’s license had been rejected.

2 days ago

Republican presidential candidate former President Donald Trump speaks at a Get Out The Vote rally ...

Associated Press

Trump pushes Arizona lawmakers to ‘remedy’ state abortion ruling that he says ‘went too far’

Donald Trump urged Arizona lawmakers on Friday to swiftly “remedy” the state court ruling allowing prosecutors to enforce an abortion ban.

2 days ago

Biden to require more gun dealers to run background checks....

Associated Press

Biden administration will require thousands more gun dealers to run background checks on buyers

New Biden rule to require thousands more firearms dealers across the United States will have to run background checks on buyers.

3 days ago

Sponsored Articles

...

COLLINS COMFORT MASTERS

Here are 5 things Arizona residents need to know about their HVAC system

It's warming back up in the Valley, which means it's time to think about your air conditioning system's preparedness for summer.

...

DISC Desert Institute for Spine Care

Sciatica pain is treatable but surgery may be required

Sciatica pain is one of the most common ailments a person can face, and if not taken seriously, it could become one of the most harmful.

...

Day & Night Air Conditioning, Heating and Plumbing

Valley residents should be mindful of plumbing ahead of holidays

With Halloween in the rear-view and more holidays coming up, Day & Night recommends that Valley residents prepare accordingly.

College football at 49? North Dakota lineman has right stuff