By Terrence McCoy
By Scott Fishman
By Deirdra Funcheon
By Allie Conti
By New Times Staff
By Ryan Pfeffer
By Deirdra Funcheon
By Kyle Swenson
The game gets off to a rocky start when the Raiders fumble the opening kickoff and the Chargers recover on the Raiders' 16-yard line. The visitors quickly punch it in for a touchdown, after which both offenses begin to struggle. In a determined effort to get its running game going, Suncoast assigns a 310-pound offensive tackle named Thomas Locust to block Ruth. The bigger, stronger player knocks Ruth out of the play again and again. After the final defensive series of the first half, Ruth angrily whips off his helmet as he comes off the field.
"They're playing dirty, dog! They're cutting me every time!" he complains, and limps down the sideline, looking for the trainer. Ruth believes Locust is trying to injure him, and sure enough, the trainer determines Ruth has a high ankle sprain.
Despite the tactic, Suncoast still can't generate much offense. The Raiders finally cobble together a drive and score just before halftime, evening the tally at 6-6.
During the break, Ruth ices and re-tapes his ankle. "I wasn't thinking about the ankle," he says later. "I was just thinking about winning." He is back in the game to start the second half.
Suncoast gets a good kick return to midfield. After an incomplete pass, Suncoast runs a simple off-tackle on second down. As before, Ruth is blocked out of the play, and the Suncoast back bursts through a huge hole. The only man left to beat is Raiders safety Kent Henderson. The Suncoast runner fakes, and Henderson loses his footing and falls. The ball carrier runs by, headed for the end zone.
In desperation, Henderson throws up an arm and jars the ball loose. Then Ruth chases down the play. Diving, he scoops up the ball with his right arm. The fumble recovery has saved a touchdown -- and possibly the season. "I started to go pick it up and run with it," Ruth says later. "But I knew my ankle was hurt, so I just thought I'd better jump on the ball."
He reenters the game for the next series but is obviously limping. Defensive Coordinator Kenneth Funderburke pulls Ruth for most of the final quarter, as the Raiders manage another score and hold on to win 12-6. As the relieved crowd streams into the parking lot, Ruth trudges to the locker room with his exhausted teammates. He has notched five tackles and the all-important fumble recovery.
Ruth's parents join the procession of fans leaving the stadium after checking with him to reassure themselves he isn't hurt too badly. Valerie lives in mortal fear that he will be permanently injured. "I'd just like to see him finish his four years and get his degree," she says, "and then see what God has in store for him."
Carmen Grosso, recruiting coordinator for the fledgling football program at Florida International University in Miami, may help determine Ruth's future. Ruth says Grosso called his home and sent a letter to the football office. With the February 4 signing day still months away, Grosso has said he wants Ruth to visit the campus. (Grosso won't talk about Ruth or any other player he has contacted.)
There might be a hitch, however, because of the special academic track Ruth is on. Grosso's philosophy is to steer clear of possible eligibility issues. "If a kid's in [special ed], for us, I don't think that it would happen," Grosso says.
Ruth is well-aware of the academic obstacles he must overcome. A few days before the homecoming game, he finally, and uncharacteristically, asked for tutoring. "I know it's going to get a lot harder once I go to college," he says. "But I got to start somewhere."
The ankle sprain is yet another challenge, but Ruth is optimistic, even though he is still playing in the shadow of the team's marquee players. "When [the recruiters] come to see them, they can also see a player like me, making plays," he reasons. "They'll see that [I'm] a player that doesn't give up."