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David Ruffer’s waiting game pays off

Douglas Farmer | Thursday, November 17, 2011

Just like David Ruffer always wanted to attend Notre Dame, he always wanted to stay for a fifth year. But without a scholarship, the graduated kicker spent the spring interviewing for jobs, assuming his career with the Irish had concluded.

“It was a question if I could get a scholarship or not,” said Ruffer, now a graduate student. “Because I was graduating, there wasn’t really an academic reason to come back, and I had career opportunities available to me.”

Those career opportunities were in hot pursuit when Ruffer’s phone rang with good news last February. He was at an interview over lunch when he learned a scholarship would be available for him in the fall of 2011.

“Despite the fact I was having lunch with some potential employers, it was just something that was a culmination of a lot of work,” Ruffer said Tuesday. “They knew my situation, they were fully informed of what I was going through. They were as happy for me as I was.”

Nonetheless, the rest of the meal did have a sense of awkward pointlessness to it.

“Hey, there’s something I have to do first,” Ruffer remembers telling the businessmen. “I have some business to attend to back at school, and then I’ll talk to you guys.”

Playing the waiting game

Waiting on the scholarship was a piece of cake compared to Ruffer’s original path to Notre Dame. Both his father and grandfather graduated from Notre Dame, as did a few of his uncles and his older sister. Yet when Ruffer received what should have been his acceptance letter, it instead read as a denial.

“I grew up loving Notre Dame,” Ruffer said during a 2010 interview. “I didn’t get in as a freshman, and that was probably the best thing that ever happened to me. It made me realize you have to work really hard for the things you want.”

Ruffer headed to William & Mary, walked on to the football team as a field goal kicker and worked hard enough in class to gain admittance to Notre Dame his sophomore year.

From the William & Mary fields, Ruffer moved to the fields outside Stepan Center as the kicker for the Siegfried interhall football team. He played for an even shorter time with the Ramblers than he did out east with the Tribe, hitting one field goal in interhall competition.

Next up, with less than two seasons of kicking experience under his belt, Ruffer walked on with the Irish, completing his rapid rise.

Perfection can’t last

A walk-on serving as kicker is story enough to attract attention, but then Ruffer did a few things never before done at Notre Dame.

He hit 23 consecutive field goals, including 18 straight to open 2010. His .947 conversion rate last season stands alone as the top field goal percentage in Irish history.

Time and time again he would be asked if he would ever miss a field goal. After all, he hit his only interhall attempt, does not remember missing any during his walk-on tryouts, and began his Notre Dame career 23-for-23.

“You can only learn from mistakes,” he said last year, in what would turn into a mantra. “You can’t make every single one, so it will happen eventually. The trick will be how I bounce back from that. It will happen, but I feel like I have a pretty strong head, so I’ll be okay.”

Ruffer’s first miss came in his last 2010 attempt, in the Sun Bowl against Miami late in the third quarter. He then had nine months to stew over the miss before missing again in the 2011 season-opener against South Florida. A week later, Ruffer connected from 38 yards against Michigan, and now stands at 7-of-11 this season, and 30-of-35 for his career.

“It happened. Everybody misses,” he said. “That’s part of it. It was weird because it hadn’t happened before, but it had to happen eventually. No matter how good you’re kicking, it happens.

“You have to take what you can from the missed kick, process the information from that and focus on the next one. You definitely can’t consciously think about missing the last one.”

When Notre Dame traveled to the Washington, D.C. area to play Maryland at FedEx Field last Saturday, Ruffer was kicking less than 11 miles from his high school, Gonzaga College High School in Oakton, Va. During the 45-21 Irish victory, the D.C. native came within one yard of tying the record for longest field goal in Notre Dame history. His 52-yard conversion made him 5-for-5 in a span stretching six games. The record of 53 yards, set by Dave Reeve in 1976, will not be safe until Ruffer has left Notre Dame, as Irish special teams coach Mike Elston has said he sees Ruffer hit 53-yarders on a daily basis.

But he will be gone

This year, Ruffer knows he will not be back next year, though he has not ruled out more football.

“I’ll see if the NFL thing works out, but I’m not holding my breath on that,” Ruffer said. “I have to give it a try at this point. If it doesn’t work out, I’ll go find a job somewhere in the finance industry.”

Don’t be surprised if Ruffer is setting up luncheon interviews sooner than you may expect. Not because he does not have the skill set to cut it in the NFL, but because a year ago this same kicker — who at that point had never missed a competitive field goal — admitted whole-heartedly the NFL would not be a career path filled with longevity.

“NFL stands for Not For Long, right?” he joked.

For now, Ruffer will focus on three more games, knowing they are his last in a Notre Dame uniform. Last year, he hoped the end of 2010 would not be the end at Notre Dame, and his hopes turned into reality.

“I think [this senior day] will definitely be more emotional, because I know there isn’t a chance for next year,” he said. “There will be emotion, but I’ll try not to get emotional. I don’t want that to get in the way of the job I have to do.

“When Utah came in last year, I was definitely having the same feeling that this could be the last time. I took the victory lap just trying to take it all in, and I’ll do that again … I wish this didn’t have to happen, but all good things have to come to an end.”

This good thing ending is better than it never having begun, which was what Ruffer once faced. If you had told him four years ago he would end up with a scholarship as a graduate student, he said he likely would have doubted you.

“I probably would have said, ‘Really?’ I’d have been skeptical,” he said. “I never imagined any of this happening. To be honest, I was just really lucky to make the team the way it all happened.

“You don’t really think about it when you’re a walk-on, but over time [the scholarship and a fifth year] became a possibility, and when it happened, it was fantastic. I had the chance to come back for another year to play for the school I love with a bunch of friends.”

In other words, he had some business to attend to.