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Walk-on, kickoff

Douglas Farmer | Thursday, October 14, 2010

When David Ruffer walked off the practice fields Tuesday afternoon, two loyal autograph seekers quickly approached him and asked for his signature. Unsurprisingly, the senior walk-on kicker signed away — something he never thought he would be in a position to do.

“It’s cool I guess,” Ruffer said a few seconds after putting the cap back on the provided Sharpie. “I never really thought of myself as somebody one day who would be signing autographs, but I’ll take what I can get. It’s neat to be in that position.”

Then again, Ruffer never really thought of himself as somebody who would be Notre Dame’s starting place kicker, having never missed a competitive field goal, even splitting the uprights from 50 yards away. In fact, the only aspect of Ruffer’s current life he could have anticipated is the one aspect he initially had denied him — being a student at Notre Dame.

Denial serves its purpose

Ruffer’s father and grandfather graduated from Notre Dame, as did a few of his uncles and his older sister, but when Ruffer received a response to his application, it was not the response anybody in the family had hoped for.

“I grew up loving Notre Dame. I just wanted to be a student first of all,” Ruffer said. “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 then turned his eyes to William & Mary for a year, where, after four years of playing varsity golf in high school, he took up kicking field goals. After a tryout, Ruffer walked-on to the Tribe football team.

“I walked on there kicking,” he said. “and it’s worked out ever since.”

A field goal and a tryout

Once he transferred to Notre Dame, Ruffer joined the Siegfried interhall football team, and after two games, in which he kicked one field goal and a couple of extra points, attempted to walk on with the Irish.

“It was more of when I would go out and practice [that I impressed people],” Ruffer said.

The tryout process was threefold — one night with only tees and the then-special teams coach Brian Polian, one night with a snapper and holder and Polian, and a final night in front of then-Irish coach Charlie Weis.

“I was really nervous. These guys were going to see me for about 15 or 20 minutes, and if I don’t do really well, they will probably not want to see me again,” he said. “I just hoped I would perform to the best of my ability. I would have obviously been upset with myself if I came out here and didn’t do the best that I know I could have.”

Impress them he surely did, as Ruffer does not remember missing a single kick in the three tryout sessions.

The rest is history

Ruffer only took one kick in a game in 2008, a point-after attempt that clanked off the upright. In 2009, Ruffer took over place kicking duties after incumbent Nick Tausch injured his foot, and Ruffer connected on nine of his 10 point-after attempts, and all five field goal attempts.

This season, he has made all 11 of his field goal attempts, bringing his Irish career total to 16-of-16. Including his one field goal as a Rambler, Ruffer has never missed a field goal attempt in competition.

By making kick after kick, Ruffer has raised the Notre Dame standard for place kickers. His 16 consecutive made field goals bested Tausch’s school record of 14, as well as the previous record for most consecutive made field goals to open a career, which was previously 13.

“I try not to think about [the streak],” he said. “Right now I’m zero-for-zero with Western Michigan coming up, and that is how I approach every game.”

Ruffer’s 50-yard kick against Pittsburgh tied the sixth-longest field goal in Notre Dame history. The longest in school history was kicked in 1976 by Dave Reeve, a 53-yarder. Reeve should not count his record safe as long as Ruffer is kicking, according to special teams coach Mike Elston.”I see the kid kick 52 or 53 yarders every day,” Elston said. “We were well in front of his threshold [on the 50-yard field goal] which is really about the 35-yard line.”

‘Kickers are head-cases’

After the Pittsburgh game, in which Ruffer also connected on 32- and 31-yard field goals, he attributed much of his success to junior holder Ryan Kavanagh, also a walk-on.

“Ryan Kavanagh is one of my best friends and he will say something to keep me calm,” Ruffer said. “But then from when the ball is snapped to when I kick it I don’t know what happens.”

Tuesday Kavanagh said he knows he needs to keep a close eye on Ruffer, if for no other reason than the position he plays.

“Kickers are head-cases,” Kavanagh said. “You have to make sure they’re honed in on the ball.

“I just give him a couple reminders, take it easy, make sure he takes a deep breath … I just make sure he’s just focused on the kick.”

Elston said he has seen the “head-case” in kickers that Kavanagh refers to, but in Ruffer it is more of an even demeanor that Elston sees.

“The kickers that I’ve been around that are good athletes, that have a good demeanor, that aren’t just specialists as kickers and have done other things in their athletic career, they typically tend to be more competitive and more even-keeled when they take the field in pressure situations,” Elston said. “Because they are used to being in it.”

Whatever reasoning Kavanagh and Elston have for his success this season, Ruffer thinks he has found a groove simply because he has relaxed, in all areas of his life.

“I still work really hard [in school], but before I was really a perfectionist. Now I have grown up to a point where I realize things won’t always go your way,” Ruffer said. “That little bit of a laid-back attitude has helped my focus a little bit.”

At some point, things on the football field won’t necessarily go Ruffer’s way. He may miss a field goal — believe it or not, he does miss them in practice. When the Saturday afternoon comes that one goes awry, Ruffer said he is ready to deal with that setback.

“You can only learn from mistakes,” he said. “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.”

‘Not For Long’

If Ruffer keeps making each and every one of his field goals, questions concerning the NFL are bound to come his way. Ruffer qickly dismisses those thoughts.

“I don’t plan on playing football forever,” he said. “It’s probably going to end after this season and I’ll need to get started on the next chapter of my life.

“NFL stands for Not For Long, right? I would give it a shot, but if there is something else that gives me more of a sense of fulfillment, I’ll do that instead.”

Amid all of his success on the field, the primary reason Ruffer is at Notre Dame hasn’t changed — the same reason he wanted to come to the University in the first place.

“It’s been difficult, but I still think of myself as a student first,” he said. “That’s why I’m going through the interview process right now, and just trying to get that Notre Dame degree.”

Ruffer, an Economics major, interned in the accounting department of Gurley Leep over the summer, and has not decided what he will do after graduation, nor has he ruled much out.

“I could go and be a house husband,” he said. “If my wife is the bread winner, maybe I’ll just take care of the kids.”

He may not know what the future holds, but Ruffer did not expect any of what the present holds either, as he continues to move past his wildest dreams, field goal after field goal.

“I never thought this was going to happen. Obviously I thought it’d be something cool, but never to this magnitude. I can’t say it’s a dream come true, because I never really dreamed of this much.”