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LINDENHURST, NY – New York Jets rookie Jeremy Ruckert was standing inside the ice cream shop he visited as a child, talking to locals. This time he was not there for a milkshake or a banana split. On this day, a postcard-worthy Sunday in May, Hi was top billing on the menu.
For the 6-foot-5 tight end drafted three weeks earlier by the team he grew up messing with, this was a cherry-on-top moment. Ruckert, 21, signed autographs and posed for photos for two hours. Music blared from a temporary DJ booth on the sidewalk outside Ralph’s Famous Italian Ices, a popular New York area chain and a fixture in this community for 25 years. More than 100 people waited in a queue that never seemed to get shorter.
There were Jets jerseys in the crowd – Joe Namaths, Curtis Martins, even Ryan Fitzpatricks. A guy dressed in Ruckert’s Ohio State “88” jersey said he drove five hours to be there. A handful of police officers, apparently ready to check on the crowd along the busy Montauk Highway, stuck their heads inside to sneak a peek at Lindenhurst’s biggest rock star since Pat Benatar.
“You always want to see a kid from your hometown go to the big show,” said store owner Michael Felicetti, who celebrated Ruckert-to-the-Jets by giving away free vanilla and pistachio soft-serve cones – part of the city’s Green and white day after draft. “It’s simply amazing to see it happen in our hometown.”
– New York Jets (@nyjets) May 23, 2022
The next day, Ruckert drove to the Jets’ facility in Florham Park, New Jersey, to get another autograph. Surrounded by his parents and two brothers, he ended his rookie contract – four years, $ 5 million. When he signed, his father, wearing a Jets T-shirt, broke into the team’s famous song:
“JETS. Jets! Jets! Jets!”
Growing up with the Jets
Despite being the fourth most populous state, New York is not a hotbed of NFL talent. In 2022, according to the league, Ruckert was the only player from a high school in New York who was drafted by the NFL. Consider the odds: In 2017, his final season at Lindenhurst High School, 46,000 played high school football, according to the state athletic association.
That he was selected by his hometown team – the team his father worships – makes the story equally heartwarming and simply crazy.
“Everyone at home is excited to be able to relate to someone they grew up with and live out the dream of playing in the NFL and playing for the Jets,” said Ruckert, the first draftee from Lindenhurst in 36 years. “It’s something I dreamed of as a kid. Now that it’s finally here, it’s pretty surreal.”
This applies to everyone in his circle of friends, especially his father.
– Bill Ruckert (@ BeerShot21) May 12, 2022
Bill Ruckert has a Jets logo on the bonnet of his white pickup and another painted on a 3-foot landscape cliff sitting on his property in Lindenhurst. It is important to note that it is in the front yard, not in the back. It’s by design; he wants everyone to know that the Jets are his team.
Bill is all Jets, right down to the Jets beer tap on the kegerator in the backyard. His love affair with the team started in the late 1980s when one of his high school teachers gave him tickets to a home game. He got hooked, and in the mid-1990s he was the season ticket holder, taking the 50-mile drive (over two bridges) to the old Giants Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey.
His three sons, Jeremy, Will and Erich, were born into it. If they were not at the fight with their father, they watched from their living room, each in a Jets jersey. Pictures of these halcyon days are everywhere on social media, including a picture of a young, uniformed Jeremy in front of the family’s Christmas tree. Santa must have been a Curtis Martin fan, because there’s Jeremy glistening with happiness, posing in a No. 28 uniform.
dream job pic.twitter.com/JmYQ45XFeb
—Jeremy Ruckert (@ Jeremy_Ruckert1) June 30, 2022
“I was obsessed,” Bill said of his fandom, which began with many lean years.
On April 29, near the end of Day 2 of the NFL Draft, his two greatest joys – family and Jets – were united when Jeremy was selected five picks from the bottom of the third round (101 in total). In a minute in New York, they went from the bleak prospect of having to wait until day 3 to pronounce bedlam at their small assembly.
“Oh, my God, he’s a jet!” Bill remembers thinking to himself in the middle of the euphoria – a moment captured on video, that went viral. A nearby bar, packed with hundreds of executives, watched the draft on a big screen and exploded with applause when Jeremy got the call from the Jets.
The Ruckerts family celebrated the following day with 75 family members and friends in a relative’s home, who flew with a Jets flag in front and showed a framed photo of Jeremy, about 5 years old, wearing a Jets helmet with a logo painted on his right cheek. Since then, his father has spent more time in the clouds than a pilot.
– Ohio State Football (@OhioStateFB) April 30, 2022
“I know how tough the NFL is, and I know what’s going to happen in the end – it’s a business – but the moment he’s chosen as Jet can never be taken from us,” Bill said. “It’s something we always want. I know there will probably be a bitter time because it’s just the sport, but no matter what, no matter how long he plays, I will always have that moment.”
In his time, Elder Ruckert was a 6-foot-4, 250-pound offensive lineman for Lindenhurst High, good enough to be called up to university as a ninth-grader. It was a “bad experience,” he said. “I was playing kids who were four years older than me, and the only thing they did was kick the shit out of me.” He played football at St. John’s for a year. He left school and became a bricklayer. These days, he drives a tractor trailer for a rental company and transports heavy machinery across the tri-state area.
His bitterness from the early days formed his parenting philosophy regarding Jeremy’s athletic career. He encouraged his son to play more sports, not just football. Jeremy became an excellent football goalkeeper who used his size and agility to frustrate shooters. He was so much taller than his peers that skeptical opponents often asked for his birth certificate to confirm his age. Bill said he got so tired of the routine that he considered making a T-shirt with a picture of the birth certificate. That way, Jeremy could just lift his shirt when asked about his age.
Like his father, Jeremy was asked to participate in college football as a ninth grader. It was not an easy decision.
“His father was a little nervous about him,” said Mark Frole, a college assistant. “Thank God we got him to play, because he had a phenomenal year as a freshman. If you ask anyone on our staff, we knew when he was younger that he was destined for something good.”
Despite modest stats over a four-year career at Ohio State (54 receptions, 615 yards, 12 touchdowns), Ruckert established himself as an NFL prospect because of his all-around play. He didn’t get many opportunities in the passing game because he was surrounded by top-wide receivers, five of whom were drafted, including 2022 Jets first-rounder Garrett Wilson.
“I believe in myself,” Ruckert said, more reserved than his father. “I believe in what I can do. Of course, so do the Jets. I want to win their trust. There will not be a day when I leave.”
Jeremy was 10 years old when the Jets reached their second AFC Championship game in a row in January 2011 – he remembers watching those games on TV – but his favorite team has not been in the playoffs since. This is not Ohio State, where he lost five times in his career.
This adds another layer to the story. When an athlete plays for his hometown team, it can increase the strain if the team loses. Your friends and family are fans of the team, which means there is little or no isolation from the noise. It also goes the other way. There may be demands and disruptions if the team wins.
Ruckert said he is not worried and claimed, “I’m pretty good at saying no to people.”
For now there are only good thoughts. Bill Ruckert has them every time he drives past MetLife Stadium on his work route, knowing that his son will soon be playing there as a member of the Jets. He gets goosebumps every time. He looks forward to the day when Jeremy runs out of the tunnel and gives the colors he has been wearing since he had barely run out of diapers.
“I’m a little soft sometimes when it comes to the kids, so I’ll probably get really suffocated,” said Elder Ruckert, who foresaw the first home game. “I will try to keep a brave face, but when I see him out there … It’s like a dream, like winning the lottery. I still haven’t come down yet, and I never think I ever will.”