College football at 49? North Dakota lineman got the right stuff

WAHPETON, ND (AP) — When North Dakota State College of Science suffered a heartbreaking loss in early September, thwarted on the goal line as time expired in a jolt to its national championship ambitions, he was a lineman backup defender who stepped forward with a pep talk to lift the locker room.

Forget it, Ray Ruschel, 49, said, according to his varsity teammates. Focus on the rest of the season and things will work out.

“There was a kind of emotions everywhere. Not everyone handled it,” wide receiver Marselio Mendez said after the loss to rival Minnesota State Community Technical College. “Ray came over and said, you know, he’s not really failing, is he? He said we just have to put the excitement aside and we still have the rest of the season and the playoffs to show who we are.”

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

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

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

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

When Ruschel asked head coach Eric Issendorf, a year younger, for a tryout, Issendorf said yes, though he was worried Ruschel might get hurt.

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

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“The guys he plays against are bigger, faster and stronger than him,” Issendorf said. “But he has been able to handle it. The personality of him… he’s just a really nice guy with the ambition to leave no stone unturned. As long as he is here on this earth.”

Wahpeton, a mostly industrial city of about 7,800 people, is home to the Minn-Dak Farmers Cooperative, one of the largest sugar beet growers in North Dakota and Minnesota. That’s where Ruschel works a night shift, then fits in a couple of hours at the gym after leaving at 8 a.m. every day.

After a few hours of online schoolwork at his apartment near campus, Ruschel gets some rest before afternoon practice, which lasts until 7 p.m. He then returns to his apartment, where Ruschel showers and eats before bed to rest what he can all start again with his night shift.

How do you manage such a grueling schedule?

“Good question.” said Ruschel, a single father of two adult children. “It’s because I choose to prioritize certain things and others have to be sacrificed. They just have to be put down right now.”

The university campus is home to some 3,000 students, anchored by its historic Old Main dating back to its founding in 1903. One recruiting brochure boasts of a 97% employment rate for graduates.

When it comes to football, it’s not the state of North Dakota: a perennial national champion in the NCAA’s second tier, with a $25 million budget, a 19,000-capacity dome and numerous NFL alumni.

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 modern 90-seat locker room.

The Wildcats went 9-1 last season, second-best in school history, and finished No. 4 in the Division III junior college rankings. After a 37-6 victory over Vermillion Community College (a six-hour bus ride to the far northeast of Minnesota) and a homecoming victory last weekend, they are 4-1 in a season that they hope it can end with a national championship.

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Players say Ruschel fits in with his teammates despite the obvious musical and cultural differences that come with such a large age difference. On that bus trip to Minnesota, for example, Ruschel spent hours browsing Facebook, listening to music on his headphones and “most of the time looking out the window.” There is no Instagram or TikTok for him.

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

Ruschel, who became a sergeant while in the Army and said he aspires to remain active in the National Guard until age 60, has served in Afghanistan and Jordan, though he declined to discuss tours.

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

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

Five games into the season, the 6-foot, 225-pound Ruschel, a fitness 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 just have to keep stretching myself.”

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

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


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