The day after the worst day of his life, Bobby Ruff wrestled.
The day after his older brother committed suicide, 12-year-old Bobby Ruff wrestled six opponents in a tournament in Summerville. He defeated all six. He did not give up a single point.
“I just had to,” says Ruff, now 18 and a senior at West Ashley High School. “I knew if I sat in the house all day, I’d have been torn apart. I had to get out and do something.”
Five years later, that fire, that desire to get out and do something, still burns in Bobby Ruff.
Sit in the house? No, he’d rather wrestle, star as linebacker for the football team, win the lead in the school musical, play for the golf team, learn guitar, work a part-time job, play an active role in the church youth group.
But mainly, Bobby says, it’s been football that’s filled the hole in his life since that awful day in January 2008. That’s when Bobby’s older brother, Citadel cadet Brian Ruff Jr., took his own life at age 21.
“My freshman and sophomore years, I felt like I was in a depression,” Bobby said. “I saw a counselor, I tried to figure things out, but it wasn’t working. I knew I had to do something, and I knew it was football.”
Football provides an outlet for pent-up anger and frustration, sure. But it also provides 90 ready-made brothers for a young man who misses his own brother every day.
And now, football will give Bobby Ruff a chance to forge his own path in life. Last month, Bobby Ruff — son of Brian Ruff Sr., perhaps the best football player ever at The Citadel — committed to play at the Bulldogs’ crosstown rival, Charleston Southern University.
“My dad did his thing at The Citadel, my brother went there, a bunch of our family members,” Bobby said. “I just wanted to go to a different school and make my own legacy.
‘Worst day of my life’
Friday, Jan. 18, 2008, was a teacher workday, so Bobby had the day off from school. He went to work with his mom, Jody, who was teaching a class at College of Charleston.
When Jody was called out of class, Bobby knew something was wrong. He remembers sitting in the gym by himself for a long time, wondering if his father was dead. When his parents came to pick him up, the news was just as bad.
Brian Jr., a cadet at The Citadel and Bobby’s older brother by nine years, had killed himself. Grief-stricken by a car accident that killed three of his closest friends three years earlier, troubled by a breakup with a girlfriend and problems at school, newly diagnosed with a kidney ailment, Brian Jr. parked his dad’s 1971 Mustang under the Limehouse Bridge on Johns Island and ran a hose from the exhaust pipe through the front window.
“When they told me, I just sat there with a blank face,” Bobby said. “I didn’t know what to say or do. It was the worst day of my life.”
Bobby handled the immediate aftermath. He wrestled that weekend — “No one was gonna beat be, no one was gonna hold me down”, he said — and at his brother’s funeral walked behind the casket with shoulders back and head held high.
“He was so proud of his brother,” Jody says.
But as the months passed, Bobby struggled. Despite the age difference, the brothers were close. They had been wrestling together, and against each other, since Bobby was five. They battled in video games, and Brian Jr. took his little brother for runs to Taco Bell.
For the most part, friends understood and said little. But every once in a while, some unthinking kid would tell Bobby, “Your brother was dumb, killing himself.”
Then, a fight might break out, and Bobby would find himself in the guidance counselor’s office.
“Bobby was a ball of fire up until he was 12,” Jody said. “He would bounce off the walls, light up a room, was so happy. Now, he’s much more subdued.”
But as Bobby reached high school, he found ways to deal with all those feelings inside him. Friends and family, sure, and the youth group at church — Charleston Young Life — was important. But mostly, there was football.
“I took my anger and all that frustration inside me, and used it in football,” he said. “In my mind, I would act like somebody had killed my brother, and I took out all my anger that way.”
This season, the 6-3, 190-pound Ruff learned how to channel that anger to make the most of his ability. He made the North-South All-Star team as a linebacker, and scored a touchdown for West Ashley on a fake punt.
Arriving late on the radar of college recruiters, Bobby found himself with scholarship offers from The Citadel, Coastal Carolina and Charleston Southern. His choice surprised almost everyone.
Brian Ruff Sr. is sitting at a corner table in a West Ashley restaurant when an old friend walks up.
“How’s Bobby?” the friend wants to know. “Will he be at The Citadel next fall?”
“No, Charleston Southern,” Brian says.
The friend looks shocked. “What, are you crazy?” he asks.
Brian Ruff, now 59, has gotten that reaction more than once in the weeks since Bobby committed to CSU. After all, Brian Ruff was maybe The Citadel’s best player ever — a dominant linebacker who was two-time Southern Conference player of the year. He made The Associated Press’ first-team All-America squad at a time when The Citadel played in Division I just like Clemson and South Carolina; there was no FBS or FCS.
Bobby grew up going to The Citadel’s wrestling camps and football camps and games, and seeing what Citadel men thought of his father.
“When I was little, everywhere we went, everyone would know my dad,” Bobby said. “And I always wondered why.”
Bobby just assumed he’d go to The Citadel — until one day last summer, when friends and West Ashley teammates Lee Russell and Anthony LaCosta persuaded him to go to a Charleston Southern camp.
There, Bobby impressed new CSU coach Jamey Chadwell and his assistants with his workout.
They impressed him with an emphasis on a family atmosphere.
“I told them, I grew up in a Citadel family and thought I was going to The Citadel,” Bobby said. “But that’s when I realized that I didn’t want to go to The Citadel. I wanted to do my own thing. The coaches there, they acted like it was a family, and I wanted to be a part of it.”
His dad is now a Citadel hero — and a CSU fan.
“The Citadel is a place that would have to be his choice,” Brian said. “Any parent who forces his son in the front door, they are going to run out the back. It has to be a passion for them, it has to be their choice.
“He doesn’t need to be under my shadow. The wrestling mat at The Citadel is named for his brother — does he need to see that all the time? He’d probably be in Charlie Company like I was and his brother was, and every year on Parents Day and Homecoming, they honor the kids that died in that car accident. Brian Jr. was supposed to be in that car. Bobby doesn’t need that.”
Brian and Jody Ruff have made peace with their older son’s fate.
They’ve reached out to other parents who have dealt with similar issues. Brian still owns that ’71 Mustang, and sometimes on Sunday afternoons will drive it out to his son’s grave to sit and think.
“You never get over it,” he said. “But you get through it. And having Bobby around through it all has been a blessing.”
Brian Ruff will remain a Citadel legend and supporter. But for the next four years, he and Jody will make their Saturday tailgate plans at CSU Stadium.
And Bobby will find some new brothers.
“I don’t have a brother anymore,” he said. “But when I play football, I have 90 brothers.”
Follow Jeff Hartsell on Twitter @jeff_fromthepc
Bobby Ruff (left) with his older brother, Brian Ruff Jr.×
Bobby Ruff, linebacker at West Ashley, and his father, Brian Ruff, on the football field Wednesday, Nov. 20, 2013 at West Ashley High School. Paul Zoeller/Staff×
West Ashley High School linebacker Bobby Ruff acts in the school play.×
West Ashley lineabcker Bobby Ruff (2) will be heading to Charleston Southern next fall.×