On (to) Wisconsin

By on February 5, 2018

Rucci commits to play for the Badgers

After receiving offers from 19 Division-One colleges, Warwick junior tight end Hayden Rucci committed to the University of Wisconsin last week.

When Hayden Rucci’s football career ends at Warwick High School, he will say good-bye to uniform number 33.

Turns out that the University of Wisconsin has retired double 3s from circulation. Some guy named Ron Dayne, who won the Heisman Trophy in 1999, was the last to wear it.

But the Warrior junior is happy to pick another number.

In fact, Rucci is just thrilled to join the Badgers’ family, period.

The Wisconsin coaches were in Lititz last Wednesday, Jan. 31 to watch Rucci in a workout and then the 6-foot-5, 230-pound four-star tight end — through Warrior coach Bob Locker — informed the reigning Big Ten Conference runners-up that he was ready to commit.

“Excitement is probably the best word,” Rucci said, describing his emotions. “I’m just happy. It’s a big, deep breath and a lot of stress off my shoulders. Now that I know where I’m going, I can start really connecting with the other commits and recruits. I’ve already been talking with them and it’s a really cool time right now.”

The Badgers were one of 19 big-time Division-One programs to make an offer to Rucci, joining Army, Boston College, Connecticut, Duke, Indiana, Maryland, Michigan State, Minnesota, Northwestern, Pitt, Princeton, Rutgers, Syracuse, Temple, Virginia, Wake Forest, West Virginia, and Western Michigan.

Six of the schools on that list hail from the Big Ten Conference, which is known for its hard-nosed style of play. It didn’t go unnoticed by Rucci, who grew up watching a lot of Penn State games. And when the Lions played Wisconsin for the Big Ten championship in 2016, he was a keen observer of Troy Fumagalli and how the Badgers used him and their other tight ends.

“Before I even thought about (playing) college football, I liked Wisconsin,” said Rucci, who also plays lacrosse at Warwick. “So it was cool when they started getting in the mix of it.”

In the four or five days between giving a verbal commitment to Wisconsin and then tweeting Monday morning, Rucci personally called all the coaches that made offers to inform them of his decision.

“There’s a couple schools that are just going to be tough phone calls,” he said last week.

Rucci’s commitment to Wisconsin came almost exactly one year after the recruiting journey began, when Michigan State made an offer last February.

He was eligible to start taking official visits this spring, but he was already sold on the Badgers.

Warwick junior Hayden Rucci is shown on the University of Wisconsin’s campus last November.

“I’ve been trying to compare other schools to Wisconsin,” Rucci said, “and Wisconsin’s just right above everybody else. I’ve had this feeling for a little bit now. Just thinking about everything on the road and on visits, I knew what Wisconsin was like and nothing really stacked up for me.”

Todd and Stacy encouraged Hayden to keep a journal as the family — including younger brother Nolan — departed from schools’ campuses, making a list of the positives and negatives from each visit.

“It’s great to get Nolan’s opinion on everything,” Todd said. “We have a third-party advisor with us who’s non-biased, so he gets to see things without getting caught up in it. And to Hayden’s credit, he’s been able to see through a lot of shiny things and see what matters.”

Their first taste of Madison was in June, 2017 during a road trip to five colleges in five days. Borrowing Todd’s brother’s RV, the Ruccis went to Notre Dame, Northwestern, Wisconsin, Minnesota and Ohio State.

No doubt, Hayden’s notebook included included some positive words about Badgers’ tight ends coach Mickey Turner and head coach Paul Chryst.

“I think the relationships I’ve built with coaches (was a key factor),” Rucci said. “When I was there, it just felt like I was at home. I could really picture myself there.”

Under Turner’s mentorship, Fumagalli developed into a finalist for this year’s John Mackey Award, an annual honor given to college football’s most outstanding tight end, and he was the Badgers’ Offensive MVP in their 2017 Cotton Bowl win over Western Michigan.

“I trust coach Turner to make me into the best football player I can be,” Rucci said. “I have trust in all the coaches I’ve been talking to right now and I knew if I went there, I’d love to be a Wisconsin tight end.”

In the Badgers’ offensive formations, they run a lot of two tight end sets, so they like diverse players at that position. They will get one in Rucci, whose strengths include being a tall receiver who can make plays, but also an extra tackle type of player that adds to the blocking scheme.

“The combination of those two is what fits me,” he said, “and I think that’s what makes me different than most tight ends.”

His athleticism certainly doesn’t hurt.

“I think the genes really helped on that one from field hockey and, obviously, football,” Rucci said. “I wouldn’t say I’m crazy fast, not crazy slow, good strength and it definitely helps me on the field.”

So does his intensity.

“There’s just a mindset of how I play I think is also an advantage,” he said. “Just angry.”

And Rucci’s 4.2 grade point average, which no doubt attracted Duke and Ivy League school Princeton, will help him absorb the Badgers’ playbook. He plans to study either business or engineering in college.

“Grades are very important in this house, and to me as well,” Rucci said.

Taking a second visit to Madison was important to the Rucci family too, which they did the Nov. 18 weekend, and they were among the Badgers’ faithful doing the Jump Around at 80,000-capacity Camp Randall Stadium in Wisconsin’s 24-10 win over Michigan.

When ESPN’s College GameDay announced that they’d be on site for the game, kickoff was bumped up to 11 a.m. That meant Hayden and his family got an early wake-up call to be at the stadium at 8 o’clock.

“What made it worth it was the first snow of that season that I’d seen,” Hayden said. “So when we woke up, it was snowing and I just loved it.”

No surprise then that he is a big fan of cold weather.

“I’m bringing my ice skates,” said Hayden, whose love of fishing is also a fit in Wisconsin with its numerous lakes.

The day before the Wisconsin-Michigan battle, the Ruccis were able to watch the Badgers’ practice and talk to Fumagalli and a couple of players afterward. They met Chryst and former Badger coach/current athletic director Barry Alvarez.

“Before my second visit, I’d been thinking about Wisconsin a lot,” Hayden said, “and thinking, ‘Wow, could this be it?’ And then my second visit just kinda confirmed my suspicions of it.”

“The cool thing when we went to practice is the coaches said, ‘Just have at it, ask any question,’” Todd recalled. “I remember coach Chryst said, ‘Listen, this is who we are. Take it for what it is.’ To me, that said a lot about, there were no smoke-and-mirrors and no fireworks and things to kinda show off. You could tell the culture of that whole place from the players and coaches was pretty humble. Football was important, but people were important.”

Make no mistake, the hospitality and friendliness of people they met in Wisconsin — not to mention the cleanliness of Madison — left a positive impression.

“The first time I ever noticed Wisconsians being super nice is when Todd played in the Super Bowl (with the New England Patriots in 1997),” Stacy said. “Green Bay Packers fans are the nicest fans.”

In a couple of years, Todd and Stacy will be among those Wisconsians cheering on the Badgers. For obvious reasons, they will always be huge fans of Penn State too. Todd was a standout offensive lineman for the Lions’ football team, while Stacy earned Division-One First-Team All-American honors in field hockey.

But in their view, Hayden finding a great fit for college was the top priority.

“I’m personally thrilled,” Todd said. “He is exactly where he should be. It’s a great school. I think what’s important to him is that he wants to play at a big-time program, in a scheme that fits his skill set, and the academic side of it. He wants to play in a city atmosphere and yet, be in a place where it was kind of low-key, just simple, and Wisconsin just checked all the boxes. I am absolutely thrilled that he’s going to Wisconsin. It ‘s going to be fun to watch him.”

During her career with the Lady Lions, Stacy wore number 33, the same one Hayden has worn in football and lacrosse at Warwick.

“Freshman year lacrosse, we were doing jersey selection and number 33 was left and I knew it rung a bell,” Hayden said.

“I picked him up that day and he’s like, ‘Mom, look what number I got,’ and I think I might have started crying,” Stacy recalled.

For the Rucci family, there were tears of joy last week.

“When we were on campus, I could really see myself in the stadium and calling it home,” Hayden said. “I’m pretty excited.”


One Comment

  1. Tom Gilburg

    February 5, 2018 at 8:17 pm

    I am Knute, Hayden’s grandfather. I am thrilled Hayden has picked Wisconsin. My brother and I grew up singing the Wisconsin fight song. My father was born and raised in Warsaw, Wisconsin. Nana and I look forward to many trips to Camp Randall Stadium in Madison WI.

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