Sept. 1, 2011
By Sean Stires
Perfection. It’s what most people aspire to, but what few actually ever achieve. Perfection is also the driving force for Fighting Irish placekicker David Ruffer both on and off the gridiron.
Ruffer came within an eyelash of perfection in 2010 by hitting his first 18 field goals before missing in Notre Dame’s 33-17 victory over Miami in the Hyundai Sun Bowl. He actually made 23 consecutive field goals to open his career (a school record and FBS-best mark at the time) after nailing all five of his attempts during the 2009 campaign. He took last year’s lone blemish in stride though.
“I was disappointed, obviously,” Ruffer says. “But I knew that at one point or another it had to happen. I didn’t prepare myself for it, but knowing it was going to happen made it easier to deal with. It’s done.”
Ruffer made three other field goals in the rout of the Hurricanes. He added that helping his team close the season with a bowl victory for just the second time since 1993 was far more important than his missed 36-yard attempt.
“It certainly helped that in the grand scheme of things that the kick was inconsequential to the team,” he says. “The only statistic that mattered from that game was the `W.’ The fact that I missed that field goal meant nothing to the team, so it meant nothing to me.”
The fifth-year senior has flirted with perfection in the classroom as well. Ruffer was named to the `10 ESPN Academic All-America Football Team while producing a 3.90 GPA as an economics major.
Ruffer’s selection made him the 32nd Notre Dame player to receive first team academic All-America honors, and that recognition was not lost on him.
“That’s kind of the epitome of a student-athlete,” Ruffer says. “When I was able to do that it was great, because I was not only making contributions to the football team, but I was also getting my work done in the classroom which was why I came to Notre Dame in the first place. I came here to be a student and the fact that football worked out was just extra gravy on the mashed potatoes I guess you could say.”
The Oakton, Va., native actually spent his freshman year of school at the College of William & Mary, which is located in his home state. However, the call to come to South Bend was pulling at Ruffer like a “magnet” from across the country. His grandfather, father and older sister had all attended Notre Dame, and Ruffer says he always felt in his heart that Notre Dame was where he was meant to be.
“There’s so much more to me than just wearing the golden helmet,” he says. “It goes all the way through to my heart.”
After transferring to Notre Dame prior to his sophomore year, Ruffer played football for Siegfried Hall’s interhall team for two games before walking on during a bye week of the 2008 campaign. He played in just one game that year, but saw the field seven times in 2009 and then saw his duty jump to all 13 games last year.
It’s no fluke that the graduate student who never even played high school football is now a prominent member of the 2011 Fighting Irish football squad as well as a preseason candidate for the Lou Groza Award. Last season, he was the first Notre Dame player named a finalist for the honor presented to the nation’s best placekicker. Ruffer’s drive and pursuit of perfection on the practice field have led him to his current standing on Brian Kelly’s team.
“They say practice as you want to play,” Ruffer says. “When you get to the game there is no more preparation that you can do. You are as you are and you need to make the best of it. The focus, the practice and the preparation that you do during the week…when you get to the game it’s all secondary, it needs to be there already, because when you get on the field there is no one there to help you.”
Ruffer’s quest for perfection began at an early age at the prodding of his father, Michael, who told his son that he should always do his best. It’s a message the now 6-1, 193-pound placekicker took to heart through his early adolescence and into his first few years of college.
Ruffer has constantly strived for a 100-percent score on every test and would beat himself up if he failed to attain that sometimes elusive perfect score. A missed answer would gnaw at him for a week.
“It got to the point where I wasn’t realistic about it,” Ruffer says. “I finally realized that you could try to be perfect, but it was never going to happen. You could be as good as you could be by trying to get there, but as long as you realize you are never actually going to get it, then you’ll be fine.”
While burgers are comfort food for many people and a staple for many college students, they turned out to be an epiphany for Ruffer. He was working at a Five Guys Burgers and Fries restaurant in Virginia after his freshman year at William & Mary when things suddenly clicked for him.
While flipping burgers prior to his arrival on the Notre Dame campus, Ruffer truly discovered the kind of opportunities that were at his fingertips. He now sees that experience would play a huge role in his future success.
“I worked with people who might never get such wonderful opportunities,” he says. “They just weren’t going to be able to attend Notre Dame. They might not be able to attend college period. I felt I owed it to them to make the best of my situation. It would be an insult to them to squander the opportunity. They would do anything in a heartbeat to have this type of opportunity. I came to the realization that every door in the world was open to me. It just would have been an insult to people who didn’t have those doors at all.”
Ruffer stayed close to Notre Dame for an internship this past summer. He assisted the controller and accounting department with numbers crunching at Gurley Leep Automotive in Mishawaka. It allowed him to gain valuable work experience with “great people,” while also attending summer school and continuing to hone his kicking skills.
Now, it’s back to the business of splitting the uprights for Ruffer in his last year in an Irish uniform. The former walk-on, whose primary high school sport was golf, enters the `11 campaign with 23 made field goals in 24 career attempts along with 46 successful extra point conversions in 51 attempts. Ruffer also is a perfect nine for nine in his career on field goal attempts of longer than 40 yards.
It would have seemed unfathomable just four years ago, but the kid who would have been happy to just sit in the student section at Notre Dame Stadium could find himself one day lining-up kicks in NFL stadiums. However, he admits that is not something he has given much thought.
“If it worked out that would be phenomenal, but I understand that there are less than 40 or so guys that can do that job at the next level, so if that’s not me I’m not going to take it personally,” Ruffer says. “I’m fortunate that I’ve been able to excel in other areas. I’m very fortunate and know that I’m going to be able to do something besides football and be ok. I would love to do it if I’m good enough, but that’s something that I’ll pay much more attention to after the season is over.”
“We’ll try to make as many as I kick,” he says. “I think that’s the plan. If it’s 18 it’s 18, if it’s 25 it’s 25, if it’s nine it’s nine.”
The fifth-year senior has his expectations of perfection intact, but that doesn’t mean he stops striving for it.
“I try to keep it within a realm of realism where I understand that it’s not going to be attained, but the only way I can be as good as I can be and live up to my potential is if I try to be perfect,” Ruffer says. “To get every ounce of talent and every bit of energy out of yourself you always have to be striving for the next thing, the next step on the pedestal.”
Ruffer now begins this season with a self-described “clean slate.” He is 0-for-0 on field goal attempts.