Randy York’s N-Sider
Growing up, greatness surrounded Barrett Ruud. His dad, Tom Ruud, was an All-America linebacker and first-round NFL draft choice. An uncle, Bob Martin, was an All-America defensive end and five-year pro like his dad. Another uncle, John Ruud, has been a staple of Nebraska’s Tunnel Walk for decades because of his unforgettable hit in the Huskers’ 1978 upset of No. 1 Oklahoma. Did we mention that Clarence Swanson, Barrett’s great grandfather, was a Nebraska captain in 1921 and is one of 16 Husker players in the College Football Hall of Fame? Or that younger brother Bo Ruud was a Blackshirt and a Nebraska captain, too?
You'd think greatness rubbed off on Barrett and catapulted him into becoming Nebraska’s all-time leading tackler and one of the Top Eight Blackshirts of all time, based on a recent Huskers.com fan poll that celebrated 50 Blackshirts Through 50 Years. Barrett grew up with a tenacious mindset. He grew up knowing Husker All-Americans John Dutton and Bob Nelson and hearing them talk about their Super Bowl experiences with his dad. Martin became an equal source of inspiration. How many kids grow up with an uncle who played for the New York Jets? How many grow up watching a video of Walter Payton running hill after hill after hill almost daily? How many grow up in Memorial Stadium’s shadows, dreaming about pulling a Blackshirt over his head and being mentioned in the same breath with Grant Wistrom and Mike Brown?
Let the record show that Barrett Ruud became a Third-Team All-American at Nebraska. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers drafted him in the second round because they liked what they saw and loved what they got – a 6-foot-2, 241-pound middle linebacker who led the team in tackles for four consecutive seasons while missing only one start. In four seasons at Nebraska, Ruud was in on 432 tackles and remains the Huskers’ all-time career leader. In six seasons at Tampa Bay, he registered 779 tackles, five sacks, six interceptions, 23 passes broken up, six forced fumbles and four fumble recoveries. Barrett Ruud was born to be a Blackshirt, made to be a Husker and almost pre-destined to be a pro, but the third part of that equation had nothing to do with his football lineage and everything to do with a certain defensive coordinator that Frank Solich hired in the twilight of Barrett’s collegiate career.
Pelini Had Solid, Career-Enhancing Advice
“I was an okay player as a freshman and a sophomore at Nebraska,” Barrett said. “I always had the want to. From the time I was a little kid, I knew that you had to do something extra every day to succeed. You can’t do what everybody else does. You have to do more. You can’t show up, go to practice and go home. I did the extra weight training and kept asking (then strength coach) Brian Bailey what more should I be doing. Finally, he had to tell me that you can do too much, so I focused more on film study. I watched a lot of film, but I didn’t really know how to watch it.”
That changed instantly when Solich hired Bo Pelini as his defensive coordinator. “Bo Pelini – he was the guy I needed in my football life,” Ruud said. “When Bo came, a lot of things just started to click for me my junior year. He not only showed me how to play technique-wise, but how to study film, what to look for and how to change. The minute he got here, I was like a sponge. I really enjoyed every minute of learning from him how I could get better every day. To this day, the biggest leap I ever made as a player was between spring ball when he arrived and the next fall. Just listening to him and learning from him took me from being an okay player to being a pretty good player.”
We all know the sequences that follow “pretty good” and inspire you incrementally, if not perpetually. “I’ll never forget the time Bo sat me down and explained what was wrong with my footwork,” Ruud recalled. “I couldn’t believe the difference I was watching on film the second day. You’re not necessarily running faster, but you’re moving so much better and look like a completely different athlete. I mean, the difference was night and day. As I look back at what Coach Bo taught me, that was the beginning for me. It was the key for me, and I needed more. From that day on, I was on a new journey, constantly trying to improve every day, and you could see it and feel it every day. There’s nothing better than the satisfaction you see on film. It doesn’t lie. It tells you the truth.”
Blackshirts Symbolize Players Before You
The process, Bo Pelini’s favorite two-words expression, was part of his coaching DNA long before Tom Osborne hired him to come back to Nebraska, and Barrett Ruud was classic proof of what he brings to the table. Blackshirts are a half-century old standard at Nebraska. “For me, it was more of a motivating tool than anything else because wearing one makes you want to play not only for your teammates, but all the guys who came before you,” Ruud said. “They’re a tribute to the past, and that was definitely not lost on me. When I pulled that first Blackshirt over my head, I knew it wasn’t about me, but everyone around me and everyone before me.”
That first-time experience helped Ruud understand what his dad had been telling him for years – if you have a bad day of practice, you’re letting a lot more people down than just yourself. “You kind of feel like the Blackshirts who were here before you are watching you practice … guys like my dad and all the others who wore those cheap, black mesh jerseys, not like the state-of-the-art jerseys we were wearing.”
Old school or new school, Blackshirts have helped Nebraska win far more games than any other NCAA FBS school over the last half century. They set the standard for Barrett Ruud in college and that standard continued to elevate in the NFL, where he applied the same everyday principles that took him there. The ride was running every step just like Walter Payton did. Succeeding in the NFL is no different than flourishing in college. There is no escalator to the top.
Barrett, Wife, Dog Make Lincoln New Home
Barrett made one big mistake in the pros. He was so tough, so determined and so committed, he allowed himself to continue to play in the NFL with one good arm, and eventually that caught up with him. He bounced to three other teams and the clock finally struck midnight. He didn’t need “The Turk” to tell him it was over. He told himself. He, wife Jenna and Millie, their German Shorthair dog, are rehabbing a house near the Lincoln Country Club, where Barrett grew up. They are excited to begin their new life after football.
Over the Labor Day weekend, Barrett enjoyed running into Derrie Nelson and Steve Manstedt at a gathering at Uncle Bob’s house – two former Blackshirts who played in the NFL, yet still embrace the Good Life of Nebraska. Barrett loves the Sea of Red in Memorial Stadium, but he will always be wearing black when he passes through the gates. His great grandfather, his dad and his brother were all Nebraska football captains, just like he was. That’s why they’re the First Family of Nebraska Football, right up there with the legendary Fischer Family…proud of their roots, delighted with their heritage and blessed with a lifelong dedication to getting better every single day.
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