At the beginning of the football season, a player for the North Dakota State College of Science football team gestured toward a middle-aged man warming up on-field. “Hey coach,” he asked Trevor Keller, the defensive line coach for the Wildcats. “Was that guy your classmate? Is he a new coach or something?”
Coach Keller laughed. “Nope,” he answered the young man. “That’s Ray Ruschel, your new teammate.”
Ruschel ― a North Dakota Army National Guardsman and former active-duty sailor ― is a 49-year-old freshman defensive lineman. A sergeant with deployments to Afghanistan and Jordan, he’s not only older than everyone else on the team, but so are his two children.
“I just love the contact of football, the brotherhood that’s built from it,” Ruschel said. “I just wanted to see what I was capable of when I came out for the team.”
Dedication to football
Ruschel, a Pennsylvania native, played linebacker in high school, graduating in 1991. His senior year was the last time he put on football pads before trying out for the Wildcats. Still, when he enrolled at NDSCS for a business management degree and learned he was eligible for their football squad, he decided to try out.
“I wasn’t out of shape, thank God, because my squadron worked out so heavily while on deployment [in 2021-22] so we could pass our combat fitness test,” said Ruschel, a Guard Air and Missile Defense crewmember. “They pushed me to be better, stronger and faster.”
Despite being older than the head coach, Ruschel made the team. His work ethic and toughness quickly won everyone over, Keller said, proving the coach’s initial prediction wrong.
“I thought, he’ll make it a couple of days and then be done,” Keller said. “But Ray came out to practice after working and doing school, works hard and doesn’t ever want you to feel bad for him if he has a double shift.”
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Those shifts happen at a nearby sugar beet factory, where he’s a mechanic working nights. Between full-time work, the Guard, football and classes, Ruschel estimates he sleeps three to four hours a day. He remained injury-free throughout his freshman season, playing an average of 10 snaps a game.
“I follow the workout regimen posted by our coaches and still work out a couple days more a week than that,” Ruschel said. “It’s weightlifting, cardio. I do some yoga stretches to help keep flexibility.”
Returning for more
Ruschel’s battery first sergeant from the 1-188th Air Defense Artillery Regiment isn’t surprised at his troop’s late-in-life athletic success. Beyond his exemplary work ethic, 1st Sgt. David Saari said Ruschel has brought a spate of positive attributes to the Guard since enlisting in 2007.
“With his attitude, work ethic and intelligence, there is no problem that Sgt. Ruschel wouldn’t attempt to handle or help another soldier with,” Saari said. “He is trusted by everyone in the unit to be a mentor, a person to lean on and someone to give you the cold, hard truth when that’s what you need to hear.”
A natural father figure for his decades-younger teammates, Ruschel has delivered that cold, hard truth when approached about relationship and other life problems. But he isn’t merely the team’s symbolic shoulder to cry on, Keller said. At 6 feet tall and 250 pounds, Ruschel can drop an opponent “like a sack of potatoes,” said Keller, age 53.
“I compete in powerlifting and see the guys my age and in their late 40s like Ray. He moves a lot better than them,” Keller said. “Most guys his age say, ‘I’ve made it this far, I’m gonna take it easy.’ Ray doesn’t do that.”
Ruschel and the Wildcats made it all the way to this year’s DIII NJCAA National Championship after winning the Mon-Dak Athletic Conference. On their drill weekend in Grand Forks, his unit livestreamed the game so that everyone could watch. Unfortunately, the Wildcats lost, finishing their season at 10-2.
But Ruschel will be back next season.
“What I’ve learned is that you can build the same brotherhood on the football field as you do on the battlefield,” he said. “You care about them both, just as much as you do your own family.”Read comments