Strength can come in various forms. It can come existentially, giving off an obvious appearance and commanding nature based on one’s imposing physical features. It can also come from within, only revealing itself in situations when the need for strength is dire. Mike Rucker’s persona has emanated strength and leadership since presumably a very early age. From starting on both sides of the ball in high school at Benton High School in St. Joseph, Missouri; to earning three-letters in basketball, Rucker’s physical traits have set him apart. He even was a four-year letter winner in track and field, as well as a state champion at shot put; which is in many ways the personification of pure power and strength. By the time high school was finished, the building blocks of a leader, at least on the field, were starting to fall in place.
Rucker would go on to accept a football scholarship at the University of Nebraska, where he would end up redshirting his first year in the program. By the time his career would wind-down at Nebraska, he would become known for wreaking havoc on defense behind the line of scrimmage. He became so dominant by the time he was a senior, that he made second-team All-Big 12 despite missing the majority of the season due to injury. The defensive end would finish his career as a Cornhusker with 40 stops behind the line of scrimmage, good enough for fourth all-time for the storied football program. A member of two national title teams (1995 and 1997), Rucker was starting to become a hot commodity by the time the 1999 Draft came around. Although standing out on the field, he was not named a team captain during his tenure in Lincoln. That next leadership step would happen on the grandest stage of all, in the National Football League.
The team Rucker would play his entire career for, the Carolina Panthers, would select Rucker with the 38th pick in the second round of the 1999 NFL Draft. He made an impact immediately for the team, playing in all 16 games while also recording three sacks. After accumulating 2.5 sacks his second season, he would move into a starting role for the start of the 2001 season, where his sack total would jump all the way up to nine. His game would take another jump during the 2003 campaign, as he was named NFL Defensive Player of the Month when he had when he had 5 sacks, 21 tackles, 13 hurries and one batted pass during the first four games of the season. That season, he and Julius Peppers were the only defensive end duo to each register 10 sacks respectively.
The following year he would win the award again for the same month, becoming only the 11th player in NFL history to win the award in the same month in two consecutive years; while also making the only Pro Bowl of his career after totaling 12 sacks. By the time his career was over in Carolina he finished with 421 tackles, 55.5 sacks and one interception. He also started in the Super Bowl in 2003, while also being named NFL Alumni Defensive Lineman of the Year. Unfortunately, he would tear his ACL in a December 17, 2006 game against the Pittsburgh Steelers that would force him to miss the season. After returning for the 2007 season, he would retire on April 22, 2008 after spending his entire career in Charlotte. By then his overall on-field production was starting to become second to his emerging leadership qualities.
By 2003 the Panthers had made Rucker something he wasn’t at Nebraska, and that was team captain. It was a position he would hold until he finally took off the Panthers jersey in 2008. You have to look no further at the impact he had on the entire organization than on the day he announced his retirement. Fighting back tears, Rucker thanked not only his family and teammates; but trainers, security staff and equipment personal that grew to appreciate the impact Rucker had on the franchise as a whole. His leadership had an underrated impact on the growth of star Julius Peppers, whose pairing opposite of the veteran Rucker lead to immediate success on the field. By this time Rucker’s strength was not solely in his imposing frame. This time, his strength was exemplified in the model life he was living. Remarked Owner Jerry Richardson upon his retirement “He is in the perfect place in his life,” Richardson said. “He’s been with one organization. He’s contributed. He’s been a role model for the organization and for the community”. Now, it was time for the man from St. Joseph, Missouri to make his mark away from the NFL spotlight.
Even before his career finished, Rucker had already funded one company; Vision Group Realty, which is a full service real estate brokerage firm, providing brokerage services to both buyers and sellers of residential and commercial real estate The firm headquarters are located in Charlotte, NC, with their business operating on a global scale. Despite this successful business venture, Rucker has become widely known for his philanthropy. Rucker, along with former teammates Mike Minter, Stephen Davis, and Muhsin Muhammad, are co-founders of Ruckus House, a child development and learning facility. Their philosophy (taken from their website) is “Ruckus House Learning Centers are committed to providing the highest quality of child care possible to children and families in the community. Our programs help children grow into intelligent, strong, responsible, caring adults. Our teachers work with families to ensure children’s success in school and in life”. He has also become known for his time commitment and support of United States soldiers. In the 2008 offseason, he traveled to Afghanistan to visit with troops along with Luis Castillo, Tommie Harris, and Sports Illustrated NFL writer Peter King. During his post-playing career he began doing color commentary for the Panthers preseason games on the Panthers Television Network.
For Rucker, his obvious strength started from an imposing physical frame; while slowly molding into all-encompassing leadership qualities. He was no longer just a 6-5 270 pound figure you had to acknowledge. He was a man who everyone seemed to gravitate to whether they were a rising star in Julius Peppers or one of the team’s training staff members. And, his post-playing career narrative isn’t even close to complete; as he continues to remain extremely active in the Charlotte community as well as the NFL community. Now, the only thing people really seem to want to debate is where he ranks amongst the greatest Panthers defensive ends of all-time.
That, I will leave up for you guys to decide.