The Times examines the top prospects ahead of the NFL draft, to be held April 23-25.
When evaluating potential investments, NFL general managers and scouts like to know a player is not a risk to lose motivation with the first big paycheck he receives. It helps, in that case, to play the game for a bigger purpose, which has never been a problem for Michigan center Cesar Ruiz.
Ruiz was 8 years old when his father, also named Cesar, was hit by a car on the side of a South New Jersey highway, ending his life at 26. The elder Cesar had reportedly pulled over to help another driver change a flat tire.
“This whole entire experience is dedicated to that whole situation, that tragedy,” Ruiz said at the NFL scouting combine. “I still do it, every night, every day, I think about it. If my dad was here to see what I’m doing right now, he would be mind-blown. So I’m still playing for my dad, I still play through my dad, my dad still lives through me. And that’s how it’s always going to be.”
It wasn’t just his father’s death that shaped the mentality of one of the draft’s top interior linemen, but how he died — being a good Samaritan.
“That’s really what I pride myself on is just doing things for people and being a good person,” Ruiz said. “And the fact — the way it happened, he was doing something good, being a good person, you really wouldn’t want it any other way if something were to happen like that.”
Ruiz had not started playing football before his dad passed away. Looking back, he believes the tragedy is what drove his mother, Latoya, to encourage Cesar to join a team.
“Football came into my life when I was 10 years old,” said Ruiz, a native of Camden, N.J. “I really played because my mom really wanted me to get out of the house. It was kind of a therapeutic thing for me because I was still mourning the death of my father. And she saw it. Basically what she did was try to find something that would help me out.”
Ruiz took to the game quickly and would transfer to IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla., before his junior year of high school. That gave him an opportunity to get out of his rough Camden neighborhood and focus on football and his academics. There, he blossomed into the top center recruit in the country and made such an impression at Michigan that he started five games as a freshman.
“At Michigan, I was always in my playbook, always studying the offense,” Ruiz said. “I just have a thing for football. That’s where I think I stand out with these interviews, because I just know so much about football and I love football.”
Ruiz is projected as a borderline first-round pick entering the draft, but he’s confident he should be picked on the first day.
“Because if you look at the film, if you look at how I dominate people, if you look at my character, how smart I am, I have everything for a first rounder,” Ruiz said.