The Times examines the top prospects ahead of the NFL draft, to be held April 23-25.
He resembled a real-life Forrest Gump, this supersonic kid from Alabama who played football for the Crimson Tide and dearly loves his mama.
Only his mama could outrun him.
Nataki Ruggs, a former track star, has said she once ran the 40-yard dash in a roadrunner-like 4.23 seconds during a morning workout. That’s two one-hundredths of a second faster than her son Henry’s best official time, and only one one-hundredth of a second slower than John Ross’ NFL combine record of 4.22 seconds set in 2017.
Even her fleet-footed son thinks mama might be pulling a fast one.
“If you ask me, she never ran that time,” Henry Ruggs III said with a smile at the most recent combine in February. “I knew she was pretty fast. She used to run in the neighborhood, run against guys all the time and beat them. And we used to race when I was young, but I was young.”
Those races would take place in grocery store parking lots, empty streets and outside the house — mother and son seeing who was fastest to the car or an imaginary finish line. Nataki’s track background and experience gave her an advantage that her son eventually overcame with his sheer talent.
“Once I started to beat her, she would tell me, ‘OK, you’re gonna be able to run,’ ” Henry said. “That helped me develop a lot of confidence.”
That belief prompted Ruggs to proclaim himself the fastest player at the combine and take aim at Ross’ 4.22.
Alas, Ruggs posted a 4.27, several ticks short of the record, but maybe that’s for the best. He doesn’t just want to be known for his speed, touting himself as a complete receiver after a junior season. He made 40 catches for 746 yards and seven touchdowns as part of a stacked receiving corps that also included Jerry Jeudy and DeVonta Smith.
“I’m a playmaker; I don’t just pride myself on just speed,” said Ruggs, measured at 5 feet 11 and 188 pounds. “I want to be a guy who can do everything on the field. I get downfield to block for my teammates, just as they do the same for me. I play without the ball, and with the ball in my hands I can make a play.”
Ruggs is widely projected as being selected in the middle of the first round, the third receiver off the board behind Jeudy and Oklahoma’s CeeDee Lamb. He said he feels his best football is ahead based on having been surrounded by talent that required a wide distribution of touches at Alabama.
No matter how long he stays in the NFL, he might never find anyone as fast as his mama … or at least as fast as his mama claimed to be.
“Ultimately, she’ll tell you that she’s not faster than me,” Henry said. “Maybe in her prime, she felt like it. But … no.”