Hearing that the next play could be your last will do that. Two years ago, that was a distinct possibility for Ruffin, a cornerback who is one of 21 prep recruits committed to Auburn for the Class of 2014.
During his sophomore season at St. Pius X in Atlanta, he began coughing up blood for no apparent reason. In addition, he had trouble breathing. Try as they might, doctors couldn’t figure out exactly what was ailing him.
After being put on medications, Ruffin saw his symptoms go away.
However, no one knows what caused the issue in the first place.
“The only explanation (doctors) gave us was that I had swelling in my lymph nodes, which was causing an excess of blood to flow through, and it was flooding my lungs, and causing me to cough up the blood,” Ruffin said by telephone Friday. "That was the only explanation they could give, but they were never able to diagnose exactly what it was.”
Ruffin said that in the early stages, it could have been life-threatening — his parents told him one more bad hit and it could be over. Another possibility is that his body would have slowly broken down over time.
Even though those worries are behind him, they still serve as a sobering reminder.
“I think when you’re faced with a situation like that — where you don’t know when your next snap is going to be or if you’ll be able to ever have another one — being able to step back on the football field makes you want to cherish every single play and every single moment that you have,” he said. “Because you really don’t which one will be your last. It puts me in the perspective that I’m not invincible. I know as a teenager a lot of times I feel like, ‘Hey, there’s nothing that can touch me.’ But I know now that I’m not invincible. There’s always something that can take you down.”
Two years after overcoming his nameless enemy, Ruffin stood as one of the nation’s top cornerback prospects in the Class of 2014. Last May, he pledged to Auburn. That commitment hasn't wavered, and he was on campus last weekend as the Tigers hosted a handful of incoming freshmen on official visits.
From meeting other members of the 2014 class to talking with upperclassmen, Ruffin couldn’t have been more pleased with the way the visit turned out.
“The thing that stood out most to me was just how inviting and relaxed the football players are,” he said. “There are a lot of places you’ll go where football is the sport that everybody looks to, so other people act that way as well. But these guys are very, very down to earth. ... A lot of them just kind of took me under their wing and accepted me as their teammate and they really didn’t know me.”
If Ruffin has his way, people will know his name soon enough. Given all the injuries the Tigers’ secondary suffered last season, the expectation is that Ruffin will be able to compete for a starting job immediately.
“(The coaching staff) said they have no doubt that I’ll work hard as far as getting stronger and getting into the weight room, but they want me to learn the system more than anything,” he said. “As far as the expectations for myself, I expect to be able to come in and contribute, as I’m sure that every guy wants to.”
One thing that Ruffin noted he needs to polish up?
“I’ve got to work on being able to play off-ball coverage,” he said. “I’m more of a jamming corner, more upfront kind of guy. So I’ve got to work on being able to play off the ball.”
Last season at St. Pius, he played exclusively at safety. He said his transition back to cornerback is a work in progress.
But it is his intellect in the classroom Ruffin wants to be defined by.
He understands that people hold negative stereotypes of college athletes — and Ruffin acknowledged some don’t do their fellow athletes any favors by living up to those bad reputations.
He said that won’t happen with him.
“The importance of academics to me comes from watching my mother and father,” he said. “My mom graduated high school in three years and went on to get her degree at LSU. My dad graduated high school with a 4.0 GPA. My brother went to Brown University. So academics in my household growing up was strongly (emphasized).”
Those achievements by family members notwithstanding, most of the pressure Ruffin deals with is internal. To him, nothing is more important than receiving his college degree. It’s far more than just a piece of paper in his mind.
It’s the culmination of years of hard work.
“When you have a degree in your hand, that stands for something. To me it shows a man not just of confidence, but of substance, that he’s taken the road less traveled,” he said. “Because there a lot of people who choose not to get a college degree. That to me shows a man that says, ‘Hey, I want to stand for something in my life. I want to hold something that’s mine and that I earned.’”