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Kicker gets his wish

The Groza

by John Bach

Some people spend their entire life chasing after a childhood dream. Bearcat kicker Jonathan Ruffin put arms around his before the end of his sophomore year in college.

Jonathan first put his dream into words at age 9 when his mom, Linda Ruffin, pulled a miniature Aladdin's lamp down from the shelf of their New Orleans home. Handing it to her son, she asked, "If you could have anything you want, what would it be?"

He answered immediately as if he had been contemplating it in the off chance he found himself in the presence of a wish-granting genie, or more likely, his mom and the lamp. Instead of a lifetime supply of Slush Puppies or a million dollars, the youngster decided then and there that he would use his only wish to one day be named the nation's top college place-kicker.

"He automatically said, 'I want the Groza,'" Linda recalls. "He wanted the Lou Groza Award."

Each year since 1992, college football's top kicker has been given the Groza, named in honor of Lou "The Toe" Groza, who played 21 years for the Cleveland Browns and set NFL records for most field goals and extra points in a season before being named to the NFL Hall of Fame.

Ruffin, in just his second year at the University of Cincinnati, saw his boyhood wish to win the Groza come true after turning in one of the most outstanding place-kicking efforts in NCAA history. The 185-pound soft-spoken biology major parted the uprights 26 times in 29 tries last season, just three short of the NCAA record. His powerful leg and accurate follow-through shattered the former record for field goals in a season at UC (17).

Ruffin's right-footed feat is particularly profound considering his previous season. As a freshman with the Bearcats, he started strong. But the year ended on the wrong foot.

He kicked off his college career in '99 by making four out of five field goal attempts, including a 41-yarder to help UC upset Wisconsin at home and a career-long 46-yard kick in front of more than 93,000 fans at Ohio State.

"I remember a lot of red in the crowd," Ruffin says of the Buckeye game. "I can picture in my head just exactly what happened. The kick was right along the post. It almost went right, but it just kind of hung in there.

"That was definitely the most memorable part of my freshman year, even though I had the big Wisconsin kick (where fans tore down the goal posts). I don't quite remember that. It was only my first game kicking. I didn't even really know what was going on."

Though Jonathan Ruffin's premiere as a UC Bearcat was impressive, his game soon fell apart. Ruffin hit bottom six games into his freshman year when he missed two field goals and an extra point against Houston. The rest of the year, No. 16 made only one additional field goal and finished the year scoring on only five of 12 attempts.

"I knew that I was a good kicker, and I knew that I really didn't have to change a lot of things," he says. "I just had to work with what I had and go into the next season with some confidence.

"Once I made a couple of kicks to start my sophomore season, it just got easier from there. The more kicks I made, the easier it was."

And he made plenty.

"The best thing you can do as a kicker is not think," Ruffin says. "You can't worry about the pressure. You can't worry about the snap, the hold or your technique. You just have to go out there each time and kick."

And kick he did. After finding his confidence, Ruffin booted at least one 3-pointer in each of UC's 11 games. He drilled four of them at Tulane alone with more than 100 friends and family in the stands. His crucial field goals against UC's final two opponents last season, Memphis and Southern Miss, helped the Bearcats to a 7-4 record and sealed their bid for a trip to the Motor City Bowl last December.

A few weeks prior to the bowl game, however, Ruffin flew to Palm Beach County Florida to collect his dream trophy, the Lou Groza Award, during an ESPN-televised awards show. A national voting panel of about 200 sports writers, sportscasters, college conference officials, head football coaches, professional kickers and previous Groza winners agreed: Ruffin was the best college kicker in the country. The lamp had come through.

"I've always watched college kickers go for the Groza Award," Ruffin says. "To me it is kind of like the Heisman because it is the best thing I can get. It is something I've always dreamed about."

Unfortunately, he did not get to meet the revered Lou Groza, who died a few days before the awards banquet, at the age of 76. After the ceremony, Ruffin phoned Groza's wife and asked for permission to wear her husband's uniform number, No. 76, during the bowl game.

"I didn’t know what to say to her," he said. "She was pretty upset and was telling me what a great guy he was. I think she really liked the idea. I just wish I could have kicked a field goal during the bowl game."

In addition to his award, Ruffin was named a consensus first team All-America selection, only the fourth football player in UC history to receive such recognition and the first since 1977.

So what's next for Ruffin after his MVP season? Well he doesn't intend to hoard all the wishes.

"I just want to have another good year. Our goal is to win a conference championship."


1. He'd rather be fishing.
"Fishing is just about my favorite thing to do in the world. When I'm home, I fish every day. I almost fish every day here. I fish in the Ohio River, and I also go around asking farmers if I can fish in their ponds."

2. He kicks in a converted jazz dance slipper.
"I take it to a shoemaker and tell them to put a sole on it. It is pretty rare. Most guys wear soccer cleats. But I've passed the idea on to a few kickers."

3. He wasn't always so clean-cut.
"I was in a rock band in high school. I wasn’t like your typical football player. I just don't dress so weird or have long hair anymore."

4. He never thought he'd be in Playboy magazine.
"They put together an All-America team for the October (2001) issue, and I went to Arizona for the photo shoot. It was a little wild. The theme for the team was road warrior. Everybody was wearing spikes and chains and leather. It was crazy."

5. He loves the spotlight.
"Kicking is pretty much all or nothing. It is either all your fault we lost or all your fault we won. We only get one try. But if you make a kick at the end of the game, you get all the glory."