Three years ago as Keith Rucker Jr. was preparing to begin his college career his father had plenty of advice to offer with respect to how junior’s tenure at Georgia State should play out. It is a good bet that the most profound part of the message was that Junior best avoid the traps that befell Senior.
As a freshman at Eastern Michigan Keith Rucker Sr. made some poor choices in his attempt to fit in, including hanging with players who felt their existence at the university was limited to football. Rucker was ultimately stripped of his scholarship and left the school.
The younger Rucker must have listened intently.
In the spring the senior tight end was chosen to represent the Sun Belt Conference on the NCAA Division I Student-Athlete Advisory Committee. In addition, after having served on Georgia State’s SAAC the last two years, Rucker was named president for 2016-17.
If that is not enough to fill an academic resume the Cincinnati native is also on the Wuerffel Trophy watch list and was nominated for the 2016 All-State AFCA Good Works Team, recognition that is bestowed upon student-athletes who are exceptional in the community and in the classroom.
“The biggest thing was understanding that he was going to Georgia State to make sure that after four or five years, whatever it took, that he would leave with a degree so that he could and provide for himself, and that if he chose to have a family, to provide for them also,” said Rucker Sr., who wound up at Division III Ohio Wesleyan, was signed as an undrafted free agent by the Cardinals in 1992 and spent all or part of five seasons in the NFL. “Academics come first. He is a student-athlete and a student with the privilege of being an athlete.”
Rucker Sr., who in 2004 founded Reach 4 The Sky Foundation, a non-profit that helps kids ages 6-14 participate in athletic and other activities that their families may not be able to afford, desired for his son to be a leader and not be afraid to accept challenges, no matter how daunting they may seem.
Rucker Jr.’s work with SAAC and the time he spends in the community with, among other things, children’s hospitals in Atlanta and Cincinnati underscore the fact he has more than lived up to those wishes.
“When I came to college I tried to get into as many things as I could outside of football,” he said. “My father told me that all my hard work and dedication is going to pay off no matter where I am in life. I have just kept my head down, kept moving forward and now I am in my senior year at Georgia State and loving every bit of it.”
Rucker loves his work with SAAC, which permitted him to travel to the NCAA’s headquarters in Indianapolis where he met with other student athletes to talk about many issues, the good and the bad.
One of the challenges Rucker has been trying to tackle is figuring out how student-athletes, who are often burdened by the demands of class, practice and game schedules, can engage in more interaction with the general student body.
“I want to figure out a way where we can get to know each other and support each other whether that means athletes helping to support a drama club or whatever the case may be,” he said. “It is about having that cycle where we support them and they support us because I know everybody wants to have a feeling of support.”
The less fortunate also need support. Rucker visits children’s hospitals to not only let kids know that there are people that care, but to genuinely have a great time with them.
“Tomorrow is not guaranteed for them,” he said. “In some of their situations things are so rough and they are enduring so much pain that the one thing they need is tender loving care. I love spending time with them, playing video games with them, reading to them, drawing with them and just getting to know them.”
As conscientious as the communications major has been around Atlanta and the Georgia State community, he has been getting it done on the gridiron as well.
Rucker, whose Panthers open the season Friday night on ASN against visiting Ball State, is on the John Mackey Award watch list as one of the nation’s leading tight ends. Last season he caught 39 passes for 522 yards and six touchdowns to earn second-team SBC honors despite missing three games due to injury.
His efforts were a major reason why GSU, entering its seventh season of football, was able to drastically alter its fortunes. After accumulating a 1-23 mark in Rucker’s first two seasons, the Panthers won their last four regular season games to become bowl eligible for the first time. They finished 6-7 after losing to San Jose State in the AutoNation Cure Bowl. The mission now is for the program to build upon the strong finish to 2015 and begin to establish some sense tradition.
“A tradition had been set at my high school,” said Rucker, who won a state title at Cincinnati powerhouse Moeller High. “I didn’t get many offers in high school, but the other schools that showed interest had a tradition set. When I came here there was a tradition that needed to be set. Coach (Trent) Miles specifically told me that, ‘You can come here and help us build a tradition or go where there is one in place.’ That was the ultimate goal of mine, to be remembered for helping start up something great.”
One thing is certain and that is Rucker is doing his part on and off the field.