Reginald Ruffin knows a thing or two about teams. So does his son, Gabriel.
Father and son understand that everybody on a team plays a role. And each knew who was the MVP of Team Ruffin.
“She did everything,” the Miles coach said of his wife, Monica. “I was very grateful because she always wanted me to do what I needed to do to take care of the young men in the program that I oversaw every day. She would handle the household while I was gone doing my coaching duties.”
Taking Gabriel to practice and picking him up from practice, fixing dinner, handling household bills. Monica Ruffin did it all.
“She was like the core of the family,” the 13-year-old added.
But Team Ruffin lost its MVP on Jan. 31, 2017, when Monica Ruffin lost her battle with breast cancer at age 39. Now, the coach of the Golden Bears has a new role on Team Ruffin, that of a single father.
“It’s been an uphill battle,” the coach said. “It’s been a journey … a journey I wouldn’t want anybody to go through. But to God be the glory, to God be the glory. Every day is ordered by him, the man up above. Every day.”
‘She was my rock’
Ruffin is amazed as he realizes all his wife did, calling her a “super woman.”
“We were a tag team,” he said. “It was, ‘You coach. I’ve got it. You handle your business.’ That’s what we did.”
The foundation of that team was laid in 1990 when Reginald met Monica. They became sweethearts at Choctaw County High School in west Alabama’s Black Belt.
“You enter high school and you see the girl of your dreams, someone you know you’re going to spend the rest of your life with,” he recalled. They married in 1999.
“She was the one who kept me grounded,” he said. “She’s the one who loved her team, loved Miles College. If I was getting ready for game-planning, she was right there with me. Every championship. Every win. Every loss. She was always there. Picked me up when I was down and lifted me up. She was my backbone. She was my rock.”
Miles was 5-5 in 2016. That was due at least partly to Ruffin missing a number of team functions to be with his wife. She was in intensive care from September through November.
To make matters worse, assistant head and defensive line coach Tony Ogelsby battled cancer last season as well. After going into remission, he has relapsed and is now receiving hospice care.
The blessings of teamwork
The sun had scarcely risen Monday morning as players made their way into Albert J. Sloan-Alumni Stadium at 6 a.m. to prepare for Saturday’s season-opener in Lorman, Mississippi, against Alcorn State. Their coach had arrived two hours earlier.
That was out of the norm for him as he is usually nearly half an hour late.
“The mark of a good coach is (having) great assistants,” Ruffin said. “They pretty much handle everything until I get there, about 25 minutes late in the mornings.”
And Team Ruffin has other role players, including the Neaveses, the family of Gabriel’s best friend, Nic.
“I take my son over to their house to catch the bus or ride to school with them,” the coach said. “They also pick him up in the afternoons before I get him. It’s a great partnership. We’ve been friends since they’ve been in kindergarten. It’s great to have friends to help me out in my time of need.”
Those Lakewood subdivision helpful neighbors include Gerald and Christy Neaves, Greg and Kristin Harris, and Kim and Scott Weldon. There has also been the Miles College family, led by the president, Dr. George T. French Jr.
“Dr. French has been in my corner,” Ruffin said. “The administration and my coaches. I can’t say enough about my coaches. And I can’t say enough about my team. Those guys are very mature. They know what I expect. They work hard. They know when I get there, I’m a fireball. I’m already on go.”
“I haven’t been alone,” Ruffin said. “Those guys have been my rock, my backbone since Day 1, since my wife’s sickness and losing my wife. Those guys have helped me out a lot. I’m a single father now, and coaching a collegiate football team. It’s been tough, but I’ve been blessed.”
The loudest voice
Gabriel played his first ninth-grade football game Monday, notching two TD catches in a 21-16 victory over Oak Mountain at Heardmont Park. Tuesday was his mother’s birthday.
The wide receiver/defensive back guessed before the game that his grandmother would be yelling loudest for him in the game.
But would grandmother have drowned out his mom had she been on hand?
“Oh no,” Gabriel said. “No, no, no, no.”