Jeremy Ruckert will leave nothing to chance.
The junior tight end from Lindenhurst, a rising NFL Draft prospect, is preparing for the biggest game of his life. At 8 p.m. on Monday, his Ohio State team will face Alabama at Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens, Florida, in the College Football Playoff national championship game.
That’s his focus — and being available to play in that game is, too.
The COVID-19 pandemic has dashed the dreams of so many athletes at the high school and college levels since March 2020. And the sobering reality is this: All it would take to keep Ruckert from playing Monday is one positive COVID test.
He’s had a rapid test every day since mid-October and a PCR test twice a week. He has been clean all season — and the thought of a positive test now, in the days leading up to the big game, is absolutely terrifying for him.
"Ohio is one of the worst states for cases of infection," Ruckert said. "Knock on wood, I live alone, wear a mask everywhere I go and take every precaution to stay safe for me and others. Wearing a mask in practice is tough, but there’s no choice as far as I’m concerned. We head out Saturday after practice and I don’t want to miss out on a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity."
This is like an alternative universe in which preparing for the opponent is important but not as significant as a single coronavirus test. Staying healthy is paramount.
"I have family and friends going to the game," he said. "I will be ready to go. I really can’t wait."
Ruckert is living every player’s dream. Once he steps on the field against Alabama, there’ll be no more thoughts of masks and tests, just blocking assignments, routes to run and a crown to be won.
On Thursday, Ohio State coach Ryan Day said the Buckeyes will have "plenty of players’’ available, without providing specific numbers or player updates.
"We got a new set of challenges this week," Day said. "We’re going to have to figure it out, go down to Miami and play."
Ruckert, 20, has transformed himself into the prototypical NFL tight end, physically maturing into a coveted draft target. At 6-5, 254 pounds, he’s added 30 pounds of muscle under Ohio State strength coach Mickey Marotti.
"He’s the godfather of strength and conditioning," Ruckert said. "That’s who I see for winter and summer workouts in the offseason. He’s super-close to each one of us and motivates us to achieve our personal goals to help the team. I’ve always gravitated toward him. It’s all about the weight room and our nutrition."
Ruckert has shown an ability to improve in every area of his position, especially honing his technical development as a blocker.
"Blocking is a mindset," Ruckert said. "You’re trying to move someone against their will. I knew I wouldn’t be able to get on the field if I didn’t learn how to pass-protect and run-block. They want to be comfortable with you in all stages of your position. I work on technique all the time."
Ohio State employs a traditional two- tight end formation and prefers to run the ball. Ruckert has grown accustomed to the philosophy and knows that passes will come his way in key spots.
The big man with the soft hands has a knack for being elusive. He scored two touchdowns in the Buckeyes’ 38-25 win over Penn State on Oct. 31 and scored twice in the 49-28 win over Clemson in the national semifinals. He has 12 receptions for 115 yards and five scores this season.
"You know when your number is being called and it’s exciting and you don’t want to tip the defense," Ruckert said. "It’s about execution and timing, and if I go too quick, they’ll adjust, and the play is dead. We just execute the play and stick to what we practiced. Coach Day always says, ‘You don’t play to the level of competition, you play to the level of training.’ "
Ruckert plays with so much emotion. "I have to be smart with it," he said. "I talk [stuff] on the field but I leave it out there. I hit as hard as I can every play. There’s a lot more guys to block than the one right in front of you. Your job is to get out in space and hit another guy. You don’t want to get stuck on one guy."
Ruckert, a true junior, can declare for the NFL Draft. He’ll graduate this spring in just three years with a major in human development and family science.
When the football season was postponed in March, Ruckert went home and continued to prepare as if the season would get the green light.
"I went home and built a squat rack with my dad to work out at home with my brothers," he said. "It took a day to build and then we added some cable rows. I’ll remember how special these times were spent with my family which we usually wouldn’t get because we’re at school."
The return home also gave Ruckert the rare opportunity to see Robyn Haines, the love of his life for the past five years. There were obvious silver linings to being home.
"I asked her to wear my jersey in my sophomore year of high school and we’ve been together ever since," he said. "She’s the best and understands how busy I am. And she’s busy too, currently teaching special education at the same elementary school that I attended. I’m so fired up because she’ll be at the game with her parents."
Ruckert has transitioned quite well from a pass-catching machine and scorer at Lindenhurst to a vital cog in Ohio State’s blocking scheme. He led the Bulldogs to the school’s first Long Island Class I championship, earned the Hansen Award as Suffolk’s top player and also was named New York’s Gatorade Player of the Year in 2017. His career totals: 222 receptions for 3,133 yards and 37 touchdowns for head coach Nick Lombardo.
"He was a phenomenal high school talent that has taken his game to the next level," Lombardo said. "He’s an extremely driven player that has a knack for making the big plays."
Now he’d like to stay healthy and make a few of those in the national spotlight.