Jesus Christ jumped from 120 feet the other day at St. Peter's quarry. That's what the guy goes by—Jesus Christ. Nobody knows his real name. You'll just be hanging out at the quarry, which is about 30 miles northwest of Philadelphia, and you'll look up and you'll see this guy standing on the top rock, ready to jump—120 feet—straight down. Makes your teeth hurt just to watch. Mike Ruth saw him do it once. Watched him stare straight out for a heartbeat or two and then step off, as if he'd been standing on a street curb or something.
You think the guy's dead, then, blip, his head pops up through the water and there he goes, swimming away, not saying squat. A few guys—Ruth is one—jump from 65 feet, but nobody in his right mind jumps from 120. Of course, no one accuses this Jesus guy of being a neurosurgeon, either. Everybody laughs at him, but sometimes Ruth gets to wondering. Jesus Christ. Who's to say? Maybe the guy is Christ. Maybe Christ is jumping off 120-foot cliffs these days to teach us all to quit being wimps.
Ruth is open to all possibilities. Lord knows enough people have laughed at him. You try telling people you're thinking about throwing away an NFL career to become a priest. It's like saying you're morally opposed to MTV. And we're not talking just any NFL career here. Ruth, a 6'2", 255-pound noseguard able to bench-press a good-sized farm animal (580 pounds), could win the Outland Trophy this year at Boston College as the best interior lineman in the country. Ruth could be a first-round draft pick. However, when he says he might have something better to do with his Sundays, folks think he's wimpy or worse. That's one reason that when Ruth is on the football field, he's dead set on turning quarterbacks into ectoplasm. "I want to show people you don't have to be a wimp to be a Christian," he says. But because people don't quite know what to make of one who can quote Cicero but looks like Schwarzenegger, he ends up spending a lot of time by himself.
Ruth says spending time by yourself is like praying. Of course, when you're around Ruth, you do a lot of praying yourself. Ride in Ruth's Jeep and you become one with your seat cushion. Then you kiss the ground. He has been in 13 auto accidents in the last five years and hasn't suffered so much as a hangnail. Once, he hit a patch of ice on the New Jersey Turnpike and spun into the oncoming lane. He was thrown free of the car. This summer, in his hometown of Norristown, Pa., Ruth was driving his brother Rudy's sports car when a woman fell asleep at the wheel of her car and plowed into him. Mike's only ill effect was a queasy stomach from swallowing his chewing tobacco. When Rudy, 24, a junior high school teacher, saw the remains of his chassis, he told Killer—that's Mike's affectionate nickname for their mother—"He's lucky he's not dead."
August 25, 1985
But then, Ruth is fearless and all but indestructible. Is Robbie Bosco listening? On Aug. 29, when BC plays BYU in The Holy War (a.k.a. The Kickoff Classic) at the Meadowlands before a national television audience, there should be much wailing and gnashing of teeth, and Ruth's eminence should become self-evident. With the Fabulous Flutie finally finished—and with Ruth built along the lines of St. Paul's Cathedral—the cameras can't help but notice him.
"The first time I saw him," says BC defensive line coach Orfio (Orf) Collilouri, "he was a senior at Methacton [High]. He had on shorts and a T shirt and he just rrrrrrrripped. I offered him a scholarship on the spot." Smart man, Orf. Not only did Ruth turn out to be one of the strongest specimens in the game—college or pro—but he also runs a 4.8 40 and has a vertical leap of 32 inches. Moreover, you need a court order to get him off the field (he played 846 straight defensive snaps last year), and he seldom offers the other cheek upon being smitten.
After the Clemson game in 1983, Jack Bicknell Jr., the BC coach's son and the Eagles' starting center, was asked to rave a little about the Tigers' acclaimed noseguard, William (The Refrigerator) Perry. Bicknell just shrugged. "He's pretty good," Bicknell said. "But you've got to understand, I go up against Mike Ruth every day in practice. Nobody's better than Mike Ruth."
Scouts say Ruth is mighty and shall prevail in the pros. "He's about as big as [Seattle Seahawks All-Pro noseguard] Joe Nash, and twice as quick," says superscout Joel Buchsbaum. "He's very, very intense, and he's incredibly strong. You look at him and it looks like his skin is on too tight."
When bored with juking offensive linemen this way and that, Ruth simply uproots them and pitches them out of his path, as if they were ragweed messing up his garden of sacks. Once, during one of Ruth's gardening fits, tackle Scott Harrington, who played next to Ruth and has now graduated, pulled him aside. "Hey, Mike, how 'bout throwing guys to the other side for a while?" he said. "They're getting in my way."
Against Houston in last season's Cotton Bowl, Ruth made the defensive play of the game. After Cougar quarterback Gerald Landry had faked a handoff to fullback Mat Pierson to start the option, Ruth did an IHOP job on Pierson—pancaked him—before noticing that Pierson didn't have the ball. This upset Ruth, so he went after the quarterback, who was rolling away. Ruth unleashed his wrath upon Landry, only to notice he didn't have the ball, either. This further incensed Ruth, so he stuck out one of his ponderous forearms and tripped the tailback, who did have the ball. One out of three ain't bad.
"Can't you see their offensive coordinator on the phone up to the booth?" says Orf with relish. "The guy's saying, 'Who made the tackle?'
'Uh, the noseguard, coach.'
'Not on the fullback, on the tailback.'
'The noseguard, coach.'
'Who got the quarterback?'
'The noseguard, coach.'
BC's noseguard is as ornery in practice as he is in games. Says Bicknell Jr., "There are times when we just have the look squad [a scrub team that runs plays of an upcoming opponent] in there, and I see Mike all riled up, going full bore. I'll have to tell coach Collilouri, 'Better get Ruth out of there. He's going to kill someone.' " So Orf has to pull Ruth aside and say, "Look, how 'bout calling it a day?" Orf may be the only coach in the country who has to remind his player not to practice too hard. When SI needed a set of burly arms to adorn the cover of our 1983 College & Pro Football Spectacular, we called on Ruth, who, without prodding, flung himself to the earth at least 30 times to get just the right mud-and-blood effect.
Despite Ruth's enormous talent, the NFL holds no particular charm for him. Truth is, he doesn't even much care for football. "It isn't that much fun for me," he says. "Now, if I could get the ball, run with it or catch it once in a while, pass it, that might be fun. But I never get the ball. Even if I get a fumble, I can't advance it in college. I'd rather fish." Ruth's druthers for a Saturday afternoon: 1) fish, 2) catch fish (a rarity), 3) lift weights, 4) catch fish big enough to keep (rarer still), 5) drive his Jeep. "Besides, I'm not much for money," he says. "People think it's baloney, but if you just let me have the Jeep and $10, I'd be happy."
Ruth wouldn't have much trouble with the vow of poverty. As for the two other vows of priesthood, obedience and chastity, he's doing his best with those, too. The reason he chose BC, he says, was that it was the only one of the schools that heavily recruited him that didn't cheat. He says that one offered him $400 a week to clean a pool twice a week, two hours a day.
The night before road games, the BC squad watches a movie. Ruth doesn't join his teammates if he suspects the movie might have sex, swearing, nudity or violence. Funny, that's why a lot of the players go to the movies. "Sometimes we'll have a bad practice and I'll use a few choice words," says coach Bicknell. "But then I see Mike standing there looking so disappointed in me I feel like I have to go over and apologize."
Not that following the straight and narrow is always easy for Ruth. "I made a couple of mistakes," Ruth says. He loved a girl, but couldn't make a commitment because of the other one he may have to make someday. Poverty, chastity and obedience. "I should've told her that at the start," he says. "I hurt her and that was stupid."
Now he tries not to lead himself into temptation. "Obviously, I think premarital sex is wrong," he says. "Whether I've committed that sin is my business." Which reminds us that last year's preseason leader for the Outland Trophy, Pitt's Bill Fralic—Virginia Tech's Bruce Smith wound up winning the award—announced that his favorite pastimes were playing golf, fornicating and getting drunk.
"Most guys on the team think this 'Joe Priest' thing is phony," Ruth says. "They think I'm a hypocrite. That's O.K. A few people know me."
One is Father Paul Wierichs, a Passionist priest working in New York City. Ruth learned of Wierichs through a Philadelphia seminary student who arranged a meeting between Mike and the priest. "I'm sitting in my office when suddenly the light is blocked in the doorway," says Wierichs, who, at 41, is handsomely blond and looks more like a guy you might play against in the country club tennis tournament than a priest. "I look up and there's this huuuuuuuuge person. I assumed it was Mike."
Since then, Wierichs has been recruiting Ruth harder than Boston College ever did. "It may take 10 years," he says, "but I can wait. He calls me. We talk. It's a good feeling."
What if Father Paul gets his man? What does a 255-pound priest ripping at the cassock seams tell his congregation? open up to Page 109 in your Prayer Books or I'll rip your spleens out? What will this Sunday's sermon be? The spiritual side of cleaning and jerking an offensive guard? Maybe. Maybe he would tell them all about the lessons of the pit. But mostly—and firstly—he would tell them about his mother, for that's how all this got started.
If anybody's tougher and stronger than Ruth, it's Ruth's mom, Sally. Debilitated by acute rheumatoid arthritis—"a murderous disease," she calls it—she has had 12 operations in 23 years, replacing nearly every major joint in her body and fusing together much of what was left.
Before all that, Killer was born Sarah Dolan ("I thought I was more like a Sally than a Sarah, so I started calling myself Sally," she says), and she loved to dance. Any steps, really, but she could dance the jitterbug like nobody's business. As head cheerleader at St. Patrick's in Norristown, she had to cheer the hardest against archrival St. Matthews. St. Matthews had a handsome pitcher and basketball player. Name of Tom Ruth. Sally knew who he was. She had seen him at the parochial school dances. One night not long after they had graduated he asked her to dance at a soda shop, and they boogied right on through to their wedding day. Who could figure it? The cheerleader from St. Pat's marrying a star athlete from St. Matt's. Can I have this dance for the rest of my life?
They had been married 10 years when Sally started having trouble with arthritis. When Mike was 10, she had four operations in six weeks: one for a new right knee, one for a new left knee, one for a new right hip and one for a new left hip. Last fall, doctors replaced that left hip, which had replaced the original. Some people only get two hips their whole lives. Killer leads the league with five.
"The Amazing Mrs. Ruth," says her doctor, William Stewart. He calls her that because nobody has four replacement operations in six weeks. This might have something to do with the fact that a patient is supposed to take six weeks to recover from one. But what was a mother to do? She had three kids and a husband who was on the road a lot with his job. Who can afford to lollygag around hospital rooms? The Amazing Mrs. Ruth is so amazing that her affliction hasn't stood in the way of her having a great time horseback riding and sleigh riding with Mike.
Together, Killer keeps Mike inspired and Mike keeps Killer smiling, even through the nights and days—sometimes three and four at a stretch—without sleep. She is getting worse, but her temperament just gets better, especially when her baby comes home from school. "I think Mike never gives up because he knows I'd never give up," she says.
Says Mike, "My mom is the toughest person I've ever met—man or woman." They lift each other: Killer with her devotion, Mike with his arms—literally. Because Killer has trouble walking, Mike picks her up and takes her where she needs to go. Ruth carrying his mother to communion on Sundays is a stirring sight.
In the mornings she puts on the "Our Father" record, and the family—Killer, Mike and his 28-year-old sister, Sally—prays together. Then Mike will play a few oldies: some Sha Na Na, a little Buddy Holly, some Four Tops. He'll swoop her up in those Popeye arms and commence to twist and shout. "You wanna dance, Ma?" he'll say. Killer will squawk some, but you know by her eyes that she's soaring. After 23 years of feeling as if your bones are breaking, you'll take any dancing you can get, even when your feet don't actually touch the floor. "Oh," she says when Mike finally puts her down, "I do miss dancing so."
She used to feel as if her feet weren't touching the floor when she and Tom would dance. However, when Mike was 16, she and Tom split. "Mike took that very hard," says Killer. "It troubled him the most."
The blasted thing about being Ruth or Father Paul is that people tend to forget there are real men, real hearts, real wounds underneath the devotion. Says Ruth: "People see me playing football the way I do or driving my Jeep or fishing or whatever and they say, 'And you want to be a priest?' It's like, what, can't priests ever have fun? Don't priests like football or fishing or anything?"
It is a hard road, particularly for one who digs into life as if it's a Dagwood sandwich. "Lonely," says Ruth. "I know being a priest is a fulfilling life, but lonely." But, hey, as Ruth says, the retirement benefits are out of this world.
"When you're around him for a while, you see his heart, not his size," says Father Paul. "So he's an awesome physical specimen. So what? You sit and listen to some of the things this young man is saying and you feel like you're going to break out in tears. He has a heart of flesh, not stone. He's full of humanness."
Maybe Father Paul is taken with Ruth because he sees himself in him. Wierichs used to drink beer and play hoops on Rockaway Beach in Brooklyn. He still goes back there now and again just to think. As for Ruth, when he needs to sort things out, he goes to the quarry.
That's when he fields the question for the 1,000th time. Priesthood or football? So what's it gonna be, Mike? You gonna save souls or touchdowns? "I wouldn't want the money for myself, but it would be nice for my mother," he says. "I'd like to set her up, know that she would always be taken care of. And I'd like for Rudy to keep on teaching if he wants to. He loves to teach. I don't need the money. Just $10 and the Jeep, you know? I'd like to play just to prove I could do it. But, gosh, I haven't even been drafted yet."
Coach Bicknell, a Presbyterian, says, "I told Mike, 'Is there anything wrong with being a rich priest?' "
Father Paul offers an open phone line. "If he wants to try the NFL, he should try it," he says. "I'd much rather have him try the NFL now and the priesthood later than vice versa."
One way or other, Killer is pretty sure he'll eventually be a priest. "He has the calling," she says.
Father Paul agrees. "I think," he says, "deep in the deepest part of Mike's heart, he knows he will."
But Ruth, he doesn't know. "It's going to come to me sometime," he says. "With God, it's hard to make definite plans. Until then, I'm just going to try and live my life right. Going to try to do the best I can. I think that's what everybody should do. Whether they're football players or priests or painters. Do the best they can. You get out of life what you put into it."
Do you not know that in a race all the runners compete, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. Well, I do not run aimlessly, I do not box as one beating the air; but I pommel my body and subdue it, lest...I myself should be disqualified.
—I Corinthians 9:24-27.