LINDENHURST, N.Y. -- New York Jets rookie Jeremy Ruckert stood inside the ice cream shop he frequented as a kid, making small talk with the locals. This time, he wasn't there for a milkshake or a banana split. On this day, a postcard-worthy Sunday in May, he was top billing on the menu.
For the 6-foot-5 tight end, drafted three weeks earlier by the team he grew up rooting for, this was a cherry-on-top moment. Ruckert, 21, signed autographs and posed for pictures for two hours. Music blared from a makeshift DJ booth on the sidewalk outside Ralph's Famous Italian Ices, a popular chain in the New York area and a staple in this community for 25 years. More than 100 people waited in a line that never seemed to get shorter.
There were Jets jerseys in the crowd -- Joe Namath's, Curtis Martin's, even Ryan Fitzpatrick's. One guy, decked out in Ruckert's Ohio State "88" jersey, said he drove five hours to be there. A handful of police officers, ostensibly on hand for crowd control along bustling Montauk Highway, poked their heads inside to sneak a peek at Lindenhurst's biggest rock star since Pat Benatar.
"You always want to see a kid from the hometown go to the big show," said store owner Michael Felicetti, who celebrated Ruckert-to-the-Jets by giving away free vanilla and pistachio soft-serve cones -- part of the town's post-draft Green & White Day. "This is simply amazing to see it happen in our hometown."
The next day, Ruckert drove to the Jets' facility in Florham Park, New Jersey, for another autograph. Surrounded by his parents and two brothers, he finalized his rookie contract -- four years, $5 million. As he signed, his father, wearing a Jets T-shirt, broke out into the team's famous chant:
"J-E-T-S. Jets! Jets! Jets!"
Growing up with the Jets
Despite being the fourth-most populated state, New York isn't a hotbed for NFL talent. In 2022, Ruckert was the only player from a New York high school drafted by the NFL, according to the league. Consider the odds: In 2017, his final season at Lindenhurst High School, 46,000 played high school football according to the state's athletic association.
That he was selected by his hometown team -- the team his father worships -- makes the story equal parts heartwarming and just plain nuts.
"Everybody back home is excited to be able to relate to someone they grew up around, living out the dream of playing in the NFL and playing for the Jets," said Ruckert, the first draftee from Lindenhurst in 36 years. "It's something I dreamed about as a kid. Now that it's finally here, it's pretty surreal."
That goes for everyone in his circle, especially his dad.
Bill Ruckert has a Jets logo on the hood of his white pickup truck and another painted on a 3-foot landscaping rock that sits on his property in Lindenhurst. It's important to note it's in the front yard, not the back. That's by design; he wants everybody to know the Jets are his team.
Bill is all Jets, right down to the Jets beer tap on the kegerator in the backyard. His love affair with the team started in the late 1980s, when one of his high school teachers gave him tickets to a home game. He got hooked and, by the mid-1990s, he was a season-ticket holder, making the 50-mile drive (over two bridges) to the old Giants Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey.
His three sons, Jeremy, Will and Erich, were born into it. If they weren't at the game with their father, they watched from their living room, each one in a Jets jersey. Pictures of those halcyon days are all over social media, including a picture of a young, uniform-clad Jeremy in front of the family Christmas tree. Santa must have been a Curtis Martin fan because there's Jeremy, eyes glistening with happiness, posing in a No. 28 uniform.
Dream job pic.twitter.com/JmYQ45XFeb— Jeremy Ruckert (@Jeremy_Ruckert1) June 30, 2022
"I became obsessed," Bill said of his fandom, which began with many lean years.
On April 29, near the end of Day 2 of the NFL draft, his two greatest joys -- family and the Jets -- were joined when Jeremy was chosen five picks from the bottom of the third round (101 overall). In a New York minute, they went from the gloomy prospect of having to wait until Day 3 to utter bedlam at their small gathering.
"Oh, my God, he's a Jet!" Bill remembers thinking to himself amid the euphoria -- a moment, captured on video, that went viral. A nearby bar, packed with hundreds of patrons, watched the draft on a big screen and exploded with applause when Jeremy got the call from the Jets.
The Ruckerts celebrated the following day with 75 family members and friends at a relative's home, which flew a Jets flag out front and displayed a framed photo of Jeremy, about age 5, holding a Jets helmet with a logo painted on his right cheek. Since then, his father has spent more time in the clouds than a pilot.
"I know how tough the NFL is and I know what's going to happen eventually -- it's a business -- but that moment of him getting picked as a Jet can never be taken away from us," Bill said. "That's something we'll always have. I know there probably will be a bitter time because that's just the sport, but no matter what, no matter how long he plays, I'll always have that moment."
In his day, the elder Ruckert was a 6-foot-4, 250-pound offensive lineman for Lindenhurst High, good enough to get called up to the varsity as a ninth grader. That was a "bad experience," he said. "I was playing kids four years older than me and all they did was kick the crap out of me." He played football at St. John's, lasting a year. He left school and became a bricklayer. These days, he drives a tractor-trailer for a rental company, transporting heavy machinery across the tri-state area.
His bitterness from those early days formed his parenting philosophy with regard to Jeremy's athletic career. He encouraged his son to play multiple sports, not just football. Jeremy became an excellent soccer goalie, using his size and agility to frustrate shooters. He was so much taller than his peers that skeptical opponents often requested his birth certificate to verify his age. Bill said he got so tired of the routine that he considered creating a T-shirt that featured a picture of the birth certificate. That way, Jeremy could just lift his jersey whenever questioned about his age.
Just like his father, Jeremy was asked to join varsity football as a ninth-grader. It wasn't an easy decision.
"His dad was a little nervous for him," said Mark Frole, a varsity assistant. "Thank god we talked him into playing, because he had a phenomenal year as a freshman. If you ask anyone on our staff, we knew when he was younger he was destined for something good."
Despite modest statistics during a four-year career at Ohio State (54 receptions, 615 yards, 12 touchdowns), Ruckert established himself as an NFL prospect because of his all-around game. He didn't get many opportunities in the passing game because he was surrounded by top wide receivers, five of whom were drafted, including 2022 Jets first-rounder Garrett Wilson.
"I believe in myself," said Ruckert, more reserved than his father. "I believe in what I can do. Obviously, so do the Jets. I want to gain their trust. There's not going to be a day that I take off."
Jeremy was 10 years old when the Jets reached their second straight AFC Championship Game in Januaryn2011 -- he remembers watching those games on TV -- but his favorite team hasn't been to the playoffs since. This isn't Ohio State, where he lost five times in his career.
This adds another layer to the story. When an athlete plays for his hometown team, it can increase the strain if the team is losing. Your friends and family are fans of the team, which means there's little or no insulation from the noise. It goes the other way, too. There can be demands and distractions if the team is winning.
Ruckert said he's not worried, claiming, "I'm pretty good at saying no to people."
For now, there are only good thoughts. Bill Ruckert has them whenever he drives past MetLife Stadium on his work route, knowing that soon his son will be playing there as a member of the Jets. He gets goose bumps every time. He looks forward to that day when Jeremy runs out of the tunnel, donning the colors he has been wearing since he was barely out of diapers.
"I'm a little bit of a softy sometimes when it comes to the kids, so I'll probably get really choked up," said the elder Ruckert, anticipating the first home game. "I'll try to keep a brave face, but when I see him out there. ... This is like a dream, like hitting the lottery. I still haven't come down yet, and I don't think I ever will."