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Saints' Cesar Ruiz honors late father through zeal for life, football

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Saints draftee Cesar Ruiz remembers his late father (1:03)

Saints 2020 draft pick center Cesar Ruiz reflects on how he tries to emulate his late father's spirit and personality. (1:03)

METAIRIE, La. -- Three indelible images stood out from center Cesar Ruiz on the first night of the 2020 NFL draft.

The raw, powerful emotion he showed when he was selected by the New Orleans Saints.

The various highlight reels of him blowing up holes in the middle of Michigan's offensive line.

And those incredible locker room dance moves.

They’re all related. Because at a young age, Ruiz decided the best way he could honor his late father and devoted mother was by embracing life to the fullest.

Ruiz was 8 years old when his dad was struck and killed by a car after he had pulled over to help a driver change a flat tire. And according to Ruiz's mother, Latoya Shambry, Ruiz struggled emotionally to cope with his dad's death before she encouraged him to get involved in football at the age of 10.

It didn’t take long before Ruiz found his zeal for life again. Every quote you see about him -- from his coaches and teammates to the Saints’ coaches and front-office members -- talks about his infectious personality and his passion for the game.

“Everybody falls in love with him ... a magnetic-charisma-personality guy ... players gravitate toward him.”

Ruiz said it’s important for him to be that way because he's emulating his father.

“When I say I carry his legacy, I carry his personality and I carry the good deeds he does for everybody,” Ruiz said. “I dedicate my whole journey and everything I do to him.”

Likewise, Ruiz appreciates everything his mom did for him after his father died, calling her the “most influential person in my entire life” during an interview at the NFL combine.

“My mom is everything to me,” Ruiz said.

Shambry calls her son “Andy,” which is short for his middle name. He is Cesar Andre Ruiz -- named after his father, Cesar Edwin Ruiz. She said she feels overwhelming pride when she sees the joy in her son and the way people talk about him.

“That shows that I did a great job, as a single parent,” said Shambry, who was a teenager when Ruiz was born. “That’s all I hear. ‘Oh, your son is a good kid. Oh, he’s so respectful, he’s nice, he’s jolly.’

“That’s who he always was. He just needed to get that back. He’s the spitting image of his dad. Some people say he looks like me, but he’s the spitting image of his dad. And his dad was kind of like that, too -- the way he is now. His dad always liked to have fun, laugh, play. That’s where he gets it from."

'He fell in love with football'

Shambry admitted that she never realized just how good her son would be at football -- especially when she took him to those first few practices and saw him lagging behind the other kids while running laps. At the time, she was just worried about making sure he didn’t “fall behind, because he had started not taking care of himself.”

“Started staying in the room, was being angry and stuff like that,” Shambry said. “So I said, ‘No, no, no, no, no. Something has to give. He has to release this anger or something.’ And get him moving -- he was gaining weight. So got him into football.

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Cesar Ruiz's NFL draft profile

See why former Michigan lineman Cesar Ruiz has solidified himself as one of the top centers in the NFL draft.

“At first, he was skeptical about [playing football], and then after a while, he got used to it,” Shambry said. “I was with him the whole time, sun up, sun down. I was there every game. And then after that, I don’t know what happened, he just fell in love. He fell in love with football. And he’s been playing it ever since.”

Football also provided an escape from the possible pitfalls of growing up in a tough environment in Camden, New Jersey.

Ruiz said he was “fortunate to have a mom that was really strict on me” so he was never exposed to any dangerous influences. But he said it was an atmosphere that “will test your character” and “either make or break you.”

“It takes a mature man to keep your head on straight and not get distracted,” said Ruiz, who dedicated a social media post on the morning after the draft to “all the kids in Camden who have a dream.”

That’s why he and his mother also made the difficult choice for him to transfer to IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida, when he was given the opportunity after his sophomore year of high school.

In fact, when they first took the visit and saw the facilities and support available, Shambry said she wanted him to stay put that day and wait for her to ship his clothes and belongings.

“He had mixed feelings. But I said if [his friends] had that opportunity, they would take it and they would run,” Shambry said. “So he prayed about it, and he was on that plane two days later. You know I cried, he cried. But I knew he was in good hands. It hurt a lot to send him, but I said I wasn’t gonna be selfish because I wanted him back here with me.”

Being 'in charge of the show' on the O-line

Once football became Ruiz’s path, he started soaking in as much as he could.

He admittedly started playing center because his youth coaches told him no one else wanted to play the position. But now he takes pride in being “born to play” center -- especially because he likes to be "in charge of the show" at the line of scrimmage.

Ruiz could potentially shift to guard in the NFL -- though it’s as likely the Saints will move last year’s standout rookie center, Erik McCoy, to guard instead. Either way, the Saints were enamored with Ruiz’s high level of “football intelligence,” which Sean Payton said was even more important this year when teams won’t have any rookie or veteran minicamps.

“He was one of the better interior linemen I've seen in a while. And I think we're getting a player with great physical ability and we're also getting a player that has fantastic makeup,” Payton said. “He's tough. He's a leader. He's just one of those players that you continue to watch, continue to watch. And I don't care what tape you put on it. It all looked the same.”

Michigan offensive line coach Ed Warinner described Ruiz as the kind of guy who wanted to “sit right up front” in every meeting room and relished going over each of his plays on tape.

The Wolverines had Ruiz make every call in the run game and in pass protections and most of the adjustments at the line. And Warinner said coaches were amazed when they reviewed his performance in the offseason and determined he was 99% accurate on his calls.

“He is a great combination of all the attributes you’re looking for,” said Warinner, who said two years ago he predicted Ruiz would become a first-round draft pick. “You’ll enjoy being around him because he is a personality and he’s real serious about his work.

“Funny, natural leadership abilities, kind of a magnetic-charisma-personality guy. So all that plays into the fact that people love him on the field and off the field.”

Ruiz takes pride in the fact that he didn't allow a sack last year and the only penalties he was called for in college were illegal man downfield.

When asked leading up to the draft what he thinks his father would say to him about everything that has happened, Ruiz said he would probably be smiling.

“I know my mom is proud of me, so I’m proud of myself,” Ruiz said. “I know my father would be extremely proud of me."