Hayden Rucci verbally committed to the Wisconsin Badgers as a member of their 2019 recruiting class back in early February, and though a lot of time passes between then and the early signing period in December, it never appeared he thought twice about his decision.
Just to make sure, B5Q asked the tight end from Lititz, Pa., if he ever wavered in his commitment to UW.
“Not even a little bit,” Rucci said earlier this month. “I knew when I committed it was going to be Wisconsin and there’s not even one time when my mind ever wavered.”
On Wednesday at the Lititz Fire Station, Rucci, a four-star recruit and the country’s No. 15 tight end in the 2019 recruiting class, will sign his national letter of intent to play at Wisconsin, cementing his next move as a student-athlete.
Rucci’s family has remained in contact with Hayden’s next coaches, as head coach Paul Chryst and tight ends coach Mickey Turner visited earlier this month. Turner also saw his future tight end late last month as well.
“Coach Turner came first last week on Monday,” Rucci told B5Q. “We just talked about getting ready for all the stuff coming up. That was on Monday, so we were watching Monday Night Football, too, and talking about Wisconsin’s offense as well and how I’ll be fitting in there.
“With coach Chryst coming, him and Turner came and we cooked dinner for them. We had dinner and we pretty much just sat at our kitchen table and told stories the whole time. It was just awesome.”
Rucci verbally committed to Wisconsin during his junior year of high school. As his mom, Stacy Rucci, once did during her own recruiting process years ago, she and her husband, Todd, had their son keep a notebook of plus and minus columns after going to schools.
“I think throughout everything, throughout going to all the different schools, I think he always came back to Wisconsin,” Stacy said.
Stacy praised many of the coaching staffs that recruited Hayden during their trips and the opportunities and technological resources at the student-athletes’ fingertips.
“So to me, it was hard to decipher because there are so many good coaching staffs out there,” Stacy said, “but then just talking with Hayden, he knew very early on, and so then I just think the more we got to know the coaching staff, the more we’ve realized what a great fit it was for him.
“I just feel they are so down-to-earth. Coach Chryst was here I don’t know how many hours on Sunday sitting at our kitchen table.”
Rucci’s parents’ perspectives on his recruiting process is grounded in their own experiences. Both were standout student-athletes at Penn State. Stacy claimed All-America honors as a standout field hockey player in 1991, while Todd enjoyed an NFL career with the New England Patriots in the 1990s that spanned 85 games (75 starts) after playing for the Nittany Lions. Stacy’s father, Tom Gilburg, also was an All-American lacrosse player and national champion in football in 1959 at Syracuse. He played in the 1960 Senior Bowl and for the Baltimore Colts for five seasons from 1960–64.
When Hayden’s recruiting process started, Todd recalled one of the concerns regarding when their oldest son would get to the point that he knew where he wanted to go. Looking back, the evaluation process led to a clear picture.
“Wisconsin just kept coming clearer and clearer for him, and that was the exciting part,” Todd said. “He knew that Wisconsin was the perfect fit for him, and that was the most exciting thing because there was no doubt in his mind that’s where he wanted to be and the more and more that we saw his excitement and connection to Wisconsin, that, as his parents, you just want that. You want him to be happy with his decision. It’s his decision, and he’s the one that’s got to live in Madison, he’s the one that’s got to go to those practices and be a part of it because our days of playing are over.
“Our priorities are different. His priorities are different than I think Stacy and I’s when we were 18 years old. I think he’s a little bit smarter than both of us, so that’s the cool thing about it. I think he made a great decision where he fits, and that’s all you can hope as a parent is to try to find their path.”
The Ruccis have seen their progeny grow both on and off the field. Todd has coached Hayden for three years on varsity now—and has 14 years total as a volunteer assistant—and before that worked with him during youth football. Hayden’s younger brother, Nolan, joined the varsity squad this season as a sophomore, but has also received coaching from Stacy and Todd in lacrosse. As a 2021 lineman, he is already receiving considerable attention from Power Five programs with offers from Wisconsin, Penn State, and Michigan, among others.
After Hayden’s sophomore year, Todd thought his oldest son played well and picked up the game while showing potential. The elder Rucci sent some film to a friend who is a former player and asked him to evaluate his son’s play.
“‘He wants to play in school, wants to play in college. You tell me, just let me know what you think he is,’” Rucci recalled asking. “‘D2, D3? Does he have a possibility at a I-AA or FCS [program]. Where do you see him?’ So I got some honest feedback. I thought he may have a chance to play at D1 if he kept growing. I think some of the size where there were some of the questions. Once we got back from—we took a visit to Michigan State—when they offered him, that’s when the whole world turned upside down.”
Nolan is a projected offensive lineman with measurements that stand out even as a high school sophomore. For the tight end position, Todd explained, “it’s so unique.”
“More so than Nolan, he’s 6’8 and 265 [pounds], he looks the part,” Todd said. “You don’t see them everyday, so he has some gifted tools that he’s fortunate to have, but Hayden’s a little unique because at the tight end position, it’s very specific depending upon what offense you’re trying to fit into it. It was probably after that Michigan State offer that we were kind of like, ‘Oh, wow, this kid has a shot to play at a high level in Division I.’ It was kind of off to the races after that.”
Stacy said they never had the intentions of their sons becoming Division I athletes, but did let them try their hands at a variety of sports, from football to wrestling to baseball to soccer. Admittedly—something parents can appreciate and understand—those activities helped get their energy out. Dinners may be served as late as 8 p.m. some nights, but they try to eat around the table as much as possible despite the on-going activities.
Hayden, who has played lacrosse and basketball in addition to football, noted how participating in multiple sports helped him.
“They taught me, like, staying in shape and conditioning all throughout the year. Basketball definitely taught me different skills like using my body, like boxing people out. In lacrosse, more like dynamic skills and more movement, so yeah, it’s also good just being in sports with a schedule throughout the year and just hanging with my buddies. I love being an athlete and everything that comes with it.”
Next, Hayden will head to Madison in June after solidifying his spot in the 2019 class.
“Pretty much all credit goes to [my parents],” Hayden said. “Without them, I wouldn’t have been able to go to half the schools that I went to. I wouldn’t have known what to do or anything. Like we talked about earlier, my dad coaching me the whole way growing up definitely helped me develop as a person and a player. There were definitely times when I was pissed off and we had our disagreements, but I always remember the good times that we had on the field together and playing with my brother this year as well.
“They taught me just how to handle situations and how to see schools for what they are and not all the glitz and glamour at first sight and take a deeper look, and that’s what I really found with Wisconsin. That’s why I’m just so excited just to sign my letter coming up here soon and probably get on campus.”
Rucci will likely play the in-line Y tight end position in Wisconsin’s pro-style offense.
“I think one of the most exciting parts is being able to get up there with the guys that I’ve known for a while now,” Rucci said. “I’m so excited just to work with our class and earn the respect of the veterans there. Not coming in too big-headed and just kind of seeing what we can contribute to the program early on. We have a great opportunity ahead of us, and I just can’t tell ya how excited I am for it.”