Even North Dakota State College of Science’s head football coach is inspired by his backup defensive tackle. After all, Ray Ruschel, a 49-year-old NDSCS freshman, has a month or so in age on Coach Eric Issendorf, not to mention more than 17 years of service in the U.S. Army and the North Dakota Army National Guard. “Ray is an inspiration to his teammates, coaches, and staff because he is a team-first guy, which he mentioned was instilled in him during his time in the Army and National Guard,” said Coach Issendorf.
It’s fitting, then, that Ruschel was named one of seven finalists for the Armed Forces Merit Award. The Football Writers Association of America and Lockheed Martin Armed Forces Bowl named the winner on Veteran’s Day, November 11, 2022. While he did not receive the honor, Ruschel will be eligible for nomination again next year if he continues playing college football.
The FWAA and Armed Forces Bowl present the award annually “...to honor an individual and/or a group with a military background and/or involvement that has an impact within the realm of college football.”
Issendorf says there’s little doubt that Ruschel has positively impacted the other players and the team. Over the course of more than 30 years between his last high-school snap and his first play as an NDSCS Wildcat, Ruschel has gained a wealth of life lessons to share with teammates who weren’t even born when he started serving his country.
“Ray is an excellent example of our program's motto of ‘Win the Day,’” Issendorf said. “He’s living the dream for everyone who wishes they could play one more down, one more game, one more season. It does not come without sacrifice, a strong mindset, hard work, and, from what I hear, a lot of ibuprofen and ice.”
In an interview with NBC News for a story that aired in September, Issendorf said, “He’s a very good symbol, too, for the younger guys, to never to give up hope and there’s always an opportunity if you’re willing to go as far as Ray has.”
It’s not the only attention the older-than-average business management major has garnered for himself and NDSCS. After the Wahpeton Daily News wrote the original story about his exploits on the field, in the classroom, as a National Guard sergeant, and at work – on top of everything else, Ruschel works the third shift at Minn-Dak Farmers Cooperative – additional national news outlets picked up on the story. In addition to the NBC News piece, he has been the subject of stories by the New York Post, MCAC Sports, and Fox and Friends, among others.
When asked about his experience at NDSCS, Ray responded with enthusiasm. “It's a privilege to be playing for such an astute institution. This gave me a second chance at the fountain of youth to play football. With the uncertainty of establishing brotherhood in the beginning due to the vast age difference, I am very much privileged to call these young men brothers. All of us bring inspiration to each other through hard work and friendly competition. It is an honor to be nominated for this award, just goes to show that getting older doesn’t impose limits on life. This is such a joyous moment to be recognized for my hard work in the mixture of Military and civilian life.”
The recognition is no surprise to NDSCS President, Rod Flanigan. “I continue to be impressed with the discipline, respect, and genuine desire to help others that I have seen in military veterans,” he said. “Ray is no exception. He is humble, smart, and eager to learn and grow, and he supports his teammates, his coaches, and even the administrators here at NDSCS.”
Those qualities influenced the select group of writers who named Ruschel a finalist for the 2022 Capital One Orange Bowl-FWAA Courage Award, as well. The Orange Bowl announcement is scheduled for December 30, 2022.
“He definitely meets the qualifications, and it’s just a great story,” FWAA Executive Director Steve Richardson said. “Needless to say, it takes a lot of courage for a 49-year-old to go out and play with guys in their 20s.
Not bad for someone the other players thought was another coach – not someone who would line up in the trenches alongside them. Not bad at all.
As for Sgt. Ruschel, he’s just out there trying to win another day. “These guys are really, truly tremendous,” he said to NBC of his teammates and coaches. “I just do my hardest, working and striving to do my best every day in practice and also in the games.”
Article written by NDSCS and submitted to external news outlets.