CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Defensive ends Mike Rucker and Grant Wistrom first met as high school sophomores playing against each other in Missouri. Rucker claims he used a hard hit to tackle Wistrom, then a tight end, for a loss.
The two were later teammates at Nebraska, and will cross paths once again Saturday when Rucker and the Carolina Panthers play Wistrom and the St. Louis Rams in the divisional playoffs.
“We played twice in high school and I got the best of him as a sophomore, but he’ll deny it,” Rucker said. “He came across the field with the ball and I leveled him. But his team beat me our senior year.
“Hopefully, I’ll push back ahead of him this week.”
At Nebraska, Wistrom became a full-time defensive end and played ahead of Rucker, leading to a misconception that he played a large role in Rucker’s development at the position.
But both will tell you now that Wistrom’s high school in southwest Missouri’s Webb City simply had done a better job preparing him for college football and that it took Rucker, who played at Benton High in St. Joseph, a little while to catch up.
Rucker proved he is up to speed this season, posting a career-best year for Carolina (12-5).
Rucker led the Panthers with 12 sacks this season, a statistic that was tops in the league until a late-season knee injury sidelined him two games. Even so, Rucker’s better-known defensive linemates Julius Peppers and All-Pro tackle Kris Jenkins often overshadowed him.
Count Wistrom among those well aware of Rucker’s play.
“He’s one of the best defensive ends in the league right now,” Wistrom said. “I love watching him play. He’s a great pass-rusher, he plays hard, he plays the game intense — and that’s the way you’ve got to play this game.”
That he is still playing this season surprises Rucker, who feared his season was over when he heard a pop in his left knee in a Dec. 7 game against Atlanta. Rucker thought he had torn his anterior cruciate ligament.
Tests showed a sprained medial collateral ligament, and he finished the game against the Falcons. He sat out the next two, then played just the first half of the regular-season finale.
He’s thrilled to be feeling better for the postseason.
“It was a pain I hadn’t felt before, a funny feeling and I really thought I had tore everything up in there,” he said. “It calmed down a little bit, and once they said it wasn’t the ACL, that was kind of a load off my mind.
“Then when I was be able to put a brace on and go out and play, that took a big load off my mind.”
Having Rucker healthy and playing is a key to Carolina’s defense, fellow linemen Brentson Buckner said. Beyond his sacks, Rucker’s presence creates a disruption to opposing offenses that doesn’t show up in the statistics.
“It’s just been a steady climb for him,” Buckner said. “It wasn’t a matter of him improving, just a matter of him seeing more things, just realizing his potential. Because he works hard, he’s a technician.
“One thing about him, if you watch him in practice or you see him from season-to-season, he’s always improving one phase of his game.”
Wistrom, who has watched Rucker’s game grow since high school, also sees the improvement.
“He was a pretty darned good player at Nebraska, and he’s even gotten better in the NFL,” Wistrom said. “One thing I’ve noticed from Mike that has improved, is how hard he works out there on the football field. He’s always been very blessed athletically, but now he goes out there, he busts his butt on every play, he’s chasing the football all over the field.”
Rucker will try to do that against the Rams’ offense on Saturday, even though he’s a little worn out. His second child (and first son), Michael Mason Rucker, arrived earlier this week.
Within hours of celebrating Carolina’s first-round victory over the Dallas Cowboys, Rucker was at the hospital for the delivery.
“It’s been a rough week — a lot of pressure,” he said. “It was rough, not knowing when the baby was coming. Was it going to come on Friday when I was trying to get some sleep, something like that. But everything worked out for the best.”