COLUMBIA - Martin Rucker knows how deafening the Faurot Field crowd will get Saturday night when Missouri takes on Nebraska.
Rucker, 12 at the time, and his parents were three of the 66,846 in the stands 10 years ago. They watched the No. 1 Cornhuskers kick around the Tigers’ upset bid in one of the most memorable games between the rivals. It was so loud Rucker had to cover his ears with his hands.
Now, tens of thousands of fans scream when Rucker makes a catch. The tight end is one of the best in the nation after deciding to come back for his senior year instead of leaving for the NFL.
Ten years ago, Rucker and his parents were cheering for Nebraska, not MU. Rucker’s brother, Mike, played defensive end for the Huskers. He and Grant Wistrom sacked MU quarterback Corby Jones on fourth down in overtime to seal the 45-38 victory. Mike Rucker grabbed the ball and sprinted down the field. That football is now at the Ruckers’ house in St. Joseph, displayed in a cabinet full of memorabilia that Mike Rucker built.
Martin Rucker attended many Nebraska games, watching his brother terrorize the opposition and win three national titles. Young and impressionable, he fell in love with the school’s ambience and tradition.
“It all just sucked me right in,” Rucker said.
Five years later, it was time for Rucker to decide where to play college football. It was a tough choice. He wanted to go to Nebraska, but he had a better feeling about the Tigers. He felt like he was a better fit with their offense. The Cornhuskers were still running an option-style attack, and passes were rarely thrown to the tight end. Weighing only 208 at the time, Rucker would have trouble getting on the field with Nebraska.
“Here (at Missouri), they promised me that they’d always get me the ball,” Rucker said. “They promised they’d always have a quarterback to get me the ball.”
Those promises came true. Rucker started all 11 games as a redshirt freshman in 2004. After only three seasons, he was the Tigers’ all-time pass-catching tight end with 119 catches for 1,341 yards.
A lucrative future was calling. Rucker put his name in for the NFL draft after the Sun Bowl last year. But almost two weeks later, he withdrew his name after the NFL Advisory Committee told him he was projected as a fifth-round pick. Rucker said he would leave MU only if he were slated as a first- or second-round selection.
Rucker wasn’t disappointed. He moved on quickly, shifting his attention to his senior season.
“We have some business to take care of next year, and I want to be a part of what I believe can be a special season,” Rucker said after making his decision to stay.
Rucker’s performance has been remarkable so far this season. The 6-foot-6 co-captain and team’s leading receiver has gotten stronger and bigger, raising his weight to 255. Single defenders must enlist reinforcements to drag down the leading pass-catching tight end in the nation. He’s projected to catch 87 passes for 990 yards this year. Those numbers would break the team’s single-season receptions record and make Rucker the team’s all-time leader in receptions.
Quarterback Chase Daniel is grateful the tight end returned.
“He had a chance to be a high draft pick in the NFL, go make tons of money and forget about us little scraggly guys at Missouri,” he said. “But he came back.”
Not only has Rucker improved dramatically, but his draft status has risen as well. He’s listed as the draft’s second-best tight end prospect, and 41st overall, by Scout.com, which partners with ESPN.com for 2008 draft coverage.
But Rucker’s now focused on the current season and the upcoming game against Nebraska. Although Saturday’s game is generating lots of buzz, Rucker said it won’t determine the course of the season.
“We can’t just beat Nebraska, and then all of sudden, everybody’s going to lay down, and then we’re going to be the (Big 12) North champion. … Even if we lose this game, it doesn’t mean that our North title hopes are over,” he said.
But the result will determine the winner of Rucker’s “gentlemen’s bet” with his brother, who now plays for the Carolina Panthers. The two haven’t discussed the terms of the wager, but Rucker will make sure they are fair.
“If I got to do some jewelry cleaning, you better believe I’m getting something out of it if we win, too,” Rucker said.