In the era of Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat, withholding important information for five days can feel like an eternity. Hayden Rucci believed making such a decision was essential.
Rucci, a 6-foot-5, 230-pound tight end from Lititz, Pa., informed Wisconsin defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard and tight ends coach Mickey Turner of his commitment to the Badgers’ 2019 recruiting class last Wednesday when they visited his high school. But rather than instantly shout the news from the mountaintops, as many high school football players might, Rucci waited to publicly announce his decision until Monday.
To allow him the opportunity to speak personally to coaches from the other 18 schools that offered him a scholarship. At some of those schools, multiple coaches recruited him, so Rucci called them all. Rucci estimated he phoned nearly 40 coaches in total, with the bulk of those difficult conversations taking place Saturday.
“For me, it’s all about respect,” Rucci told Land of 10. “Since they had taken their time to recruit me, and I built relationships with them, I feel like that would have been below me to let them find out over social media. I wanted to pay respect to them since they’d been recruiting me this whole time.”
New Chapter… 🔴⚪️👐🏼 pic.twitter.com/FAqhmNcq59
— Hayden Rucci (@haydengucci) February 5, 2018
That’s a good place to start when examining why Rucci appears to be such a strong fit with Wisconsin’s football program. Character matters. So does putting in the extra effort to ensure that all the small — but not insignificant — details are addressed. Rucci saw those same traits when he visited Wisconsin’s campus over the summer and again in November for the Badgers’ regular-season home finale against Michigan.
The November visit helped to seal the decision for Rucci, even as other programs continued to offer him scholarships. Rucci’s mom, Stacy, told him to keep a journal and write down pros and cons for each school he visited. His Wisconsin page was filled with positives. The only negative was the distance from Pennsylvania to Wisconsin — 836 miles from his high school to the Madison campus — but that wasn’t a factor in his college decision.
“We were all overwhelmed with the friendliness,” said Hayden’s father, Todd Rucci. “Everyone we encountered in Madison was just outstanding. The coaching staff, how they treated Hayden, it wasn’t putting on a big show. It was just the laid-back atmosphere. And that kind of excited Hayden and excited us, too.”
Rucci is a 4-star prospect who ranks as the No. 11 tight end in the country, according to the 247Sports composite. He becomes the fourth 4-star player to commit in Wisconsin’s 2019 recruiting class. The last time the Badgers signed four 4-star players occurred in 2012.
Rucci held no shortage of college football options. He received scholarship offers from five other Big Ten programs: Indiana, Michigan State, Minnesota, Northwestern and Rutgers. During a four-day span in January, he picked up offers from Pittsburgh, Army, Virginia Tech, Temple and Princeton. But Rucci, who said he has a 4.0 grade-point-average, kept coming back to Wisconsin as the place where he wanted to be.
Todd said he and Hayden watched Wisconsin play Penn State in the 2016 Big Ten title game on television, and they were struck then by how the Badgers used their tight ends and the way they moved the ball on offense. That’s when Hayden began to take notice of Wisconsin — a full six months before he received a Badgers scholarship offer.
“I love how they make no excuses,” Todd said. “They are who they are and they’re not really changing how they do things, which I think really resonated with me. I think it caught Hayden as well because it speaks to what his strengths are as a player.”
One school noticeably absent from Rucci’s list of scholarship offers was Penn State, where his mom and dad thrived as college athletes. Stacy was a first-team All-America field hockey player in 1991 for Penn State. Todd was an offensive lineman at Penn State who became a second-round NFL draft pick and played seven seasons with the New England Patriots from 1993-99.
But Penn State wasn’t necessarily looking for a tight end in the 2019 class. The Nittany Lions signed two 2018 tight ends who ranked in the top 10 in the country. Zack Kuntz ranks No. 4, and Pat Freiermuth ranks No. 9.
“For me, they didn’t match up to Wisconsin,” Rucci said. “I knew Wisconsin was the right choice for me. In the end, Penn State was still there. But they hadn’t offered. I didn’t know where their recruiting process was going. I wasn’t going to wait for an offer. I knew Wisconsin was it for me.”
Rucci became particularly enamored of Wisconsin tight end Troy Fumagalli, who earned Big Ten Tight End of the Year honors last season and caught 46 passes for 547 yards and 4 touchdowns. Rucci spoke with Fumagalli during his November visit, and the interaction left a strong impression on Rucci, which confirmed the feelings he held about Wisconsin over the summer.
Stacy noted that, on the family’s summer visit, Badgers coaches left the room and allowed Hayden time alone with five of Wisconsin’s players so he could ask any questions on his mind.
“He came out with a huge smile on his face,” Stacy said. “I think that’s definitely part of it. You’re going to this school and you don’t really know anyone, so that connection definitely helps.”
Hayden Rucci’s junior-season highlights
Rucci began his sophomore season at Warwick High School as more of a blocking tight end but became a versatile pass catcher down the stretch. He finished that season with 9 catches for 108 yards and 1 touchdown.
Warwick football coach Bob Locker said Rucci’s route running wasn’t crisp at the start of that season, which could be attributed to so few junior-high teams utilizing tight ends in the passing game. But Rucci drastically improved and became a vital weapon as a junior. He caught 19 passes for 376 yards with 3 touchdowns and showed he wasn’t afraid to stick his nose in the ground and make the type of pancake blocks that fire up an entire offense.
“The only thing better than scoring touchdowns is pancakes,” Rucci said. “That might be even better than scoring touchdowns. I love it.”
Rucci’s size created matchup issues with opponents down the field as well. Locker said the coaching staff decided to split Rucci out as a wide receiver and throw occasional jump balls to him because he was a good enough athlete to separate himself from defenders and make difficult catches.
“You’ve got a kid who has tremendous hands,” Locker said. “He’s going to be a pass-catching threat but will put his hand down in the dirt and get nasty and block when he’s asked to. And he plays with an edge. He’s one of those kids who is a very polite person in day-to-day life. But on a Friday night, he flips a switch and he becomes just a real competitor.”
Rucci intends on carrying that attitude forward to Wisconsin on Saturdays. Wisconsin has produced a long line of stellar tight ends, and Rucci already has demonstrated the talent and mindset necessary to become the next in line.
“A big thing I really like about Wisconsin football is just their work ethic,” Rucci said. “There’s not a bunch of huge egos in the locker room. I’m ready to get up there and get to work and earn my spot.”