Kenny Rucker hadn’t been back to Coeur d’Alene for at least a decade. And for a minute, Rucker joked that he thought he’d taken a wrong turn when he drove onto the North Idaho College campus because the baseball field was gone and several new buildings had popped up.
“It’s really grown,” he said, “but it was still as beautiful as I remember it.”
Rucker returned recently for induction ceremonies as a member of NIC’s first Hall of Fame class. The Chicago-area native was the Cardinals’ first two-time national champion wrestler and helped NIC win the first two of four straight national titles from 1985-88.
Naturally, a visit to the wrestling room upstairs in Christianson Gym was in order. As he walked around, he was overwhelmed by memories of his two years at NIC. There was the broken ankle just before the start of his freshman season and the tumble he took while trying to manipulate his crutches in the snow and tote his books. There was the time an elk wandered through campus.
“I’d never seen an elk before where I was from,” Rucker said. “I told my friend, ‘That horse is messed up.’ He looked at me and said, “That’s not a horse. That’s an elk.’ ”
In the mid-1980s, there was a sense that Triton Junior College was becoming the power in NJCAA wrestling. Triton, located near Chicago, had won back-to-back titles and was interested in Rucker.
“We thought, ‘What do we have to do to keep pace with them?’ ” former Cardinals coach John Owen said. “We went right in their backyard and brought Kenny out here.”
Rucker was tempted to stay close to home, but wrestling wasn’t his only consideration. His best friend was robbed and stabbed to death by a stranger in 1984.
“At that time, I needed to move out of the Chicago area,” he said. “The gangs were recruiting me hard.”
So were several college football programs, including Illinois.
“My best friend and I grew up talking about going to play football together in college,” Rucker said. “We both wrestled and played football. When he was killed, I just didn’t feel like I could do it (football).”
Rucker was NIC’s lone individual champion, but six teammates finished in the top six as the balanced Cardinals captured the 1985 team title. Current NIC coach Pat Whitcomb, who also became a two-time national champion, came on board a year later as the Cardinals repeated.
Rucker was on his way to repeating when he slipped on a wet spot on the mat and suffered a separated shoulder and torn biceps in the closing seconds of the second period. He had a comfortable lead at the time, but was in excruciating pain.
“It was my mom’s first time coming to see me wrestle and I was looking over and seeing the (NIC) guys cheering me on,” he said. “I wouldn’t have been able to do it without them. I used up all my stalling calls, and one more and I would have been disqualified. I think there were about 10 seconds left and I took him down. I remember the pain shooting through my body when I hit the mat.”
Rucker went on to Northern Montana College (now Montana State University- Northern). He won the 177-pound class at the 1989 NAIA tournament and was runner-up in 1990.
Rucker met his future wife in Montana and worked in Great Falls as a substitute teacher and at a juvenile detention center. He kept a hand in wrestling as an assistant coach at C.M. Russell High School.
About seven years ago, he was invited to interview for a teaching/coaching position at Klein Collins High in Spring, Texas, just outside Houston.
“When I got down there I was all ready to go and my resume was crinkled up from the humidity,” said Rucker, who still landed the job. “And they didn’t tell me they had boys and girls (wrestling) teams.”
Football is king in Texas, but Rucker’s teams are making inroads. One of his boys won a state championship in 2006 and his girls have been district champs and placed as high as fourth at state.
His daughter, Tricia, wrestled as a freshman this season.
“She brought it up and I said, ‘OK, but if you’re going to start it, you’re going to finish it,’ ” said Rucker, who has five daughters and one son. “She did extremely well. It was a neat experience. It was tough, but it was rewarding.
“I always said I wouldn’t be that parent on the sideline that would get after their own kid. At one point during the season I told my assistant, ‘I’ve turned into that parent.’ ”
Rucker finds himself using many of the techniques he learned from his high school coach Ed Boshasain, Owen, C.M. Russell coach Tom Maurer and Bob Zadick, whose sons Mike and Bill wrestled at Iowa after stellar prep careers in Great Falls.
“There’s been a couple of times where I wanted to grab a Styrofoam cup and start chewing on it (a la Owen),” Rucker said. “He’d get that cup and start chewing on it and you knew he was getting irritated and he was about to get after somebody.”
Owen said Rucker gave a great speech at the Hall of Fame ceremonies earlier this month.
Looking out at an audience filled with friends and supporters “almost made it easy,” Rucker said.
“Pat (Whitcomb) and his wife were there. John Owen and all his brothers, I think there’s about 80 of them. It brought back a lot of memories. I just went straight from the heart and didn’t even worry about preparing a speech.”
Rucker still gets on the mat once in a while.
“It keeps me in shape and busy,” he said. “I have to show them whose boss, but I pay it for the next couple days.”
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