COLUMBUS — Nick Lombardo knew talent was on its way to the Lindenhurst High School football program when Jeremy Ruckert was a middle-schooler.
Lombardo, the coach at Lindehurst, watched Ruckert play in a junior high game as an eighth grader and dominate. He had no reason to be on the same field as the others.
“It was almost embarrassing with his size and strength what he was doing to the other kids around him,” Lombardo said. “He shouldn’t have been with the middle school kids.”
So, Lombardo went to district officials and pleaded for permission to bring Ruckert to varsity — as an eighth grader. The district said no. Lombardo knew he had talent coming in the next year. He didn’t know, however, how special the talent was or how much Jeremy Ruckert would mean to the Lindenhurst football program over the four years he was there.
He scored two touchdowns in his first varsity game as a freshman. He started at linebacker on defense. He blocked kicks. He made the high school kids trying to keep the ball out of his hands look silly.
Ruckert helped Lindenhurst win the school’s first Suffolk County Championship in program history. He was a program-changing player on the field. But what Lombardo didn’t know was how Ruckert would change the culture and work ethic of the players around him.
“He wasn’t overly outspoken, especially as a younger kid. He was quiet. He was a quiet performer,” Lombardo said. “Going into his sophomore year, he started to exude some of those leadership qualities.”
Ruckert showed how hard he worked and how much the work paid off. That led to a shift in culture. Lindenhurst had between 20 and 25 players showing up daily, lifting weights and training for the next season. Ruckert led that group as a wide receiver. He was dominating every aspect of the program, but he still wasn’t the No. 1 tight end in the country yet. He actually wasn’t even a tight end at all yet.
Lombardo estimates that Ruckert played maybe 30 snaps at tight end — during his entire high school career. But Ruckert did become the No. 1 tight end in the country, and now, he’s beginning to make noise for the Buckeyes from his tight end spot.
“I can’t believe how good his blocking has become, considering he never did it in high school,” Lombardo said. It doesn’t surprise me, but at that level, even his freshman year, I knew he would have his hands full. He was an 18 year-old kid and he was handling himself well against the best players in the country.”
Lombardo has been watching Ruckert’s Ohio State career as much as he can. And even against the best players in the country, Lombardo can still see how special Ruckert is when given the ball. The best example has to be Ruckert’s one-handed touchdown grab in the Big Ten title game.
But none of that surprises anyone who has watched Ruckert since he was in middle school.
“It’s a wow moment to see the stage that he’s doing it on,” Lombardo said. “But he doesn’t surprise me.”
Nick Lombardo hasn’t truly been surprised by what Ruckert can do since he first saw him play and tried to get him on the varsity team before it was legal. But once he got him on the varsity team at Lindenhurst, Lombardo had an easier coaching job knowing Ruckert was on the field.
He saw the special talent. He watched Ruckert become a leader. And he’s confident that Ruckert will continue showing those traits for a long time.
“Jeremy was 6-foot-5 and 1/2 and had a special skillset that I’ve never seen before,” Lombardo said of Ruckert in high school. “I don’t know if Ohio State sees it yet because they’re loaded with so many players from around the country.
“But what he’s capable of doing, I have no doubt I’ll see him at the next level.”