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Alabama WR Henry Ruggs finds purpose through loss of friend

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MONTGOMERY, Ala. -- Henry Ruggs stood in the middle of Powelldale Drive, in the middle of the night, distraught with boiling emotion as a shouting match with his mother escalated. For the better part of a year, he'd kept quiet about his feelings regarding the death of his best friend, Rod Scott, and all the reasons he blamed himself for it.

In the weeks after the car accident that took Scott's life in March 2016, Ruggs tried grieving, hours upon hours, at the gravesite. He tried burrowing himself in his bedroom for days. Even many months later, when he announced his commitment to sign with the University of Alabama in a video tribute to Scott, he still wasn't ready to talk about it.

"I'm a bottled-up person," Ruggs said. "I keep a lot to myself."

But on this night, more than a year after the accident, there would be no privacy. His mother, Nataki, was finally demanding answers to some hard questions. And as the argument spilled from the Ruggs' home into the street, a few neighbors came outside to see what the commotion was.

Ruggs paced the asphalt. Running -- from problems, from uncomfortable situations, from anything he didn't want to be a part of -- had always been a way out for the Crimson Tide's star wide receiver. He learned at an early age that nobody could catch him when he turned on his natural gift for speed. If he angered his siblings, their first thought wasn't to come at him; it was, first, to block his exit. He used to approach the neighborhood dogs and baited them to chase him, just for the thrill of pursuit.

But there was no running from what happened to Rod Scott, at least not on that night.

Two years have passed since that evening, and Ruggs is now one of the most explosive offensive threats in college football. NFL scouts are enthralled with him as a draft prospect, and he'll decide at season's end whether to enter the 2020 NFL Draft as an underclassman. He'll begin what could be his final college season on Saturday when Alabama plays Duke in the Kickoff Classic in Atlanta.

Scott, he believes, put him in that position. And keeping his best friend's memory alive through that pursuit has become what he lives for.

* * * * *



At the crack of dawn, Roderic Scott would have the doors open.

Ruggs' determination to be an NBA point guard was born here, at the Southeast YMCA, before hundreds of sunrises over Carter Hill Road in the Brentwood area of Montgomery, Ala. It stands next to Dannelly Elementary School, which didn't open its doors to students until 7:45 a.m., and Ruggs could shoot baskets at the Y until the school bell rang. If he got there at 7, the doors would be open. At 6? Door's open. Scott worked the front desk at the Y and did his best to make it a place where the neighborhood kids could stay off the street and out of trouble. If that meant opening early, that's what it meant.

Morning after morning, Rod Scott, Roderic's son, would launch his first shot before his dad could get all the lights turned on. The next kid to walk in the gym was usually Ruggs. When the Dannelly school bell rang at day's end, the pair ran straight back to the Y for more basketball. Scott's work ethic for the sport, even at a young age, was unlike anything Ruggs had ever seen. He was a year older than Ruggs, and a year wiser, too. Ruggs began getting his hair cut the way Scott did.

"They were best friends, but Henry always looked up to Rod," said Nataki.

In time, the two formed a bond that transcended basketball; they were not only inseparably close, they even adopted one another's mannerisms. They'd pick up breakfast at Starbucks before school together, and always ordered the same thing. They dressed alike, were roughly the same size, and even resembled each other. Years later at Lee High in Montgomery, to amuse themselves, they'd sometimes switch jerseys at basketball practice and answer to each other's names. They even had a few hand signals they used when they didn't want the rest of the room in on their communication. For those who didn't know them personally, they were often mistaken as brothers or even twins.

"As much as they could be together, they got together. It's like they were the same person," said Ruggs' brother, Kevontae.

Scott worked on his shot incessantly and eventually drew scholarship offers. Ruggs possessed incredible leaping ability, with a vertical jump of 40 inches. In their first season playing varsity basketball together, Ruggs was only a sophomore. He logged an estimated 40 dunks in game action at just 5-foot-9. Alley-oop passes from Scott to Ruggs, with chemistry and timing mastered over years at the Y, were always perfect.

Football was never Ruggs' sport, at least not until the day Scott convinced him it should be.

* * * * *



The stretch of I-65 North was slick with a steady rain on March 3, 2016, as the white Toyota Camry that Scott was riding in approached mile marker 221. The destination for five teenagers: Legacy Arena in Birmingham, to support the Montgomery Jeff-Davis girls' basketball team in a Class 7A state championship game.

Scott was one of three unrestrained backseat passengers, sitting between two friends when the car began to hydroplane shortly after 10 a.m., about halfway between Montgomery and Birmingham in Clanton, Ala. At a speed estimated by one occupant at 80 mph, the driver lost control and the car rolled over four times, resulting in an unspeakable tragedy. Scott, a high school senior who had signed to play basketball for Jacksonville State, was thrown some 50 yards from the vehicle and later died of head injuries.

Darian Adams, a former teammate of Scott's who now plays basketball for Troy University, was in that backseat, sitting behind the driver and to Scott's left. He was thrown from the vehicle as well, and his account of the accident is chilling.

"Rod was lighter than me, so I think he flew farther," Adams said. "I think I went through the windshield and he went through the sun roof, or it was the other way around. It was an awful experience. I asked the medics about Rod, and they wouldn't tell me anything."

It was a horrifying lesson in the importance of seatbelt safety: the driver and front-seat passenger, both buckled, suffered concussions and otherwise minor injuries. The three unbuckled teens in the backseat were all ejected; Scott died, Adams broke his neck, and the third spent months in a back brace. Adams underwent immediate surgery for broken C4 and C5 vertebra, but thankfully recovered full mobility; he led the Troy men's basketball team in assists last year with a permanent metal plate in his neck.

Along with head trauma, Scott also suffered collapsed lungs and underwent multiple surgeries after being airlifted to Montgomery's Baptist Medical Center South, where he died the following day.

"I knew if he couldn't be fully active the way he used to be, he wouldn't want that kind of life if it was just going to be halfway," said his father, Roderic. "We didn't have to make that decision. He was gone, but they got him on life support so we could say goodbye."

As he was being loaded onto an ambulance, Adams got a glimpse of the Camry.

"It didn't even look like a car anymore," he said. "The sides were crushed in, the roof was smashed down, all the glass was gone. There was no fixing that car."

Scott's death sent shockwaves through Lee High -- though he'd only been at the school for two years after transferring, he'd ingrained himself in the Class of 2016 not only on the basketball floor, but in the hallways with an engaging personality. The Montgomery Public School System dispatched more than a dozen grief counselors to Lee, setting them up in the school library. Enough students took advantage of the opportunity to pack the library for days following Scott's death.

"You're supposed to get closure, but I don't think this school got it," said Lee basketball coach Bryant Johnson. "It's still fresh for a lot of people."

After three years of advocacy from the Scott family, a new state law requiring backseat passengers to wear a seat belt, named for Scott, passed this summer and was signed into law by Gov. Kay Ivey in June.

* * * * *



Overnight, the flu hit Ruggs like a wrecking ball.

The day before Scott's death, he'd not even begun feeling the symptoms yet, and set a plan to drive his brother, Kevontae, and Scott to Birmingham the next day for the basketball game. Barely 12 hours later, he was curled up in bed-ridden misery. He threw up around 3 a.m. and battled a fever of 100-plus degrees. Not long before the three were supposed to leave, he told Kevontae he didn't feel up to going to the game, so Scott caught a ride with other friends.

In hindsight, Ruggs' mother Nataki couldn't be more thankful that flu set in.

Scott's father recalls the time on his phone read 10:16 a.m. when it rang with the worst news he's ever received. Minutes later, word hit the Ruggs home. Kevontae took Ruggs' truck straight to the hospital and had just arrived when Ruggs called and demanded he return to give him a ride. But Ruggs was too distraught to wait, and his instinct to run took over. He sprinted on foot to Baptist Medical, about a mile from his home. He ran so fast, his brother hadn't even gotten the truck off hospital property yet when he saw Ruggs, picked him up and turned back to the ER.

Ruggs got out of the truck and collapsed from a flu-driven exhaustion. Instant guilt set in.

If I'd not gotten sick, Rod would be OK.

If I'd just gone to the game sick, Rod would be OK.

Henry Ruggs' grief process was a slow one, in part because it began ensnared in thoughts like those. A determination to confront his grief privately slowed it down even more. Of all the students who took advantage of the grief counseling made available at Lee High, Ruggs wasn't among them.

He'd leave home often with no explanation, spending up to 10 hours a week in the cemetery at Scott's grave. When he wasn't there, he retreated to his bedroom. He would come out to eat but was otherwise reclusive and refused to discuss Scott's death even with family. Kevontae would try to coax his brother out of his room with pick-up basketball invitations, but to no avail.

"Who am I going to talk to?" Ruggs said, rhetorically, during a conversation at the Alabama football offices earlier this summer. "Rod was it. I didn't have another friend like that. Rod knew things my brother didn't know. Things my parents didn't even know. I didn't even tell my family how many scholarship offers I had, but Rod knew it was 23."

Ruggs returned to school after a week but slept through classes and blew off track practice. When his grandmother died, he'd witnessed his mom grieve privately as well -- self-contained and stoic -- and because she wanted to be left alone in her time of grief, she respected Henry's wish for the same.

Just when Ruggs began to exit his shell, a frightening brush with his own mortality set back his progress. About a month after Scott died, Kevontae convinced Ruggs to come out of his room for a trip with a few friends to Cinnabon at Montgomery's Eastdale Mall. On the way back, Ruggs hit the gas while merging onto the highway when his right rear tire spun and caused his black Dodge Durango to swerve. He overcorrected with the steering wheel, and his truck spun three times around, the second of which put him, for an instant, face to face with an 18-wheeler. A head-on collision was missed, Kevontae said, by inches. The careening Durango finally came to a stop sitting sideways on the road, intact but for a minor scratch from contact with a highway guardrail.

As with Scott's accident, a steady rain had worsened driving conditions.

As with Scott's accident, three friends were in the backseat.

The similarities shook Ruggs' confidence as a driver and unraveled what little progress he'd made in getting over the tragedy. He had his brother drive him home from there and wouldn't get behind the wheel at all for another two weeks. When he did, he'd tremble visibly enough for his brother to notice. He'd avoid driving altogether if there was any sign of rain.

"That spin-out traumatized me again," Ruggs said. "When we got home, I was shaking and said, 'I'm sorry' to everyone, went in my room, locked the door and laid down."

* * * * *



If the pool table, massive flatscreen and endless sports memorabilia don't make it clear enough, the "Man Cave" sign on Tyrone Rogers' wall clearly spells out what the room in his home is for. A lot of the memorabilia is Cleveland Browns-related. Ruggs' coach at Lee High in Montgomery logged six NFL seasons with the Browns, peaking in the early 2000s. He now lives in Pike Road, Ala., just a short drive from Alabama State, where he played collegiately before the Browns gave him a chance as an undrafted free agent. He leans back on the tan leather couch in his getaway room and recalls exactly how a kid who could be among the first wide receivers chosen in the 2020 NFL Draft, if he leaves school early, once wanted nothing to do with the sport.

Ruggs had been a spectacular player, albeit a very smallish one, at McKee Junior High, but entered Lee High with no interest in playing. Coaxed to give it a try at the end of the season his freshman year, he was thrown one pass in the Generals' last game, a smoke route to the flat. He gained only 4 yards, but in doing so, he made half the defense miss. It was all Rogers needed to see to know Ruggs could be special. Ruggs, however, was turned off. Joining the team so late, he was issued whatever leftover, misfit gear could be found in a mostly empty equipment room.

"He got a kicker's helmet with a red facemask -- every other facemask was white -- and his shoulder pads were way too big," said Kevontae. "He said he was embarrassed to be out there. He thought he looked ridiculous."

Over the next two years, he was constantly reminded that 5-foot-9 guards in basketball rarely reach the NBA, that football would be a much smarter ticket, that his blinding speed and leaping ability would carry him much farther on the gridiron. It made him more determined to prove basketball doubters wrong, and his brief freshman experience with the football team just made him feel more like a basketball player.

As a sophomore, he didn't play football at all. The following spring, Rogers couldn't convince him to even come out for spring practice. But Rod Scott had seen him play at McKee and kept whispering the phrase "five-star" in his best friend's ear. He was convinced Ruggs could carry a five-star rating as a recruit in football if he would commit to it, and he was equally sure he would end up at Alabama.

It was a bold prediction. Only a few dozen recruits in the nation land the five-star distinction in a given year, and Ruggs had hardly played a varsity down at a time when five-star designations for the class of 2017 were already being assigned. But Scott was somehow sure of it; he even went to Lee basketball coach Bryant Johnson and asked him to encourage Ruggs to play football, too.

Initially, Ruggs would only put a toe into football water. He agreed so reluctantly to play, his preference was for as little time on the field as possible. Lee High linebackers coach Eric Hudson hoodwinked Henry, telling him that if he would just give football a try, he'd be used as a return specialist only. Ruggs wasn't happy when, soon after, he was thrown into a significant offensive role, but peer pressure was enough to keep him from fighting it.

By this time, 2017 signing classes were already half-built. Empty seats on the proverbial recruiting bus were disappearing, and still, the Alabamas and Clemsons of college football didn't even know who Ruggs was.

Just a few weeks into his first varsity season as a junior, he received his first scholarship offer. Rogers distributed only one game film for Ruggs in the midst of his junior year, and the offers took off from there. Within months, the offer from Alabama that Scott had predicted for him materialized.

And in a little over a year, Ruggs transformed from a basketball player with no desire to play football, to an elite football recruit coveted by almost every top program in America. He was ranked by 247sports.com as the No. 291 recruit in the nation just six weeks into his varsity career as a junior. But by National Signing Day of his senior year, he'd shot up to No. 24.

He even drew 247sports.com's five-star rating; something else Scott saw in him that nobody else did.

Not even Ruggs.

* * * * *



Inside the Alabama locker room, Ruggs holds something of an invisible crown. On a roster full of elite athletes, teammates generally recognize him as the Crimson Tide's fastest player. It's a title that carries automatic respect among players, as those who have held it before -- Dee Milliner, Amari Cooper, Tony Brown -- have all cashed NFL paychecks. At Alabama's junior pro day in March, NFL scouts reportedly timed him at 4.25 seconds in the 40-yard dash, a mark that would have been the fastest clocking in nine of the last 10 years at the NFL Scouting Combine.

But the status always faces challengers. Weeks after Ruggs' speed wowed NFL scouts, he had to fend off fellow receiver Jaylen Waddle in an impromptu race that aired on social media. The photo-close finish established Waddle as the heir apparent to Ruggs' crown.

That blazing raw speed is a foundational element to Ruggs' standing among college football's top NFL prospects at the receiver position.

"He's got that big 40-yard dash time on him, and he'll draw a lot of attention this year," said an AFC personnel executive. "He's a little more physical than (Alabama WR Jerry) Jeudy, a little more of a straight-line guy, and not quite as shifty. But the speed is completely legit."

Ruggs wasted no time translating that speed to the field at Alabama.

His first five career receptions, one catch against each of five opponents, all went for touchdowns. His first catch that didn't finish in the end zone, against LSU, went for 47 yards. He's been a walking big play for the UA passing game ever since, with 17 scores and an average of nearly 17 yards per catch over two seasons. This fall, with a Heisman candidate in Tua Tagovailoa to throw him passes, Ruggs figures to have agents buzzing around him by season's end about early draft entry.

Whatever NFL prosperity comes his way, after whichever season he chooses to claim it, Ruggs will feel indebted to someone he'll never be able to pay back.

"It was always Rod who encouraged him the most to play football," said Nataki Ruggs. "It was always Rod."

* * * * *



Memorial services for Scott were held at Alabama State University's Dunn-Oliver Acadome, which can seat more than 7,000 people. It filled to capacity. Services were officiated by Lorenza Pharrams, who is both a pastor and the principal at Lee. All expenses were paid by an anonymous donor whose identity still remains unknown to the Scott family.

One of Ruggs' toughest reminders of the tragedy came when a Lee postseason basketball game brought him back to ASU, about a year after Scott's death, to play in the gym where he'd said goodbye to the friend he knows he'll never replace.

"Walking into Alabama State's gym even now, all we can see is a big black curtain pulled down and Rod's casket," Kevontae said. "And we had to play a game in there."

As a senior, Ruggs transferred his athletic spirit from basketball to football.

Even Johnson said he didn't play basketball with quite the same energy, while, by all accounts, he played football with a reckless passion he'd never shown before. Teammates noticed a change -- a hardened determination that drove him to be the first player on the practice field, the last to walk off it, and the new embodiment of Scott's relentless work ethic.

"Now he feels like he's not trying to make it for himself or for us anymore," Kevontae said. "He's trying to make it for Rod. He wants to prove Rod right."

And he's found all sorts of ways to celebrate his friend's short but impactful life.

Perhaps the most notable tribute follows the first touchdown Ruggs scores in any Alabama game. He holds up three fingers in a salute to Scott, who wore No. 3 at Lee High. His Twitter profile features a photo of his best friend's gravestone, which includes a quote from Scott: I will do something great. I will be something great. The quote is also tattooed on Ruggs' lower right leg. And when it was time to commit to Alabama, the school Scott had always pushed Ruggs to attend, Ruggs announced his decision with a video tribute to Scott.

"When he throws up the three fingers, it shows how much he cares," Roderic Scott said. "He does it so fast you can't always tell what he's doing when you see it on TV, but I started looking for it. Ever since the first time he did it, I've been glued to the seat whenever Alabama plays."

* * * * *



As Ruggs' reporting date for Alabama's workouts approached in the spring of 2017, Nataki pressed him more and more to talk to her about Rod's death. Was he focusing sharply enough on his own life to study as much as college would require? Was he past the guilt about staying in bed that day? Was he moving forward emotionally?

A maternal instinct in Nataki told her the time to leave her son alone had passed.

"My baby was about to leave me. It was days away. I had to know how he was doing dealing with this," she said. "This was momma's time now. I needed to know where his head was before he went to college."

On the night Nataki's curiosity and her son's privacy finally clashed in anger, the argument got loud around 10 p.m. Ruggs wouldn't be cornered and walked out of the house. Nataki, in turn, took the confrontation outdoors.

Kevontae knew what was coming. He went inside the house to put on a pair of sneakers.

"I saw the look in his eye; he was about to run," Kevontae said. "I come back outside, and he's already in the street. Then he put that 4.25 (speed) on me."

Ruggs took off in a full sprint. Kevontae took off behind him.

Ruggs took a right onto Tullis Road, then a left onto Antoinette Drive. From there, he ran west on McGehee, toward Carter Hill Road.

In a way, toward Rod.

Kevontae, a former linebacker at Ole Miss who is playing at East Mississippi Community College this fall, is plenty fast himself. But he's not Henry Ruggs-fast, and he lost sight of him at times on the chase.

Ruggs ran all the way to Jeff-Davis High, the school Scott had gone to support when the Camry flipped in the rain, and sprinted around it twice. He discarded his shirt, to make it more difficult for Kevontae to see him. He sprinted across the street, to Dannelly Elementary, and circled the building where he and Rod had once sat and itched for the afternoon bell to ring. He ran from there around the Southeast Y, where the friendship with Scott was forged on the hardwood.

By the time Henry's exhaustion had finally allowed Kevontae to catch up to him, he was leaning against a truck in the driveway of someone he didn't know, on Rawling Road, catching his breath and coming to terms. He'd run from his pain for 2.8 miles before realizing it was just as fast as he was.

"I wasn't going to stop until I couldn't breathe anymore," Ruggs said.

Kevontae called for a ride because the brothers were too exhausted to walk back home. The cathartic experience brought a level of peace to Ruggs himself, who resolved to be motivated, not encumbered, by Scott's death. Nataki finally got clarity on her son's mindset with a long talk days later while helping to move him into Alabama's athletic dorm, Bryant Hall.

"If you put two guys in a room -- one working and one working with a purpose -- the guy with the purpose will win every time," Kevontae said. "That's Henry now, and Rod is his purpose."

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