Cesar Ruiz is usually always in the mood for fun.
At IMG Academy’s Media Day in August, he stood behind an interviewer and exaggerated his movements as if he was the one asking questions to a fellow high-profile teammate.
The challenge: to get a chuckle.
Even at fall practices, Ruiz keeps it light by dancing on the sidelines during breaks.
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Laughter is clearly the best medicine for Ruiz, who comes from Camden, N.J., a city known more for crime than high school football talent.
And Ruiz, ranked the No. 1 center in the country, oozes football talent.
“A lot of people grow up in rough environments, but not everybody can overcome and have that bubbly personality,” IMG Academy head coach Kevin Wright said. “... That’s who he is.”
Ruiz is one of two Ascenders from Camden. The other is defensive back Elvis Hines Jr.
Both players saw their share of tragedy growing up in one of America’s most dangerous cities.
“It gets hard sometimes, but you get used to it,” Hines said. “... My friend got shot. I wasn’t next to him, but I had just saw him about two hours before, and I saw somebody get shot in front of my house before. You see some stuff that’s crazy, but if you grow up with the right family, it turns you into a better person.”
Both have shown how talent, focus and drive kept them from surrounding trouble and landed them at Bradenton’s IMG Academy on the cusp of playing college football.
Ruiz, a senior, has 35 college offers that started piling up during a breakout sophomore season in Camden.
He credits his cousin, Brad Hawkins, and a best friend from back home, Ron Johnson, for helping him get noticed. Johnson is a freshman at the University of Michigan, and Hawkins is attending a prep school in Connecticut.
It took one visit to IMG for Ruiz to make Bradenton his new home. Prior to his junior season, Ruiz arrived at the private sports campus in Manatee County with his mother, Latoya, and his younger brother. Upon getting a tour, it was decided. Cesar Ruiz would finish his high school career in Bradenton.
“She said, ‘You’re not coming back home,’” Ruiz said about what his mom told him during the visit.
Ruiz first noticed IMG the year before as a sophomore when he saw the Ascenders playing on television. He said he didn’t know it was a high school or that high schools played on TV at that time.
They did, and IMG heard of Ruiz’ talent, so they reached out. It wasn’t a fit for Ruiz immediately: He said he didn’t want to leave his family. Eventually, he made the choice to visit, and everything fit.
“I knew when I got here that this is where I’m supposed to be,” Ruiz said.
Becoming the No. 1 center
At 6-foot-3 1/2 and 320 pounds, Ruiz possesses the size to be a top center. The technique, though, was something he needed to hone.
His former coaches at Camden (N.J.) High, current head coach Dwayne Savage and former assistant Preston Brown, told Ruiz during his time there that he could be the No. 1 center in the nation after they moved them to the position from left tackle.
So Ruiz practiced and practiced.
Before, during and after team practices, Ruiz worked on snapping the football and other drills to develop his offensive line skills.
He even snapped balls against the wall in his bedroom.
“My mom would ask, ‘What’s that banging,’” Ruiz said. “I’m trying to make sure my snaps are good.”
When he was in the third grade, Ruiz’ father — also named Cesar — passed away in a roadside accident. Ruiz said he got lazy after that, and his mom noticed how he played the Madden video game series on Sony’s Playstation console.
So youth football became an avenue to get him out of the house and playing.
Ruiz said he thought he’d play running back, but his coaches tried him on the offensive line and he showcased his blocking power at an early age. That continued to stick with him as he moved into high school football. Although, he wasn’t a superstar as a freshman playing varsity football.
It took until his sophomore year, during which he turned heads. Ruiz didn’t get lost in the shuffle, either, when he became a star at Camden. Instead, he remained disciplined in who he surrounded himself with.
“I’m really good at reading people,” Ruiz said. “... Nothing really changed socially.”
Despite the difficult surroundings growing up, Ruiz isn’t one to turn his back on his hometown.
“It’s definitely sad what happens, but I’m not ashamed to be from Camden,” Ruiz said. “I’m a prime example that if you follow your dreams and work hard, anything’s possible.”
He stayed focused and avoided any trouble from his time there due to his mother laying down ground rules that he wasn’t allowed to leave the house. And that suited Ruiz.
“I never really wanted to leave,” Ruiz said. “Quite frankly, I was scared to leave not knowing what’s going to happen every day.”
That even meant steering clear of the party life.
“There was a party that I really wanted to go, but then my mom said, ‘No,’” Ruiz said. “And I didn’t really care, because I’m not a party guy. ... And then somebody died that night. So I’m glad I didn’t go.”
Now he’s the top center in the senior class, an Under Armour All-American and has Florida, Florida State, Alabama, Michigan, LSU and Clemson looking for his services next season.
Whoever he chooses to sign with in February for National Signing Day will get a coup.
First, though, he’ll provide some blocking for IMG star quarterback Kellen Mond the rest of the way this season, which continues Saturday against Washington, D.C.’s St. John’s College High in a game pitting two USA Today Super 25 teams.
Out-of-Door Academy at St. Petersburg Shorecrest Prep, 7 p.m.
Braden River at Lakewood Ranch, 7:30 p.m.
Bayshore at Southeast, 7:30 p.m.
Tampa Alonso at Manatee, 7:30 p.m.
Palmetto at Sarasota, 7:30 p.m.
Bradenton Christian at Saint Stephen’s, 7:30 p.m.
Cardinal Mooney at Largo Indian Rocks, 7:30 p.m.