Cardinals defensive end Frostee Rucker has a laugh with an equipment intern during training camp last week.
As the sage words roll off the tongue of Frostee Rucker, it's hard to imagine a time when this wasn't his persona. His presence is calming, but there's an authoritative feeling when he speaks.
At 31, the Cardinals' veteran defensive end is one of the oldest players on the roster, and while that doesn't always translate into a leadership role, Rucker has become a pillar in the locker room heading into his third season with the Cardinals and tenth in the NFL.
"He's one of those guys that says something when it needs to be said," second-year defensive end Ed Stinson said. "Being
here last year, I watched him do it right the whole year and he still continues to do it right. I just try to follow his lead."
The majority of the Cardinals are aged 25 or under, and Rucker is at a different time in his life than many of them. He doesn't live near the nightlife hub of Scottsdale, he rarely goes out and has no desire to be high-profile.
He admits the glitz and glamour of the NFL vortex pulled him in briefly when he was younger, so he understands what the newly-minted Cardinals are going through. But as the years passed, his drive to win a Super Bowl has turned into an obsession, and it doesn't leave much room for anything else.
"You have to be very selfish when it comes to football," he said.
Rucker is convinced the Cardinals can be title contenders, and there are no shortcuts in his personal preparation. He puts in extra work, always arrives early to meetings and studies film voraciously. But he also knows in order to make it there, the youngsters will play a large role, so he's quick to stress the immediacy of the moment.
"It's kind of hard, because when I was a rookie and in my second year, I was doing the same stuff," Rucker said. "That's
what happens when you're 22 and they give you a million bucks. It's kind of tough to say, 'Don't hang out' when you just got out of college, but for the most part, guys are really receptive of the knowledge us older guys kick down. They understand our window of opportunity is small. And theirs is, too, they just don't know it. All of our days are numbered. It takes one play and it can be all over. So we try to give them that fast-forward of reality, and hopefully they accept it."
Rucker calls winning "addictive," and to understand how good he had it, rewind a dozen years. He was a part of the famed Reggie Bush-Matt Leinart dynasty at Southern California. In his three seasons with the Trojans, Rucker won 37 of a possible 39 games and two national championships – and if LenDale White converted a fourth-and-2 against Texas, it would have been a title for every year of his college career.
"Coming together, putting up that No. 1 and knowing you're the best, that no one's better than you, I loved the feeling of that," Rucker said. "At that point you got so used to winning, you didn't even know what losing was."
Rucker was drafted in the third round by the Bengals in 2006, and success has been much harder to come by in the pros. He didn't experience a winning season until his fourth year and has never won a playoff game.
Individually, it's been a more impressive ride. Rucker has been a backup for the majority of his career, yet he's remained an NFL fixture for longer than many players with higher peaks. He set a career-high in sacks last season with five, and is now penciled in as the starting defensive end opposite Calais Campbell.
The fit between Rucker and the Cardinals is so perfect that they agreed to tack on another year to his contract this offseason. Coach Bruce Arians loves the professionalism Rucker brings to the locker room, and Rucker loves the perfection that is demanded by the coaching staff.
"I've been on teams that you see people tank it sometimes," Rucker said. "Certain people, not everyone, but the focus of team is gone. We've got it here. We're on to something."
Rucker is well aware of his football mortality. Sometime within the next few years, he will be out of the game, either by his choice or because no one wants him. Some players struggle with the idea, but he's realistic about it. And the easiest way to ease the transition would be to hoist that elusive Lombardi Trophy before he goes.
"Every year past this, you're counting one by one, because it's not if you can do it, it's if a team thinks you can do it," Rucker said. "You can be in condition and still do this or that, but if a team just slaps your age on it, then you can't get a job because of simply your age. So at this point, it's Super Bowl or bust for us."
DE Frostee Rucker takes down Rams quarterback Shaun Hill for a sack