Heart of a champion

More news about: Loras
Josh Ruggles once made 135 3-pointers in five minutes. Now, he's averaging 12 points per game for the Duhawks. 
James Naprstek, Loras Sports Information
 

Josh Ruggles wanted to throw up.

He wanted to be sore. To be exhausted.

His Loras men's basketball teammates were sprinting. Lifting. Jumping.

Josh Ruggles was sitting.

"I'm dead," a teammate exasperated during practice, as Ruggles operated the clock.

"I can't begin to tell you," Ruggles said, "what I would give to be just physically exhausted from running up and down right now."

But Ruggles couldn't move. Well, he could move. He just wasn't allowed.

This is the story of Josh Ruggles' journey.

***

Josh Ruggles was in third grade, playing with his older brother on a youth baseball team.

It was the championship game. A really big deal when you're eight years old.

What wasn't so big a deal to an eight-year-old: Ruggles' heart was racing.

It wasn't nerves. He was likely born with supraventricular tachycardia, which caused his heart rate to beat much faster than normal.

"Just sitting here talking on the phone, my heart would beat like 250 beats per minute," Ruggles said.

He already had two operations, but in that championship baseball game, it got worse.

"The championship. Of course," Ruggles said.

"I had to come out of the game and everybody was freaking out. It was kind of funny as a third grader because it just doesn't seem like a big deal to you, but to everybody else, they're concerned about it.

It started going crazy on me, and that's when I knew I needed my third surgery."

He went to the expert of all experts for the last surgery. It basically resolved the issue, though Ruggles says now he does have an irregular rhythm.

"Right now (talking on the phone), it's probably 40 beats per minute," he said.

He could keep playing sports. He could keep playing basketball.

This is a love story.

***

To understand this story, you have to understand Josh Ruggles' relationship with basketball.

In the basement of the home he lived in until fourth grade was a Little Tykes hoop and Michael Jordan videos.

Ruggles popped in a video. Jordan made a move. Ruggles imitated it on that little hoop.

"That was pretty much my childhood, up until fourth grade. That's what I would do every day."

Then his family built a home across town. In it was probably every kid's dream room: A 10-foot basketball hoop and court extending to about half court.

"I started taking actually working out more seriously," Ruggles said. "I'd go to the court and take 500 shots every day. That's when I was really like, OK, I can say I want to play basketball as long as I can, but I have to put in the work to be able to play as long as I can. That's really when I fell in love with the workout aspect of basketball. Just getting in the gym on my own and just trying to get better."

After averaging 19 points his senior year at Wheaton Warrenville South, Ruggles chose Grace College, an NAIA school in Winona Lake, Ind.

This is a story of a sharpshooter. More specifically, this is a story of an Internet sensation.

***

Brandon Ruggles saw the video on ESPN.

It was 2013 and Nik Stauskas, then at Michigan, had claimed a world record by hitting 102 3-pointers in five minutes.

Brandon thought his little brother could beat it.

"The first time I did, we screwed it up. I only used one basketball," Josh Ruggles said.

"That was the best I've ever shot. I hit like 89 out of 97. I was just feeling it. Something crazy. But man, I'm not even close, I don't understand how he did it."

They watched the video again. Oh, right, Stauskas used two basketballs.

When Ruggles used two, he made 135.

One hundred thirty-five!

"My brother with his crazy marketing skills found a way to blow it up," Josh said.

The tweets poured in. Phil Jackson tweeted it. So did Drew Brees, Dennis Rodman and others.

It was on ESPN. And soon, Ruggles was heading to Spain to compete in a 3-point contest with professional players in the Spanish league.

The headline on Grace's website announcing his signing reads: "Shooting world record holder signs with Grace Basketball."

This is a story of struggle.

***

It was mid-January 2016, Ruggles' freshman year at Grace.

The 6-2 guard was averaging 5.4 points in 16.2 minutes for the Lancers when his leg snapped.

He was told his season was over. This was typically an 8-to-10 week recovery. That wasn't going to fly.

As the leg healed, he was told he could begin walking on it gradually. He wouldn't.

For five weeks, he stayed off it. That was his best chance of playing in the NCCAA tournament in March.

"I would shoot every day on one foot," Ruggles said, "work on finishing around the rim on one foot, all that."

It worked. Ruggles beat the timeline and played 18 minutes in two tournament games, scoring 4 points.

But after the season, he came to realize Grace wasn't where he belonged.

"It's a special place, but just wasn't the right fit," Ruggles said.

As Loras coach Chris Martin says now, word spread fast.

"I've known him since he was 16 or 17, or knew his family and that type of thing," said Martin, whose wife worked at Wheaton Academy, where Ruggles spent his first three years of high school before transferring to Wheaton Warrenville South.

Martin had spent time recruiting in the area as an assistant at Elmhurst and was looking for transfers and freshmen to enroll at Loras, where he had taken the head coaching job in April 2016.

Martin hired Gabe Miller as an assistant. It just so happens Miller coached in the AAU program Ruggles' father, Dave, founded, Mercury Elite.

Former Mercury Elite guard Ryan DiCanio had just finished his freshman year at Loras. Wheaton Warrenville South guard Matt Dacy-Seijo committed. It quickly became apparent where home would be for Josh Ruggles.

"I knew I wanted to be part of something special, something new, and something where everybody kind of has the same goal," Ruggles said.

He woke up one morning and chose Loras.

This is the story of finding a home.

***

The summer before Chris Martin's senior year at Elmhurst started with unknowns.

Martin had one year of basketball left. Maybe.

He had surgery for supraventricular tachycardia. Yes, that's the same thing Ruggles had as a child.

"You're looking at doctors and some doctors are saying no, no, you can never play, no you need a pacemaker, you need to do that, you to do this," Martin said. "You get seven, eight, nine opinions and finally come to a, hey, you need to have the surgery. You should be OK, but there's a chance you'll get a pacemaker. There's a chance something might happen. You're nervous. You don't know."

The surgery was successful. He played his senior year.

Years later, it made for a unique connection with a new transfer.

Martin was informed of Ruggles' condition. Of course, this wasn't something that had been a problem for around 10 years now.

But Martin praised how thorough Dave and Ruggles' mother, Holly, were.

"We were in contact with trainers, were aware of paperwork, when he got physicals, that type of thing," Martin said. "It was all communicated very well."

The heart was OK. The leg was OK. Ruggles had found a home. Time to play.

This is the story of an agonizing setback.

***

It was autumn and Josh Ruggles was walking across campus at Loras. Something didn't feel right.

"There's not a great way to describe it. Just kind of chest pain. Almost like ongoing heartburn," Ruggles said.

At an early-morning workout, he felt dizzy.

"If I stood up, I felt like I was just going to collapse, basically. I didn't want to get it checked or anything, I was just like, Coach, give me a minute, I'll work it out. I didn't want to seem soft and miss a workout or anything."

But it soon became apparent a trip to the hospital was necessary. Then a visit to Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn.

He was told he had myocarditis.

"Imagine somebody getting like the average cold, any illness really," Ruggles said. "Your body just reacts to it differently. What happened was my heart tried to fight back against the illness and ended up, as a result, hurting itself, I guess. So my heart ended up swollen, much more swollen than it should be."

To him, this news was better than no news. Doctors identified a problem – unrelated to his previous heart condition. They'd fix the problem. He'd be back on the court.

It wasn't that simple.

Ruggles was told about one-third of myocarditis patients would heal completely. Another third heal, but scarring would be left over. Another third usually end up needing transplants.

He was told no basketball. No shooting. No dribbling. No walking up stairs or hills.

Have you been to Dubuque – on the bluffs of the Mississippi River? That was kind of a problem.

"There was always that, 'should I go to class today?' I couldn't do anything," Ruggles said.

He'd go to practice and run the clock. Try to be encouraging.

"It was painful to watch him because you knew he was going through so much agony," Martin said. "And the fact that one, he could be out there with his teammates and two, he really doesn't know at that time if he's ever going to play again. It was tough to watch."

There were discussions about giving up basketball.

"But this is too big a part of my life," Ruggles said.

So he waited.

"It was very hard mentally," Ruggles said. "It felt like I could do everything. Watching the team, we struggled a little bit early on and I felt like I was almost kind of worthless to the team."

Doctors told Ruggles he's probably in the group of myocarditis patients who would heal, but had scarring left over.

On December 15, the news he was waiting for came.

"All I heard was, 'you can play,'" Ruggles said.

This is a story of thankfulness.

Ruggles made his long-awaited and memorable Loras debut on December 22.
James Naprstek, Loras Sports Information 

***

Josh Ruggles is grinning from ear to ear and he's getting a few weird looks.

The Loras men's basketball team is sprinting and Ruggles can't stop smiling.

"I hate running up and down," Ruggles said. "Now it's like, as much as it sucks, it's nothing compared to not being able to. I love it."

Ruggles worked and worked and worked with assistant coach Jacob Oswald to get back in shape.

Midway through a season, fatigue can start to set in for college basketball players. The grind can get to you.

At Loras, there's a new sense of energy.

"He's coaxing the guys and he's talking to them, 'Hey guys, we got this. This is how we get better. Let's go,'" Martin said. "He's really been a vocal leader."

"Our team chemistry and just our work ethic has been through the roof."

Ruggles checked into a game for the first time as a Duhawk on December 22. It was during break, those games when campus is usually dead with no students around.

This non-conference game was far from meaningless.

"It was emotional, for sure, because there was always that thought that I tried to keep out of my mind but the thought that was there nonetheless of you might not be able to get back out on the court," Ruggles said.

"The first five seconds was just like, this is just the coolest thing."

Josh's family was in attendance as he totaled eight points, four assists and a block in 17 minutes of an 85-78 win against Carroll.

That was the fourth of game of Loras' current nine-game winning streak.

That success isn't all Ruggles, of course – "We started guarding somebody, which is a good thing," Martin said – but to deny his impact would be shallow. And it's more than vocal leadership.

Ruggles, who Martin said can play four different positions, is averaging 12.0 points in six games.

In his last three outings, Ruggles is 13-for-23 from 3-point range and averaging 16.3 points, including a team-high 18 in Monday's 88-75 win over Coe.

Josh's younger brother, Jake, a senior at Wheaton Warrenville South, committed to Loras last week.

Josh has 2 1/2 years of college left. He'll play basketball with his brother the last two.

You get the sense that the story of Josh Ruggles' journey has a lot of memorable moments ahead.

***

Every time Josh Ruggles is on the court, an automated external defibrillator is in the gym.

"I always play with an increased risk now of ... basically dropping dead on the court," Ruggles said. "Which can sound kind of scary, but to me, it's almost like, I would rather be out there with that risk than not have that opportunity."

Ruggles is not taking a single second for granted. Practices, workouts, games, it doesn't matter. Now when he's exhausted, he's probably never felt better.

"The guy is the most positive person I've ever met in my entire life," Martin said. "You can bet that. No matter what happens. Even when he was struggling, not really knowing, he's like, 'Coach, I'll be fine. I'll be back before you know it.'"

He's back, and he's sprinting. Lifting. Jumping.

Smiling.

"I'm not gonna do it without a smile on my face," Ruggles said. "I've gotta be smiling when I'm out there."



Nathan Ford

Nathan Ford is the digital sports editor at The Gazette in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. He graduated from Wartburg College in 2015, where he covered Wartburg and Iowa Conference athletics in print and broadcast for four years. He began contributing to D3football.com in 2013.