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Trojan for life (cont.)

Posted: Monday November 21, 2005 9:39AM; Updated: Tuesday November 22, 2005 7:55PM
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Andre Rucker is intensely proud of his older son. When Drean was 8-years-old, he stole a pack of gum from a corner convenience store in Moreno Valley. When the proprietor told Andre, he whipped his son for the first and only time. "You ask any teacher, any adult, any classmate who knew Drean," says Andre. "Nobody ever had a problem with him from that day on. He had a tremendous work ethic and he treated everyone the same."

And so, on Monday, July 21, 2003, Drean Rucker drove his new burgundy Honda -- the one Andre and his wife (and Drean's mom), Adrienne, had given him as a gift -- for the first time, to Huntington Beach State Park. He spent all day at the beach with his high school pals, hanging out between lifeguard towers six and seven. It was just past dusk, around 8 p.m., and the lifeguards had already left their posts, when Drean and a buddy waded into the Pacific.

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The surf was uncommonly warm in southern California that July. Water temperatures, normally in the mid-60s, were now between 73 and 75 degrees, drawing more swimmers into the surf. That, combined with dangerous riptides, had caused Huntington City Beach lifeguards to make more than twice as many rescues (467) in the first 20 days of that July than they had the previous July (207). Only a week earlier a male teen, swimming after dark, had drowned at Huntington Beach.

Drean, standing in surf that was little more than waist-deep, told his friend he was having trouble moving. He began to pull at the smaller teen, who realized that once Drean grabbed him both of them might be in danger. Instead, the friend raced to shore, where he quickly found two lifeguards. As the friend would tell Andre, the lifeguards arrived at the spot where he had left Drean within 30 seconds.

"Tell me you're playing with me!" Andre called out. "Tell me you're playing!" Andre was driving with Adrienne and Taurean when the phone call came on the cell. Drean had disappeared in the surf off Huntington Beach. Nobody had seen him for an hour. "Tell me you're playing!"

Within an hour, Andre was at the beach. By that time darkness had descended. Andre Rucker felt helpless. All he could do was not leave. And so he did not. Not that night. Nor the next. Nor the one after that. All he could do was keep his vigil -- sleeping each night in Drean's new Honda at the beach parking lot -- as rescuers, family, friends, reporters, even a pair of USC's defensive studs, Shaun Cody and Kenechi Udeze, descended upon Huntington Beach.

"It's really hard," Rucker told reporters then. "But we're just going to keep the faith. And we all believe he'll be home."

The terrible news came on the fifth day. A pair on wave runners discovered the body. Andre's brother approached him and told him to sit down. Then he delivered the news. "That's when I saw, this is real," Andre recalls. "This is reality. This is really happening."

Two weeks after Drean was last seen, 700 people, including the entire USC coaching staff and many current and former players, attended a memorial service at the beach where Drean spent his final day. Head coach Pete Carroll spoke, saying, "Drean's beautiful spirit is alive and well with us today," and pledged that the Trojan football family would always be there for the Rucker family.

They have kept their promise. At the 2003 home opener, the Trojans honored Drean in a pregame ceremony where they presented the Ruckers with a "54" USC jersey (Adrienne has not attended a game in person since). The Trojans wore a "54" sticker on the back of their helmets throughout their 12-1 season that fall. Except for bowl games -- and only because that would be an NCAA violation since Taurean, who plays defensive tackle at Arroyo Valley (Calif.) High, is considered a recruitable athlete -- the Trojans athletic department gives the Ruckers tickets for every home game.

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