Posted: Monday November 21, 2005 9:39AM; Updated: Tuesday November 22, 2005 7:55PM
An hour before the Fresno State game, Andre Rucker stands near the large tunnel where the players enter the field and where the most raucous USC fans who are no longer students stand before each game. The rabble is known as the Thundering Herd. Andre stands among them.
"I do like coming down here," he says. "I like looking at the [USC] kids. I can see him coming out of that tunnel with them. I feel his presence."
No. 54, which went unclaimed in 2003 in deference to Drean, is now worn by backup defensive end Jeff Schweiger. "He sought me out," Andre recalls. "He said, 'Mr. Rucker, it would be a pleasure for me to wear this number.' He didn't need to do that. I told him, 'As long as you wear it with dignity and pride.'"
As Andre Rucker tells this story, a middle-aged man and an adolescent, possibly the same age as Andre's surviving son, walk past. Both of them wear USC No. 5 jerseys, which is hardly remarkable at the Coliseum, except that on the back of the older man's jersey is the word "DAD" and on the teen's jersey the word "BROTHER." These are Reggie Bush's stepfather, Lamar Griffin, and his brother, Jovan. Andre and Lamar, both of whom are wearing their sons' national championship rings (Andre was given one after last season), exchange a word and joke about each other's bling.
"As long as they keep winning 'em," Lamar tells Andre, "I'll keep wearing them."
Moments such as that make you wonder. All but for adding a "4" to their jerseys, Andre and Taurean could be wearing USC jerseys inscribed "DAD" and "BROTHER" in the stands as the Trojans go after their 33rd consecutive win while their son/sibling shines on the field. No pain can equal the loss of a child and Andre understands how deeply Taurean is also affected.
"One time," Andre says, "well, it was so stupid of me. Taurean and I were home alone, just watching TV, and I looked over at him. He never talks about Drean. I asked, 'You miss your brother?' He just stared at me. 'I'm not even going to answer that,' he said."
You wonder about the pain of the loss. But you also wonder about the pain of the wins. The Trojans are 36-1 since Drean Rucker's death. They have spent 31 consecutive weeks at No. 1 in the Associated Press Poll. They have shared one national championship, won another outright, and are on track for a shot at a third against Texas in the Rose Bowl in January. One Trojan, Matt Leinart, has already won a Heisman Trophy and another, Bush, appears to be the favorite after Saturday night's epic 513 all-purpose yard performance in the 50-42 win over the Bulldogs.
Had Drean Rucker lived, he might be playing a significant role, at middle linebacker, in what is arguably the greatest three-year run that any college football team has ever made. You wonder how that affects his father, knowing all that.
"I do think about the 'what-ifs,'" admits Andre. "Without a doubt, I believe Drean would have started here as a freshman. He had great things ahead of him. But I also know we have to leave things up to God. It's like I told the parents when I spoke at his memorial. Cherish your children every day. And I know that I did that with Drean."
Andre Rucker tries never to speak of Drean in the past tense. Indeed, Drean occupies the present in many ways for the people whose lives he touched. A room in the family's home in Rialto, Calif., serves as a shrine to Drean. At Moreno Valley High, the Rucker Award is now given to the football player who demonstrates the strongest leadership and character each season. Taurean, now a sophomore defensive tackle playing varsity at Arroyo Valley High, wears his brother's old number in tribute. And, of course, Andre attends every USC game that he can to share the moments with his son in spirit that they never will share in person.
Occasionally Andre slips and talks about Drean in the past tense. "He wasn't my son," says Andre, his head shaking from side to side, his voice cracking slightly. "He wasn't my son. He wasn't my son. He was my best friend."