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Ruskell scales NFL after unlikely journey

MIKE SANDO; The News Tribune
Published: January 8th, 2006 02:30 AM

Seahawks president Tim Ruskell worked as a disc jockey and became pretty good at siphoning gas before finding work in the NFL.
KIRKLAND – The pinnacle of his profession seemed rather remote when 28-year-old Tim Ruskell was sucking mouthfuls of diesel fuel from a U-Haul truck at 3 a.m. on a stranger’s farm in Nebraska.

At the time, the words “unleaded fuel only” seemed far more applicable than “future NFL team president” – not that the Seattle Seahawks are complaining.

Ruskell, 49, has played a leading role in the Seahawks’ breakthrough season. Eleven months into his presidential tenure, the organization has gone from disappointing its fans to thrilling them with a franchise-best 13-3 record and No. 1 seeding in the NFC playoffs.

Many factors helped Seattle win the NFC West by seven games while producing the team’s first league MVP. Hiring a radio disc jockey-turned-personnel man as team president surely ranks among them.

Years before Ruskell began full-time NFL work in 1987, he spent off hours spinning vinyl at Florida radio stations. But it was during Ruskell’s mid-1980s tenure with the Saskatchewan Roughriders that he developed a strong taste for personnel work – and fossil fuels.

“The Saskatchewan team president came to us at the end there and he said, ‘OK, if we beat Edmonton this week, I’m going to give everybody new contracts, three-year deals,’ ” Ruskell recounted. “If we lose, that’s going to be the end of the road.”

A smashing proposition, except that Edmonton’s quarterback was a guy named Moon. Warren Moon.

“You thought he was good in the NFL? He was ridiculous in Canada,” Ruskell said. “You couldn’t beat him. If he didn’t hit every pass, it was because the guy dropped it.

“They beat us, like, 35-0. We knew we were fired. They didn’t have to tell us. It was like 3 degrees and here I am in a parka thinking this is how it’s all going to end.”

With $150 to his name, the jazz and rock deejay known to friends as “Tight Radio” considered hawking his record collection to finance the trip home to Tampa, Fla., where he hoped to interview for a job with the USFL’s Bandits. Instead, Ruskell set out in a rented U-Haul and took his chances. There would be plenty of time to survey the scenery thanks to an engine governor that forced him into the slow lane.

The trip proceeded with a bang, but only because Ruskell had accidentally pumped diesel fuel into the unleaded-only rig. He barely got out of the 7-Eleven parking lot when she blew.

“It was like a bomb hit me,” Ruskell said. “I run back to the store. All of a sudden this guy is towing me out to a farm in Nebraska. He could have killed me and never heard from me again.

“We’re sucking diesel out of my tank. It’s 3 in the morning and then he tells me how much it is.”

Ruskell didn’t have the coin. That made him a temporary employee.

“I’m working for the rest of it to get out of there,” he said. “So I give him every penny that I have. And his wife is bringing me sandwiches and they taste like gas.”

The story gets better – for us, not him.

That fresh tank of gas got Ruskell only to St. Louis.

Showing resourcefulness that would later make him a leading candidate for NFL executive of the year, Ruskell looked up an old girlfriend to see if she might let him crash on the couch while “Tight Radio” tried to line up the necessary funding.

“It was a weird call,” Ruskell conceded. “But I’m desperate. I say, ‘Can I just sleep on your sofa? If I could just borrow …’”

Click. An older brother in Atlanta wound up wiring the requisite funds to Ruskell. The job with the Bandits came through. A career in player personnel was ready to come out of the slow lane.

Need for a leader

Tim Ruskell came to the Seahawks early last year after one season as the Atlanta Falcons’ assistant general manager. He spent the previous 17 seasons in various capacities with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, a franchise he knew well. Ruskell was a Bucs ball boy when Tampa Bay and Seattle joined the league as expansion franchises in 1976.

Seahawks owner Paul Allen sought more than a personnel man when he hired Ruskell last February. He spoke at length about the need for a leader with the ability to unify an organization. His calls were a clear reference to coach Mike Holmgren’s unhappiness under former president Bob Whitsitt, who was fired last January.

“I believe one of the keys that maybe does not get talked about enough is unifying and people working together where there are no walls, where there are no agendas, where everybody has a common focus on the goal,” Ruskell said upon taking the job. “That’s winning and putting the best team out there every year, capable of winning the Super Bowl. That’s what we’ll do.”

Ruskell promptly sent out a memo to players outlining high standards of conduct on and off the field. He consulted with Holmgren before releasing players the team viewed as detractors from the overall goal.

The team filled out its roster with players known for hard work and high character. Many of those players – Joe Jurevicius, Chuck Darby, Bryce Fisher, Lofa Tatupu and Leroy Hill come to mind – became key contributors. The organization’s culture changed almost overnight.

“I remember the first day all the players came in for a minicamp and he came in and spoke to the team and just talked about having an open-door policy and doing anything he could for the coaches and the players,” veteran fullback Mack Strong said. “He got a lot of mileage out of that with the players especially.”

Strong has been with the Seahawks through 13 seasons, two owners and three coaching staffs. Life with Ruskell feels different.

“Anytime you have a guy that is team president and he has that type of open-door policy – we can come in and talk to him about anything and he’ll listen – that’s tremendous,” Strong said. “Especially at this level.”

Big family, big support

John Ruskell was among those who overstated his age for entry into the Army during World War II. He served one tour of duty in Korea and two more in Vietnam, retiring to Tampa as a colonel in 1972.

Carolyn Ruskell raised six kids while her husband pursued a career that took the family from Japan to Kansas to Germany to Spain to Germany to Texas to Georgia to Pennsylvania to Tampa before Tim Ruskell was a junior in high school.

“As far as my mom and dad were concerned, my mom was just as important to his career as my father was,” Tim’s youngest sister, Judy, said. “Dad was the supporter, Mom took care of the family, we had our routine, we had our rules, we made sure that Mom was there to help whatever Dad needed to be done.”

The frequent moves drew the children together.

“It’s embarrassing as a child to go into a class and the teacher says, ‘Here’s Tim, he’s from Germany, he speaks our language,’” Ruskell said. “That got old, but there were six of us brothers and sisters. That saved me.

“As I’ve gotten older I appreciate more because I saw a bunch of people, a bunch of different countries. I felt like it gave me a wider perspective on things because when I would go to Florida, I would meet people who had never been out of the state, lived here in this house.

“There was a little bit of different thinking.”

More than siblings

John and Carolyn Ruskell had five kids in a six-year period ending with Tim’s birth in 1956. Judy came along seven years later. When the family lived in Atlanta, Mrs. Ruskell would take the kids to Braves games and sit in the outfield for 50 cents a seat.

“She would make sure that we were always together,” Judy said. “That was real important to them, that we were not only all brothers and sisters but were also good friends and had fun together.

“She was really good at that.”

The six Ruskell kids are now spread across six states.

Carol, 55, is a former Air Force reservist who works on behalf of Florida’s homeless through the federal Department of Veterans Affairs.

John, 53, is co-founder of the Aspire Foundation, whose Web site describes him as a specialist in interpreting “the symbolic languages as expressed through the medium of dreams, visions and myths.”

Rick, 52, serves as legal counsel for the State of Georgia.

Kay, 50, is conference-services manager at Villa Julie College near Baltimore.

Judy, 42, is director of off-track betting for The Meadows racetrack in Pennsylvania. She doesn’t miss a Seahawks game on TV unless she’s attending in person.

“It’s almost like I can feel Timmy’s nervousness and anxiety and the thrill when he’s happy (during games),” she said. “I’m flying out for the playoffs. I can’t wait to be out there with him and hopefully I’m going to stay the whole week and get to see two of them.”

From Echo to O.J.

John Herrera claims a record, tape and CD collection numbering 200,000 pieces. He estimates there are 130,000 recordings on vinyl and another 40,000 on 45s, with perhaps 15,000 CDs and 15,000 tapes.

“Those are conservative numbers,” said the man whose musical inclinations gave Ruskell the single biggest break of his NFL career.

Herrera works today as a senior executive for the Oakland Raiders. As the Buccaneers’ first scout in 1975, he came to appreciate Budget Tapes and Records for its ability to satisfy his appetite for off-beat artists: Echo & the Bunnymen, Kitaro and J. McShann, to name a few.

The long-haired kid behind the counter was a University of South Florida student and part-time deejay. Tim Ruskell had been hooked on music ever since his brother sneaked him out of the house to see the Allman Brothers in 1968. Tim was 11 or 12.

“It was fascinating,” Ruskell said. “That was the first group I ever really loved. Duane Allman, he just blew me away.”

Herrera and Ruskell became friends. Herrera described their mutual interests as music, football and meeting girls.

Ruskell had become a die-hard Dallas Cowboys fan during the family’s days at Fort Killeen, Texas. Once the Ruskells moved to Pennsylvania, Tim would ride his bike to the Washington Redskins’ training camp. He remembers staring through the fence as coach Vince Lombardi barked out orders to Sonny Jurgensen, Billy Kilmer and others.

When Herrera offered him a chance to become a Bucs ball boy, Ruskell jumped at the opportunity. He lasted one practice.

“Timmy had two balls in each hand and (coach John) McKay yelled over at him to get another ball off the field,” Herrera said. “Timmy has his hands full so he ran over and he kicked the ball off the field.

“McKay thought he was being disrespectful, so he fired him on the spot for kicking the ball.”

Herrera went to the general manager – Ron Wolf, who later gained acclaim with Holmgren in Green Bay – and explained the situation. They talked Mc-Kay into giving Ruskell another chance, but McKay fired him again after another misunderstanding.

Ruskell persevered, serving as the visiting teams’ locker-room manager in the Bucs’ early seasons. The stories were his to keep.

“We were playing Buffalo, and O.J. Simpson comes walking in about five hours before the game,” Ruskell said. “He befriends us. He’s talking to us and he’s practicing something for NBC. He’s going to be Othello.

“So he asks us, my guys and us, if we could read some parts. He had all these little scripts because he’s practicing his lines. We’re a bunch of idiots, don’t know what the hell we’re doing, and he is doing his lines.

“It was quick and then it was over. Didn’t think anything of it. But as I look back, doing Shakespeare with O.J. … that was a bizarre one.”

The path leads North AND South

Saskatchewan with Herrera wasn’t far behind. Ruskell’s old buddy had left the Bucs for the Redskins before landing in Canada as the Roughriders’ general manager. He hired Ruskell as a scout and promoted him to director of college scouting.

“For not having done it professionally, Tim took to it like a duck to water,” Herrera said. “He did a much better job than the other people I had working for me that had been doing it for a long time, and it created some political problems for me because they didn’t understand why I was investing all this time and effort with Tim.

“I listened to him more than I listened to them. In player personnel, you have to have an intangible gift. No matter how hard you study and try, you might not have it.”

The life of a scout is decidedly unglamorous. Ruskell wasn’t exactly an international star during those two-plus years in Canada.

“I would go to Simon Fraser (University) and I’d say, ‘Where can I watch film?’ We don’t have any film. There’s no film to watch. We don’t film our games or we don’t have films, we sent the films out already.

“What am I going to do the rest of the day? What am I doing here?”

Ruskell’s friendship with former Bucs quarterback Steve Spurrier helped him land with the Tampa Bay Bandits after the CFL job ended.

Then it was back to the Bucs in 1987.

The team hired him as a scout after Ruskell impressed management with what turned out to be prescient scouting reports on rookies Jerry Ball and Rod Jones. The job paid $15,000 a year without benefits.

Ruskell advanced through the ranks, scoring points internally when he pushed for the team to draft future All-Pro safety John Lynch in 1993.

Working closely with Rich McKay, son of John and current general manager of the Falcons, Ruskell and the Bucs finally enjoyed team success after the 1996 arrival of Tony Dungy as coach.

“Tim is a sharp, sharp personnel guy,” Dungy said when the Seahawks hired Ruskell. “He’ll do a great job.”

‘A knack for … nice presentation’

Judy Ruskell described her brother as “the fun guy, the one who likes to host the party, likes to organize the stuff, likes to entertain people, likes to see everybody have a good time.”

A sampling of witnesses turned up no contradictory evidence.

Bob Seymour, jazz director for the NPR station in Tampa, worked with Ruskell in radio back in the 1970s. He recalled Ruskell’s willing participation in the Afflictions, an in-house band that printed up T-shirts heralding its “1982 Falkland Islands Tour.” That was Ruskell.

“He really did have a knack for creative music and a nice presentation,” Seymour said. “Radio was always a lot of fun with him, and I think that really transmitted to the listeners.”

Steve Huntington was the program director who hired Ruskell to work weekend overnights at WQSR in Sarasota, Fla.

“That station was the hippest thing going in the Tampa Bay area in the ’70s,” said Huntington, now the program director for Jimmy Buffett’s Radio Margaritaville on Sirius Satellite Radio. “In those days, probably one per major market, there was a station that could get away with anything because the jocks were trusted by the listenership to guide them through so much disparate music.

“Unlike today, even unlike the ’80s, really, you could hear on one station Led Zeppelin, Joni Mitchell, Sonny Rollins – just the entire scope.”

The gig was up in 1979. Management sought a tamer format. Ruskell and the others went their separate ways. That one of them would become an NFL team president never occurred to anyone.

“Absolutely not,” said Mike Cornette, an old radio friend who once joined Ruskell in the front row for a Chick Corea concert. “I’m so happy and proud for him. I tell friends about it.

“It’s just an amazing success story and it goes to his ability to get along with people and his hard work and dedication. He is one of the nicest people I know.”

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