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Football player Ruffner acts half his age
By: Chuck Curti
As Bernie Sepp, head coach and co-owner of the Western Pennsylvania Warhawks semipro football team, looked through applications from prospective players, he ran across one that listed some impressive credentials. But the applicant appeared to have made some mistakes on his dates.
There was no way Chad Ruffner was 58 years old.
"I said, 'Bernie, there was no mistake,'" said Ruffner, a resident of New Alexandria, Pa., recalling his initial phone conversation with Sepp.
Indeed, Ruffner was born Sept. 8, 1948, and graduated from Latrobe High School in 1966. He played strong safety at Indiana University of Pennsylvania and was signed as a free agent by the Philadelphia Eagles in 1970. After being released by the Eagles in training camp, he played two seasons with the Youngstown Hardhats of the old Midwest Football League.
He then signed with the Chicago Fire of the short-lived World Football League, which was born in 1974 and died in 1975.
"It was pretty obvious (the league) wasn't going to make it," said Ruffner. "The strange part of it was I was making twice as much as I would have made with the Eagles.
"I don't have any complaints about it, other than it lasted only one year."
After his stint with the WFL, he and his wife, Mary Kay, decided it was time for him to hang it up at the ripe old age of 26.
Ruffner kept himself in shape, playing basketball, tennis and working out.
This past January during one of his workouts, he felt like he was in perhaps the best shape of his life.
He was surfing the Internet reading about semipro football teams when he ran across the Warhawks' site and the team's casting call for players. When he filled out his application to play, he hadn't donned a football uniform in more than 30 years.
Sepp's initial interest in Ruffner was as a coach for the young United States Football Alliance team. Ruffner had been a player-coach for Youngstown and also serves as a training consultant for the St. Vincent College tennis team.
"I told him I'd be glad to help out," said Ruffner. "But I told him I could coach (at St. Vincent). I wanted to play. That was my dream."
"Chad is very disciplined in how he takes care of himself," said Sepp. "Pound for pound, he's probably as fit as half our team. He's also a good teacher."
"You lose a step (physically), but his mind ... he's got more over a lot of our guys as far as football knowledge," said Nate List, 31, a Western Beaver High School graduate who serves as the Warhawks' defensive coordinator."For 58, he could outrun me. There are only 10 or 15 guys (on our team) who could outlast him."
The Warhawks started workouts at Robert Morris University in April, and, no sooner did Ruffner start feeling good than he developed tendinitis in his knee. But he battled through - he even put 15 pounds on his 6-foot-1 frame to get to 200 - and saw playing time in each of the Warhawks' first six games.
At first, he was wary that his age would be an issue with teammates who were young enough to be his children.
"They've been nothing but encouraging," said Ruffner. "They don't even mention (my age)."
"The guys really look up to him," added Sepp.
In the Warhawks' game at Akron on July 7, injuries to several teammates forced Ruffner into the starting lineup. Despite having a sore shoulder himself, Ruffner played the entire game at outside linebacker and on special teams.
At one point in the game, he suffered a hamstring injury but played through it. Now, however, he believes his season might be finished.
That doesn't mean his career is finished.
"I think if he really wants to do it, it's fine with me," said his wife, Mary Kay. "He really enjoys it, and, as long as he's able, that's fine with me."
"People tell me a lot of times that I'm in a mid-age crisis," said Ruffner. "I said, 'Some people buy a Corvette, I play football.' I just love to play."
Incidentally, Ruffner's real job is executive director of Homes Build Hope.
The Greensburg-based company builds housing for low-income families.
"If you would have asked me (about my job) next year, I probably would have said I was retired," said Ruffner.
That's no mistake either. Ruffner said he will likely retire next year "so I can do more things like play football."