Solomon Crenshaw Jr.
For the Birmingham Times
Welcome to Third Thursdays! This series—published in the Birmingham Times on the third Thursday of every month—highlights area citizens who overcome odds to make a difference in their own lives or those who make a difference in the lives of others.
In hindsight, a 0-and-5 start to the 2018 football season was a breeze compared to the hardships of the prior two seasons for Miles College head coach Reginald Ruffin. His wife, Monica, battled cancer during the 2016 season and passed away in January 2017. Assistant head and defensive line coach Tony Ogelsby got really sick in the spring of 2017 and passed away in September of that year.
And, 3-year-old Dra Kadyn Hudson, the son of assistant coach Vondragus Hudson, lost his life when he was accidentally left in a hot car on campus.
“Our kids still fought,” said Ruffin. “We went what, 6-4. We still got into the  Western Division title game. We just didn’t play good [against] a Tuskegee [University] team that went on to win the conference in 2017.”
That’s not to say that Ruffin wasn’t disheartened. He remembers feeling like he had taken a beating with the events that occurred during those harrowing two years. He even wrote a resignation letter, but he never turned it in.
“I just felt like I didn’t have any more energy. I felt like giving up,” he recalled. “But I know there were a lot of people praying for me. I just drew to their strength and just knew they needed me. I knew God had something in store for me. Even though I took those losses, I knew He had something in store.”
Ruffin’s faith paid off. His team remarkably won the 2018 Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (SIAC) championship. Five losses in five games to start the season did little to shake Ruffin’s belief in his squad. Following the fifth loss, he shook hands with conquering Albany State University coach Gabe Giardina.
“I told him, ‘I’ll see you in the championship game,’” Ruffin recalled. “He shook my hand and said, ‘Coach, I’ll be looking forward to it.’”
That’s the team Miles beat to win the conference crown.
In a come-to-Jesus team meeting later, Ruffin reminded his squad of the real-life challenges with which they had dealt. He reminded them that even in his darkest days, he kept his head up.
“You guys always see me smile. You guys always see me laugh. You guys always see me talk about life in general,” Ruffin said. “That’s all I wanted them to understand—things aren’t always going to go our way. We have just got to keep battling. We’ve got to keep pressing forward.”
Ruffin, 43, kept pressing forward despite having expanded responsibilities. With his wife gone, he became a single parent to his son Gabriel, now a 15-year-old sophomore at Chelsea High School. Just as his assistant coaches supported him with the football team, friends, neighbors, and relatives helped shoulder the load at home.
He got support from Miles College President George T. French Jr. and help from his neighbors in Chelsea’s Lakewood subdivision. And then there was his wife’s sister, Aretha Bryant, and her husband, Greg.
“My sister-in-law Aretha took up that slack for me, picking Gabriel up, taking him to school,” Ruffin said. “That’s been an adjustment for me because my wife did it all. She was doing like Superwoman. She did everything.
“My son always knew [his aunt Aretha] was a second mom … and her husband was always a second father.”
The real-life losses of the past two years taught Ruffin to treasure life and family even more than ever. Toward that end, he encouraged his assistant coaches to bring their young sons with them to campus.
‘Weather The Storm’
On the field, the coach knew his squad wasn’t the sum of its defeats. He needed them to be consistent, to trust one another, and to have joy.
“If we can do what we’re supposed to, doing our job every single time, the sky’s the limit,” Ruffin recalled saying. “They looked at me. [I showed them that] it’s gonna get better, and it was just due to the strength of joy. I told them to just love each other [because] we were all we had.
“If I could get them to do that on a consistent basis, I knew we had an opportunity to be a really good football team, in my heart. We were 0-5, but we weren’t a 0-5 football team.”
Ruffin’s sage advice had an impact. The Golden Bears went 4-1 to close out the regular season. They benefitted from playing three of those games on the road, away from “fair-weather fans,” who didn’t share the vision of the head coach and athletic director.
Still, not everything was rosy after game 5.
There was a one-point loss to Lane College. Ruffin had told assistant coaches that the Golden Bears lacked focus going into that game, failing to take Lane seriously. That wouldn’t be a problem going forward. Then there were the suspensions of three starters in the defensive secondary against Clark Atlanta University. The coach said the suspended players were not humble and did not show the appropriate respect to members of the coaching staff.
“They were selfish. They started to do things that weren’t Miles College, not the Miles College way our football program had established over the years,” Ruffin said. “We do what we do one way, and that’s the right way. We don’t talk back. We’re not disrespectful.”
That one-point victory in Atlanta allowed Ruffin to continue a trend. He has been at Miles for eight seasons; in seven seasons, the Golden Bears have played for the division title. Tuskegee’s loss to Central State University set the stage for another title bid. In the league title game on November 10, the Golden Bears, despite their final 5-6 record, won their third league crown of the Ruffin era with a 50-23 victory.
“We were just a young football team, and we just had to weather the storm to get these guys to conform to being together, working together, playing together,” said Ruffin of the early season woes. “Any time you’ve got a newly formed football team, you’ve got to put all the pieces together to make it work.”
‘The Spirit of Miles’
Miles President French had recently added athletic director to Ruffin’s title, and his confidence wasn’t shaken by the Golden Bears’ slow start. The president referenced the Greek god Antaeus when he spoke at a recent campus celebration for the football team. He said that whenever Antaeus was slammed to the ground, instead of quitting he got stronger.
“That is the spirit of Miles College,” French said. “When people think we are down, we get back up every single time. That’s who we are. We are winners in the classroom and winners in athletic competition.”
The entire Miles campus turned out on Wednesday, November 28, to celebrate the 2018 SIAC Football Championship. Ruffin noted that in the Hebrew Bible, the number one means unity and the number eight means new beginning and resurrection.
“We’ve been saying 2018 was going to be a great year,” he said. “We said unity and new beginning are what was going to happen in 2018, and everything came true.”
Ruffin did little to reward himself for the championship. He simply got some much-needed rest.
“I turned the TV off and just slept for a day because it had been a tough two years for us.”
The off-season is much the same as any year. Ruffin and his assistants are on the recruiting trail, looking for players to complement a squad that returns nearly everyone for the 2019 campaign, save two starters on offense.
As the off-season gives way to the 2019 season, Ruffin said the journey from 0-5 to conference champions will always remind him that anything is possible.
“The biggest thing is you’ve got to keep the same routine or mentality, which means [keeping] your joy and love,” he said. “Keep working hard, keep chopping wood, keep grinding because some good things are going to come out of this in the end.”