Something seemed to be weighing heavily on Henry Ruggs III’s mind.
And it wasn’t just the concussion that knocked Alabama’s speedy junior receiver out of the Citrus Bowl midway through the third quarter of the 35-16 win over Michigan on New Year’s Day.
Upon returning to the Camping World Stadium stands after checking on her son in the Crimson Tide locker room, Nataki Ruggs expressed concern to her youngest: “Something’s wrong with Henry, he’s not (acting) the same right now.”
But Kevontae’ Ruggs, just 14 months Henry’s junior, knew the look of internal turmoil that filled his older brother’s head on the Alabama bench.
“I could just see his mood change,” Kevontae’ recalled. "When he was sitting on the sideline, he’d smile and everything, but I could see every now and then that it seemed like he’d be in deep thought. … It was like he was thinking about something real heavy right now, and (my mom) didn’t know what it was, but I told her, ‘I know what’s on his mind, it’s the draft.’”
It’s been a week since Henry Ruggs III announced his intention to enter the 2020 NFL draft, joining six other Crimson Tide underclassmen in leave early.
While celebrated teammate Tua Tagovailoa remains in Tuscaloosa to rehab from his horrific season-ending hip injury, a clear-headed Henry is already several days into his pre-draft workout regime at the Applied Science and Performance Institute (ASPI) in Tampa, Fla.
“I feel good,” Henry told the Montgomery Advertiser by phone this weekend. “Whatever decision you make you can’t look back on it. So I’m just ready for everything that comes with the (pre-draft) process and just getting ready for the Combine and the (NFL) Draft.”
Still, he didn’t come to that decision lightly.
In fact, it was arguably the most difficult decision of his 20 years, one complicated by Henry’s steadfast desire to support his family in any way possible.
“It was a long process, it was a pretty difficult process at the time too because I was not trying to weight in too much on it while I was still in-season,” he said. “Of course, I was (discussing) it with my parents and family, my brothers. But ultimately the deciding factor was my younger brother telling me that he would be straight and that I should just take advantage of the opportunity.”
Doing anything and everything to provide for his family made Henry’s NFL decision particularly complex, especially once the Alabama coaching staff extended a scholarship offer to Kevontae’ — the 6-foot-4 former Ole Miss linebacker who is in the process of resurrecting his own football career at East Mississippi Community College.
“His biggest thing wasn’t even him at the moment, his biggest thing was trying to find a way for me,” Kevontae’ said. “He was leaning more towards staying because he was trying to stay and play another year with me to make sure I was straight and getting my career back on (track) where it needs to be.”
As the youngest of five Ruggs siblings, Henry and Kevontae’ grew up close and had long discussed the idea of playing together college in much the same way they did for the Montgomery City Chiefs recreation football team as children. That conversation often fed into another: the dream of entering the NFL together in the same year.
It was because of that desire that Henry heavily leaned toward returning to Alabama for his senior season in the weeks leading up to the Citrus Bowl: “I was definitely considering it.”
“It was definitely weighing on me. That was one of my biggest things in life is making sure my brothers are good and that they have opportunities for themselves,” he said. “And of course, if we could’ve had an opportunity to play together or he had an opportunity to be somewhere where he can make a name for himself, and we actually were able to move at the same time, and go through the process together, that would’ve been great.
“But (after the bowl game), I sat down and had a heart-to-heart conversation with him and he eventually told me he would make his own path.”
Before that, there had been multiple discussions between the Alabama staff — specifically outside linebackers coach Sal Sunseri and head coach Nick Saban — and the Ruggs family regarding a chance for Kevontae’ to join the Tide after graduating from East Mississippi Community College in May.
“They were offering me an opportunity to come and work my way up from special teams,” Kevontae’ said.
But now that Henry has taken himself out of the equation, both sides have moved on.
“At this point I don’t think that is something (Kevontae) is going to pursue,” Nataki said. “Because the goal and the dream was for him and his brother to play together. He’s still open for whatever is out there on the table for him, but he’s going to work hard and pursue those avenues for himself so his brother can go ahead and do what’s necessary for him and the family.”
And it was Henry’s concussion in the Citrus Bowl that reignited that conversation in the Alabama team hotel down in Orlando.
“It was an eye-opener for the both of us,” Nataki said of Henry’s concussion scare.
Added Kevontae’: “I told him … that is a wake-up call, a sign from God. It’s God telling him that it’s that time. There are big opportunities for him and I told him, he could probably help me out more just by showing me that it’s actually possible.”
Later that night by text, Kevontae doubled down on his desire that Henry turn pro.
“This is the chance of a lifetime big bro! I promise you I’m going to be right behind you!! I appreciate everything! Nobody ever looked out for me the way you do big bro. This is a chance that is rarely given to the people where we come from. We literally come from nothing,” Kevontae’s text read. “I look up to you more than you could ever imagine. I have made some decisions that I have to man up and take care of. I appreciate all the help, but it’s time for YOU to live the lifestyle YOU deserve. You made this happen bro. I don’t need a role model because you inspire me more than anybody else on this Earth. Go live our dream for us until God gives me the chance. … Thanks for showing me that dreams really do come true! It is because of you that I now know and believe that anything is possible!!!”
For Henry, that was all he needed to make up his mind.
Alex Byington is the Montgomery Advertiser's Alabama beat reporter. He can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @_AlexByington.