More than a few football coaches have been known to look to the heavens and thank their lucky stars when they catch a break, no matter how small.
Jim Margraff is certainly entitled because, thanks to the Johns Hopkins Space Consortium, the Blue Jays coach caught a 1990 first-team All-Metro defensive lineman from Poly -- Jelani Rucker.
Normally in Division III, where there are no athletic scholarships, a coach must recruit an athlete, then get him into school and scramble to put together a financial aid package for him. Rucker, in a reverse twist of the recruiting process, almost fell out of the sky onto Homewood Field.
Margraff had talked to Poly coaches and administrators about Rucker, but hadn't talked to him. In fact, he thought Rucker was headed to one of the Division I-AA Ivy League schools that had recruited him. But Rucker, an aspiring electrical engineer, had applied for a Johns Hopkins Space Grant from the consortium.
"The woman at the space telescope called me and asked if I knew anything about him," Margraff said. "The scholarship people wanted him and thought I could help get him here." You can imagine the tingle that ran down the first-year coach's spine.
Rucker was awarded the full scholarship for the study of engineering and sciences related to space technology.
"I was on my way to Cornell at the last minute when I found out," Rucker said. The full ride, he said, helped change his mind, "Also, coach Margraff coming to school to tell me about the football program and they'd be happy to have me."
That was an understatement. "He was our first big recruit from the area," Margraff said. "He's been a great recruiter for us with the local guys."
And Rucker has been an important factor in the success of this year's Blue Jays (5-2, 3-1 in the Centennial Football Conference). If they win two of their last three games they'll tie the school record for most wins in a season, accomplished just five times since Hopkins football began in 1882. The last time was in 1981, when Margraff was a senior quarterback.
Three wins will give them the conference title outright, but they'll have to first get by Dickinson (5-1-1, 2-1-1) at Homewood Field, tomorrow at 1:30 p.m.
Rucker (5 feet 11, 225 pounds) had 13 tackles against the Red Devils last year and has become the keystone of the Hopkins defense at his nose tackle position. "He hasn't missed a snap because of injuries in the two years he's been here," Margraff said. In fact, to Rucker's surprise, he started all 10 games as a freshman last year.
He finished the season as the defensive line's leading tackler with 77, third on the team. This year, with the Blue Jays losing All-America linebacker candidate Stu Markley to a preseason knee injury, Rucker leads the team with 73 tackles in seven games. That, said Margraff, "is almost unheard of for a nose tackle. When you lose a great player, other guys have to step up. He's certainly been the guy."
The nose tackle position isn't expected to make a lot of tackles, but to draw double-teaming and create havoc so that others can. "I don't like to occupy two or three people," said Rucker, not that any sane person would. "I want to get to the ball carrier and get in the plays. It's mainly my strength and quickness. I'm pretty quick for my size, at this level, anyway. Once the offense has committed, I'm able to run around and get to the ball."
Defensive coordinator Bob Benson agrees. "He epitomizes everything we want our defense to represent," he said. "He can go from left to right as quick as anyone I've ever seen. He can readjust his direction and make the play. . . . To him the game is fun. He'll be intense and determined, but he won't get so nervous he can't play. It rubs off on the other kids. He's loosey-goosey and excitable."
Rucker worked last summer as a data analyst at Goddard Space Flight Center on a project involving laser tracking of the earth's crustal movements, but he can let loose on the football field.
"We put in a special punt block against Muhlenberg designed to free Rucker," Benson said. "He comes about as free as anyone I've ever seen. He crushes it, and we get a first down at their 10-yard line. He comes off the field, and he's laughing and giggling."
His name -- Jelani translates from Swahili to "mighty one" -- doesn't give a clue that he's a giggler, but he does enjoy playing. "I don't say anything during the game," he said. "I just laugh and have fun."