Brett Rucker and his North Medford High School football teammates were taking a knee after practice Monday and listening to a coach reminisce about a rivalry game against South Medford, so he didn’t notice the three Marines decked out in dress blues and peaked caps standing straight as 2x4s in the back, one hiding something behind his back. Something large and rectangular.
They had quickly and quietly strode onto North Medford’s practice field moments before in a prearranged covert operation whose goal was to surprise Rucker, a senior two-way lineman, with the Naval Reserve Officers Training Corps Scholarship, a rare and highly sought-after award that will cover his entire education — tuition and fees, room and board, books, plus a monthly stipend that starts at $250 a month and goes up — at Oregon State University while he pursues a bachelor’s degree in the school’s civil engineering program.
Rucker knew as soon as he turned around to face the Marines what was up, and not only because his recruiter, Staff Sgt. Jon Sherriffs, was standing there holding one of those oversized novelty checks that spelled out the worth of the scholarship: $180,000.
Rucker had been waiting for word on the announcement for weeks, grilling Sherriffs for updates almost every day. What he didn’t know until that moment was that he had already won and that he was just about the only one who didn’t know, which is why his parents, Shawn and Debbie Rucker, were also on hand when Gunnery Sgt. Anthony Rosamond asked Brett Rucker to come up in front of the team.
“I was trying to hold back some tears because a lot of hard work went into this,” Rucker said afterward, describing his emotions as he stood up to join Sherriffs, Rosamond and Sgt. Akata RandleJackson.
In the short speech, Rosamond described Rucker’s journey, about how he decided following his junior year to enlist in the U.S. Marine Corps, set his sights on the NROTC Scholarship, filled out his paperwork for the “early board” for the first wave of scholarships.
“He did not win,” Rosamond said. “He did not let that get him down. He put his head down, he doubled the amount of work he did, he made himself more competitive and he reapplied to the board. I am here today because Brett Rucker has won the Marine Corps NROTC scholarship, which is basically a full-ride to Oregon State University for this young man.”
At that, the team erupted in applause and cheers for Rucker, a popular team captain and undersized starting offensive guard — he’s listed at 5-foot-8, 198 pounds — who’s helped the Black Tornado win three of its first four games this abbreviated season. Rucker, smiling broadly, accepted the check and delivered a little speech of his own before holding up the award to another round of applause.
“I’ve been on pins and needles the last three weeks,” he said. “This is awesome.”
Rucker is one of only seven NROTC Scholarship winners this year in a region that comprises the southern half of Washington, Oregon, Northern California and Alaska. He’s one of four scholarship winners from Oregon and the only one outside the Portland metro area.
“They can pursue any degree that they want,” Sherriffs said, “and at the end of the four years when they earn their bachelor’s degree they’ll become a commissioned officer and get commissioned into the Marine Corps as a second lieutenant. So it’s a great way for them to get the college experience that they want and their degree and also have a guaranteed career at the end of their college career.”
Putting himself in position to be considered for the scholarship wasn’t easy for Rucker. At first, in fact, it barely seemed attainable. About a year ago he put himself through the NROTC physical fitness test to see where he stood and managed only three pull-ups on a test that also includes crunches and a timed 3-mile run. Rucker wasn’t too worried about the academic requirements — on average, NROTC Scholarship winners have a 3.70 GPA and 1,200 SAT score, firmly in the wheelhouse for a National Honors Society member like Rucker — but he knew it would take considerable effort to pass the physical tests.
The application also requires an intensive interview and rock solid character references from school officials, coaches, mentors and employers, but it was those pull-ups that had Rucker sweating silver bullets.
“To be able to be competitive I had to be able to do 16 (pull-ups),” Rucker said, “so that’s what I was up to at the end of it. And a lot of crunches.”
To get there, Rucker worked out about three hours each weekday and one hour each day on weekends.
“He was super dedicated,” said Sherriffs, who first sat down with Rucker to talk about what it would take to land a NROTC Scholarship last April.
Sherriffs knew that if Rucker could meet the physical requirements his chances would be good because he was a slam dunk in every other area.
“A lot of it has to do with their character,” Sherriffs said. “With Brett, it’s almost awkward how respectful and how much of a good young man this guy is. … He is by far one of the most respectful young men I’ve ever met between the ages of 17 to 20. He’s got great character, he’s got a great personality. People are drawn to him.”
Sherriffs knew Rucker had won the scholarship before Rucker stopped by Sherriffs’ office on East McAndrews March 22 and had to act quickly to avoid spoiling the whole thing, tossing the novelty check into a back room only moments before Rucker walked through the door.
Rucker’s parents knew, too, after getting the call late last week, and could hardly contain their excitement, not to mention the secret.
“And then, of course, as soon as he told me I had to come home and tell my wife,” Shawn Rucker said. “I was super excited.”
His son was pretty excited, too. Brett Rucker had targeted OSU’s highly touted civil engineering program but wanted to avoid the six-figure debt weight that would likely come with it. Mission accomplished.
“It was really important for me,” he said, “because I did join the military trying to pay for college and have a good experience. This allows me to go to college first and get the education side done and still pursue my passion of becoming a Marine.”
Joe Zavala can be reached at 541-821-0829 or email@example.com.