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GREENSBORO — He had missed two field-goal attempts in the fourth quarter, from 40 and 42 yards.
Both had plenty of leg, plenty of distance. Both drifted wide left, near misses in a tie game.
And now N.C. A&T kicker Noel Ruiz was on the field again, the game against Elon still tied with 1 second left on the clock, staring down the barrel of a 52-yarder with nearly 17,000 people staring at him.
Because for Ruiz, a slender junior from Wilson and product of Fike High, this kind of pressure was nothing compared to the pressure of summer practice, when he could spare all of his weary teammates extra sprints at the end of two sweltering hours of hard work under the hot sun.
If only he made a field goal.
The snap was pure, straight into the outstretched hands of senior Ernest “Petie” Bush. The hold was pure, ball down, laces spun out.
The kick was pure. Right down the middle as the clock struck zero. A&T 24, Elon 21. Bedlam.
Days later, Ruiz can still hear the echoes of cheers from the season opener in his head. He smiles recalling the memory …
… of those hot summer days of football practice.
No fans. Just his tired teammates and him. And all those sprint-saving kicks.
“We do (a drill) in practice where if I miss a kick, we run,” Ruiz says. “Nine times out of 10, I’m going to make those kicks. I thrive off the pressure and love being in those situations.
“My outlook is, they bust their tails out there in the heat for two hours. I practice, too. It’s not like I’m out there doing nothing. But I don’t run and hit and do as much as they do. So anytime I have a chance to help them out, to give them a break from running, I want to be clutch for them. It’s for my team, you know? And I want to be there for my team.”
Ruiz was there for them Saturday night against Elon.
His 52-yarder not only won the game, it tied the A&T school record for longest field goal. It was the first 50-yarder by an A&T kicker since Carlos Davalos’ game-winner as time expired in the 2004 Aggie-Eagle Classic in Raleigh.
Ruiz won a lot of friends with his long kicks in the summer sun. And he could feel their eyes upon him.
“In practice before the game, I was hitting from 55 yards pretty comfortably,” he said. “So I knew I would get the distance. It was a matter of just trusting myself, not trying to change too much.
“It takes a lot of mental toughness to shake off the previous misses. Everybody kept telling me, ‘Be ready, it’s going to come down to another kick.’ I didn’t approach it any different than the first two kicks. I treated it the same. I was 100 percent confident I would make it. There wasn’t a doubt in my mind.”
Not anymore. Ruiz has felt those doubts before.
He won the kicking job at A&T as a true freshman, and his first two seasons were up and down.
Ruiz has converted on 95 of 106 extra-point attempts, a 90 percent success rate. But he’s just 15-for-27 (56 percent) on field-goal attempts in his career, just 4-for-12 from beyond 40 yards.
Some of those misses haunted him.
“Last season was very, very tough for me mentally,” Ruiz said. “I didn’t do well at all. And I hate letting my team down. That’s one of the worst feelings in the world.
“I don’t feel like I prepared the right way. I didn’t put in enough time and effort, and that’s why I didn’t do as well as I wanted to. But I wouldn’t change those misses. Those lows — like the Celebration Bowl my freshman year and the Morgan State game last year — those really make or break you as a kicker. They test you mentally. You have to ask yourself: How bad to you want to be successful? Are you going to give up? Or are you going to put in the time and effort necessary to come back better than ever? That’s how I look at it.”
So Ruiz went to work on himself. He went to kicking coaches Matt Logan and Dan Orner in Charlotte and refined his mechanics. He got stronger. He got more accurate. He matured.
A&T head coach Sam Washington noticed the change.
“Of all the guys on our football team,” Washington said. “Noel is perhaps the most improved player we have from last season. That’s the truth. In the pregame warmups, he came up to me and said, ‘Coach, I’m good up to 55 yards.’ And that’s the truth.”
So even after the two misses from shorter distances, Washington didn’t call for a desperation pass on the game’s last play. He didn’t hesitate to send Ruiz and his field-goal unit back on the field.
Ruiz was ready.
“My teammates’ confidence in me, that means everything. Everything,” he said. “When I stepped onto the field for that last field goal, I didn’t feel like anybody on the sideline was nervous. They all had my back. They all had full confidence in me. And the only way you win that confidence is if you back it up in practice.”