Don’t bother to tell Archbishop Ryan High School senior Joe Ruskowski that Thanksgiving football games don’t mean a heck of a lot in the grand scheme of things, because he won’t believe you.
Ruskowski didn’t quite risk his life to play in the 2012 version of Ryan’s annual showdown with Far Northeast rival George Washington last Thursday, but he did place one of his own limbs on the line. He suited up and played — a lot — despite tearing meniscus cartilage in his right knee just seven days earlier.
That his Raiders ended up on the winning end of a defensive struggle, 13-7, seemed secondary to Ruskowski, who mainly reveled in the opportunity to lace up his cleats one final time.
“Last Thursday in practice, I don’t know what happened. I fell and got back up and my leg was locked up,” he said. “I was in pain and I thought I was done.”
Ruskowski was crushed, but not because Ryan was vying for an undefeated season or a Catholic League championship. Both of those ships had sailed long ago without the Raiders on board.
“It’s hard to explain. I just love football so much and being with my teammates, I couldn’t imagine not playing my last game with them,” the team co-captain said.
Ruskowski carried that sad uncertainty into a medical examination and an MRI. Had the tests revealed a torn tendon or two, there would’ve been no way for him to play. On the other hand, with the torn cartilage, he probably wasn’t going to hurt himself worse by playing, although his mobility was limited.
Fortunately, movement isn’t the most important qualification to play at nose tackle, where the 6-foot-1, 220-pound Ruskowski saw all of his snaps.
“The trainers did a great job prepping me. They taped up my knee and got me a brace,” he said. “Throughout the game, I’d go in for two plays, then come back out and rest.”
The system worked as Ruskowski and the rest of the Raiders’ defense limited the Eagles to their lowest offensive output of the season. Ryan finished its impressive bounce-back season at 6-5 and extended its lead in the Thanksgiving series with Washington to 26-9-1.
Washington (8-3), the Public League runner-up, scored its lone touchdown on a two-yard run by senior halfback Marquis Edwards with 4:36 to go in the second quarter.
Ryan still led 13-7 at that point. Neither team would score over the remaining 31-plus minutes of action.
The Raiders held Edwards to 69 yards rushing on 14 carries. All other Washington runners combined to register minus-12 yards.
Washington’s usually prolific quarterback, Dave Gavrilov, didn’t fare much better. He completed nine of 25 passes for 102 yards and was intercepted by Ryan’s Sean Boylan and Matt Graber.
Ryan shut out Gavrilov in the first quarter, before the quarterback had his only sustained spell of success in the second. The senior passer completed seven of 11 throws in the frame, including three to Shaquon Allen for 44 yards and three to Rene Villafane for 23 yards.
The Eagles threatened to score just twice more in the game, however. With 2:40 left in the second quarter, Washington had a first down at Ryan’s 28-yard line. Boylan intercepted Gavrilov, then returned the ball to Ryan’s 40 before fumbling it back to the Eagles. Washington took a personal foul penalty on the next play and eventually punted.
In the third quarter, the Eagles marched 60 yards in 11 plays before surrendering the ball on downs at Ryan’s 10-yard line with 3:25 to go.
Ryan’s dominant defense early in the game set up both touchdowns for the Raiders.
Washington received the opening kickoff but got nowhere on its first possession. On Jake Wright’s ensuing punt, Ryan sophomore Tyler Bollard burst through the line and blocked the kick. The Raiders fell on the loose football at Washington’s 11.
The Raiders covered the remaining distance on an offsides penalty against the Eagles and two runs by senior halfback Jeremiah Agrio, including his four-yard touchdown.
On Washington’s second possession, Ryan’s defense again proved immovable. After Wright’s successful punt, the Raiders got the ball at midfield. Runs of 12, eight and 30 yards from Agrio added up to a 13-0 lead for the Raiders.
For the game, Agrio carried 27 times for 124 yards (he finished the season with 1,109 yards rushing to go with nine TDs) behind an offensive line that included Ed Bier, Brian Robbins, Fabi Hoxha, Joe Hansbury and Billy Dykan, along with tight ends John Liguori and Boylan. The Raiders out-battled a talented Washington line that saw star defensive end Justin Moody limp off the field in the first quarter and fellow end Tyrone McNeil limp off in the second quarter. Neither player returned to action.
Ruskowski didn’t have the same problem.
“Joe, he’s really bought into this program. He’s a captain and he really wanted to be a Ryan football player,” said Ryan head coach Frank McArdle. “It has to be a lift [to teammates] when they see a kid who’s hurting and he sucks it up and plays.”
“It wasn’t our best game, but all that matters is we got the win,” Ruskowski said. “I’m thankful I got to play with such a great bunch of guys and coaches.” ••
Reporter William Kenny can be reached at 215-354-3031 or firstname.lastname@example.org