'Big Game' James Ruffin: Young Kennett athlete succeeding despite the odds
By Steven Hoffman
It is a late Saturday morning at Kennett High School, a time of the weekend when the academia of education normally reserved for hallways and classrooms steps aside to allow for mothers and fathers and young athletes to take over every nook and cranny of a school's athletic facilities.
Kennett's auxiliary gymnasium, tucked in the middle crevices of the school, reverberates with the sound of young boys’ voices on the basketball court, interrupted only by the referee's whistle or the nasal wail of the game clock. In the stands, parents and children sit two deep on either side of the court. Some offer encouragement. Some clap their hands. Some hold their hands over their mouths in fear and hope for their favorite player. There are many winter coats stacked near each team's bench.
Zeke Spillane, the coach of the Beiler Campbell team in the Kennett Area Park and Recreation League, sends his players back on the court after a second half timeout. One player – ten-year-old James Ruffin – does not walk like a youngster, but rather he struts with the quiet confidence of a 15-year veteran who has been here a thousand times before, silently soaking in the task at hand and observant of the actors who now share the stage with him.
Ruffin dives for loose balls. He passes to teammates on breakaways. He steals the ball and drives coast to coast for a score. He steps to the line for free-throws. He is an athlete completely awake to his surroundings who has easily tossed himself into the scrum and flow of the game.
That Ruffin is doing all of this with his left hand – his only hand – is of little matter.
Born with a congenital upper limb deficiency, this fourth-grader at Greenwood Elementary School has already determined and proven that he is as able-bodied as his teammates and opponents. In addition to basketball, he is a defensive end and offensive lineman for the Kennett-Unionville Titans, where he has earned the nickname “Big Game” for his ability to make key plays.
“I grew up watching sports on TV and I loved it enough to begin playing sports myself, and when I began playing, I loved it even more and I wanted to keep doing it,” he said.
From the world of sports, James has his choice of heroes. ESPY award-winning mixed martial arts athlete Kyle Maynard became the first quadruple amputee to ascend Mount Kilimanjaro without the aid of prosthetics in 2012. Paralympic athlete Jessica Long, whose legs were amputated when she was a baby due to fibular hemimelia, currently holds more than one dozen Paralympic world records. Collegiate wrestler Anthony Robles was born with only one leg, and went on to win the 2010-11 NCAA individual wrestling championship in the 125-pound weight class. Jim Abbott, who was born with an incomplete right arm that ended near his right wrist, pitched for ten years in the Major Leagues, which included a no-hitter as a member of the New York Yankees.
When Shaquem Griffin was a child, his left hand was amputated due to a pre-natal condition. He nevertheless grew up to star for his high school in track, football and baseball before winning an athletics scholarship to the University of Central Florida. He is now a linebacker for the Seattle Seahawks. While he admires Griffin’s ability to play through his deficiency, James points to able-bodied athletes like LeBron James and Russell Westbrook for their ability to “play with passion and heart” and “leave everything out on the floor.”
“I love to win,” he said. “Whenever I play against my dad, I always want to beat him, and no matter what the sport is, I want to be the best.”
In her classroom at Kennett High School -- where she is a business teacher -- Chanel Ruffin displays a sign that reads, “No Excuses.” While its primary intention is to inspire her students, its meaning, she said, resonates in the journey she is seeing her son take.
“We all have to figure out a way to do it for ourselves,” she said. “It may not be the way everyone else does it, but there’s a way, and you need to do it a bit differently.”
Chanel said that James used to wear a prosthetic arm when he played sports, but made the choice to reject it early on. As he further matures as an athlete, however, she said it may become necessary for her son to return to the prosthetic, which will help him in other aspects of sports, such as training and weightlifting.
After the game, the Ruffin family changed gears slightly. James was trying out for the KAU Little League, which was holding its tryouts in the main gymnasium at the school, just down the hall.
“As a player, James is focused on winning, whether it’s basketball or football, and I am assuming it’s going to be the same in baseball,” said James’ father Elliott, who is an assistant coach on his son’s basketball team. “He doesn’t let anything hold him back. A minor injury will slow him down, but he’ll get right back up. He has always been like that.
“This is a young man who from the age of five has told us that he wants to go to [The] Ohio State [University], play professional football, and buy us a new house,” Elliott added. “I see him living out his dreams. The fact that he doesn’t have his right hand never enters the picture.”
In the hallway of Kennett High School, as he transitions from playing basketball to playing baseball – and with an aspiration of playing in the National Football League in his far-off dreams -- James offers a hint of inspiration to young people, like him, who will spend the remainder of their athletic lives proving that they belong on the same field as their able-bodied counterparts.
“Just don’t give up,” James said. “Even though you don’t have all of your parts, you can still be as great as the ones who do. Just keep trying and do your best.”