By Nan Turner
Sophomore thrower Brandon Ruffin has been busy breaking records again this season, and with the Atlantic 10 Conference Indoor Track Championships approaching Feb. 16-17 in Kingston, R.I., he could be primed for individual gold.
At the New Balance Invitational on Feb. 2, Ruffin broke the school record in shot put with a throw of 17.06 meters (55′ 11.75″). That toss was good for eighth place in a deep field and was a full meter better than his previous best, set just a week earlier.
Ruffin was enthusiastic about his New Balance results, but admits he was hesitant to celebrate.
“It felt great,” Ruffin said. “Since it was the first event and it was on the first day and I had another event the next day, I didn’t want to get overly excited because I knew I had to still compete. It felt good to throw farther.”
Heading into the A-10 Championships, Ruffin ranks second on the league’s performance list in both the shot put and the weight throw. Last spring as a freshman, Ruffin won the shot put placed second in the discus at the CAA Outdoor Championships. He captured five victories overall last spring and earned an invite to the U.S. Junior National Championships last summer. The 19-year-old thrower appears to be on a fast track to stardom.
Ruffin grew up in Chesapeake, Va. He was raised by a single mother, Gillian Ruffin, who lived in the West Indies for the majority of her life. Brandon and his older brother, Robert, were the first generation of their family born and raised in the United States, and Gillian made sure education was the boys’ top priority. He estimates that he missed fewer than 10 days of school in his life.
Ruffin’s track career started at Oscar Smith High School. But it wasn’t his first choice. He didn’t even know shot put existed until he was in the eighth grade. Growing up, he played basketball and football. It wasn’t until the ninth grade that track caught his attention.
“We had a senior on our team and he was the defending state champion,” Ruffin said. “We would go to practice, and it would be exciting. He’d be throwing far, and I’d be trying to keep up with him. When we went to meets, we just had a presence at the thrower’s ring just because of him being the state champion.”
As a high school freshman, Ruffin started to beat sophomores and juniors. Even though he was creating a name for himself, Ruffin didn’t fully recognize his inherent talents. He could throw the shot around 40-43 feet, but couldn’t tell you how it got there.
“Sometimes I would break that range,” Ruffin said. “I would throw far, but I wouldn’t know how I did it.”
Ruffin’s coach, Jeremy Baldwin, found videos and drills online to help Brandon sharpen his technique. Ruffin credits Baldwin’s influence, and others, with pointing him down a path to success.
During his junior year, track coaches filled his mailbox with recruiting letters. But Ruffin’s head was still elsewhere.
“Really I was wrapped up in football,” Ruffin said. “We had a really good football program. I played defensive end and offensive tackle. I might’ve gotten one letter for football, but as track went on I accumulated a whole bunch of mail from different schools.”
Ruffin was eventually offered two scholarships, one to Virginia State to play football and one to VCU for track. Although he loved football, his brother had recently graduated from Virginia State, and he felt too familiar with the campus.
“It seemed kind of rehearsed to go there,” Ruffin said.
Meanwhile, Ruffin had already established a rapport during the recruiting process with Rams’ Throwing Coach Ethan Tussing. Tussing says he was immediately struck by how friendly Brandon was.
“I went down to his high school and met him and his mom,” Tussing said. “My first impression, he gave me a big hug like right away, and his mom too. I was like, I don’t really know you guys like that, but that’s cool. And that’s just the kind of people they are, they’re hugging happy people.”
Visiting VCU only helped cement Ruffin’s feelings.
“Coming to VCU, the city of Richmond was really nice. I loved it,” Ruffin said. “Of course track, I loved track. I was really good at it at that time, so I was like, okay I could really see myself focusing on track. I [thought], maybe I should come to Richmond.”
Since committing to VCU, Tussing and Ruffin have formed a strong bond. Tussing has taken to calling the 6-foot-2, 260-pound Ruffin a “giant teddy bear”. There’s also a running team joke that says if Ruffin is late to practice, it’s because the affable sophomore had to stop and hug everyone along the way.
“He’s a good guy and he works really hard,” Tussing said. “I can’t find a negative thing to say about him.”
As good as Ruffin is in the thrower’s circle, he’s just as good — if not better — in the classroom. Ruffin is majoring in mechanical engineering, a path of study that could take him to the moon — literally.
“Engineering is very straightforward to me,” Ruffin said. “It’s something I can just understand better. I want to master in aerospace. Hopefully work for an airplane corporation like Boeing, or maybe even go into NASA.”
Ruffin has even noticed that some of the lessons he’s learning in the classroom are applicable to track.
“It makes me see things in angles a whole lot more or just the mechanics,” he said. “Or the body with throwing and we do mechanics and force and friction in certain classes. So I kind of make them synonymous.”
Although he’s already rewritten VCU’s record books in less than two years, Ruffin, who throws the shot, discus and hammer during outdoor track season, has no plans of slowing down.
“[My goals are] just to improve, each year to improve,” he said. “I don’t want to hit a plateau. I just feel like I would waste time. Hopefully I could pursue throwing as a career after college. I would love to make the 2016 Olympics. I’m gauging my pursuit for that as the years go on here.”
Tussing believes Ruffin has the potential to be elite. The coach notes that none of the three throwers who competed for the U.S. in the discus at the 2012 London Olympics had thrown as far as Ruffin (50.56m) at this stage of their careers, a point he made sure to share with his sophomore star.
“I was showing him that as a precedent,” Tussing said. “If you keep working and keep pushing, there’s nothing that says you can’t do this. I think the potential is probably there, if we can find the right pieces to the puzzle along the way.”