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A DREAM UNFULFILLED LATE LINEBACKER RUCKER ON TROJANS' MINDS.

Byline: Ross Siler Staff Writer

Every time he goes to the refrigerator, USC defensive end Kenechi Udeze sees the face of Drean Rucker staring back at him as a reminder. The picture has been there since the start of the season.

Every time he steps on the field, Udeze dedicates his first hit to Rucker, a tribute to the player who never will deliver one himself. All for a teammate Udeze met just twice over the summer.

Every day for the junior All-American, there is some remembrance, large or small, for the greatest loss in USC's Rose Bowl season - one that has nothing to do with California or triple overtime.

On July 21, Rucker, an 18-year-old incoming freshman linebacker from Canyon Springs High of Moreno Valley, drowned at Huntington State Beach swimming at dusk with a group of friends. His body was found five days later near the beach's pier.

``When it first hit me,'' Udeze said, ``I was thinking that he didn't get a chance to do what I got to do or what everybody got to do because it's a great thing being here. I got to meet him a couple times and he was a great kid.''

Nearly five months have passed since Rucker's death, a time in which USC has played 12 games, learned the realities of the Bowl Championship Series and moved to the threshold of possibly winning the national championship.

For the Trojans' players and coaches, life has gone on.

For Rucker's family, however, it has not.

``It's every day,'' father Andre Rucker said. ``That week was the worst week of my life. That day was the worst day of my life. And the most enjoyable day was when he was born. It's tough. I play it over and over every night.''

There's no way of telling what the 6-foot-2, 235-pound Rucker would have done with the Trojans. His time with the team was so short, Rucker is remembered for the simplest of things.

A head nod he and Udeze exchanged the first time they saw each other. The determined way he went about lifting weights, according to defensive tackle Shaun Cody.

But USC players said Rucker and his family will be in their thoughts should they win the Rose Bowl on New Year's Day.

There will be 100,000 people in the stands and millions watching at home on television. But one person will be missing on the field.

``We lost a brother,'' Udeze said. ``He was a Trojan. His family always will be Trojans.''

A father's memories

The simple act of watching USC games this season has been too difficult for Andre Rucker at times. The same thing for high school games at Canyon Springs. This week, though, has been especially tough.

On Monday, Andre Rucker brought himself to watch tape of his son playing for the first time since the accident. CBS wanted the footage for a piece on Rucker that will air near the Rose Bowl.

That night, he then presented the inaugural Rucker Award at Canyon Springs' annual team banquet. The evening belonged to the Cougars players, the father said, so he father planned to keep the speech short.

But he also wanted no one to forget.

``I'm going to keep Drean's memory at that school (Canyon Springs) alive as long as God gives me breath,'' he said.

The USC program showed its support for Rucker and his family immediately after the drowning. Udeze and Cody never will forget driving to the beach where Rucker was reported missing, standing at the spot where he was last seen.

``We just reflected how lucky we are to be here,'' Udeze said, ``and how tomorrow isn't promised to anyone.''

Said Cody: ``It's something that's always in our memories. Even when it's something you don't want to think about too much.''

Rucker was honored before the Brigham Young game, with his No. 54 jersey presented to his parents and a moment of silence observed. The Trojans are wearing stickers with Rucker's number on their helmets this season.

Andre Rucker still keeps in touch with several of the Trojans players, especially freshman safety Terrell Thomas, who was supposed to be his son's roommate.

But he has not spoken recently with athletic director Mike Garrett or any members of the Trojans coaching staff.

``We haven't had much contact with them,'' he said. ``But I know we're in their hearts.''

Even so, Andre Rucker might not be able to attend the Rose Bowl and watch his son's team. He contacted USC about obtaining tickets for his wife, Adrienne Stoker, and their 13-year-old son, Taurean, only to receive disheartening news.

He was told USC ``probably'' would not be able to give the family tickets because it would constitute an NCAA recruiting violation in regard to Taurean. It is illegal to provide complimentary bowl tickets to a recruit or his family.

``Unfortunately, as much as we would have liked to do that for them, we're not allowed to because of NCAA rules,'' USC spokesman Tim Tessalone said. ``It's one of those NCAA rules we have to abide by.''

What might have been

There's no telling what impact Rucker would have made at USC. He was discussed as a possible starter during the summer and the Trojans experienced injuries at linebacker during the season.

Regardless, Rucker almost certainly would have been on the field for the Rose Bowl.

At Canyon Springs, he made 153 tackles with 6 1/2 sacks as a senior and was selected All-Southern Section. Four players from his team went on to accept Division I scholarships. There was no doubt, however, that Rucker was the best.

``He had so much potential,'' Canyon Springs coach Shane Prosser said. ``We definitely expected, four or five years down the road, he would make it to the pros. He had so much size and speed.''

What USC fans never got to know was how dedicated Rucker was to others away from football.

He might have been the No. 1 linebacker recruit in California, as some services had him ranked, but Rucker liked speaking to youth football players in his free time.

Andre Rucker said his son would talk about overcoming obstacles and how he worked to get in the position where USC, Oklahoma, Florida State and others were offering him scholarships. For good measure, Rucker often brought along his high school teammates.

``He was a kid that never was a taker,'' Andre Rucker said. ``He was always a giver.''

Two weeks before the Rose Bowl, as USC begins preparations for the season's final game, Andre Rucker can't help but be reminded of a conversation he had with his son one day this summer.

The two were driving downtown together, on the way to the USC campus.

``He said, 'Dad, we have so much talent on this team. We're going to win the national championship,' '' Andre Rucker recalled. ``He said that before the season started.

``I told him, 'You have all the tools, all the weapons to do it.'

``I know he wanted it.''

Ross Siler, (818) 713-3610

ross.siler(at)dailynews.com

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USC freshman linebacker Drean Rucker from Canyon Springs High of Moreno Valley drowned in July at Huntington State Beach.

Adam Wright/Associated Press
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Title Annotation:Sports
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Dec 17, 2003
Words:1210
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