Sports helped Ruffin through

Published 12:00 am Friday, December 19, 2003

Suffolk News-Herald

For over two decades, Julius Earl Ruffin lost nearly everything. Falsely accused of rape, he was robbed of his freedom. His independence. His rights as a man, a husband, a father, and a normal human being.

But there were three things that no period of imprisonment could steal from him. The first was his religious faith; Ruffin credits his dedication to the Lord as his most effective weapon against the injustice bestowed upon him. The second was his intelligence, which allowed him to obtain vocational trade certifications in electrics, plumbing, radio and television repair, drafting, and common foods.

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The third was his athletic ability. That had been around since childhood.

Ever since he was 10, Ruffin says, &uot;I loved the game of basketball. I used to play in the snow, or in the dark. They had these little streetlights down in the Corey Park area, where I grew up.&uot; The area is now a public housing development for Suffolk’s senior community. &uot;They used to have recreational leagues so each neighborhood could play each other.&uot;

Ruffin quarterbacked his locality’s football team, and played &uot;every infield position except catcher&uot; for the baseball team. But the indoor court sport was by far his favorite.

&uot;I just loved the game,&uot; he says. &uot;I hoped that it could make me a star someday.&uot; In the early 1970s, it did; Ruffin became one of the most well-known athletes in South Hampton Roads. A two-year member of the Suffolk High School varsity basketball team, he was named to the All-Peanut District and Tournament team twice.

&uot;We didn’t have a lot of height,&uot; he recalls. &uot;I was a 6’1&uot; shooting guard, and our center was about 6’2&uot; or 6’3&uot;. We had to play a lot of zone press defense, pressing the other team on their side of the court and forcing them to make bad decisions.

&uot;I used to get fan mail from adults all over Hampton Roads telling me what a great job I was doing in basketball,&uot; he said. &uot;I got invitations from Chowan College, Randolph-Macon, ODU, several places.&uot;

In hindsight, Ruffin continues, &uot;Sometimes I think I should have gone. If I’d have gone and played college basketball, my life might have turned out differently.&uot; At that point, he had no idea how tough things would become.

Ruffin, who became a father in March 1973 (three months before he graduated from Suffolk), went to work at Planter’s Peanuts and Gwaltney’s, where he put together a recreational league team. &uot;I went to the administration at Gwaltney’s and asked if they would sponsor a team. They gave me the green light, paid for uniforms, everything. I went out and got some of my old high school players.&uot; One teammate was Gerald Wilkinson, now an assistant coach at Delaware State University. The team took on five teams from surrounding areas, playing at both the old and then-new Smithfield High Schools.

Soon after, Ruffin went to work in the maintenance department at Eastern Virginia Medical Authority (now Medical Center). That’s when things all came crashing down.

In late 1982, Ruffin was convicted of rape, and sent to the state penitentiary in Richmond. But he still managed to hand on to one of the few gifts he would always possess. &uot;When I first got there, the coach of the basketball team put me on the practice squad. When he saw how good I was, he put me on the All-Star team.&uot; Ruffin and the rest of the incarcerated cagers took on squads from other prisons.

&uot;When I played ball,&uot; he recalls, &uot;it brought a little sense of relief to some of the tension that had built up.&uot;

After six years of imprisonment, Ruffin was transferred to Buckingham Correctional Center in Dillwyn. &uot;I played on the All-Star team there,&uot; he says. &uot;We made it to the finals of the championship tournament.&uot;

Just as had been the case in Suffolk, Ruffin’s court skills made him something of a local celebrity. &uot;The other prisoners looked up to us,&uot; he says. &uot;We were representing their side of the system, like we’d represented the high school. The guys loved sports, and they loved to watch us play ball.&uot; Ruffin also played flag football and softball at Buckingham.

&uot;Sports played a big part in getting me through days when I was down and out,&uot; he says. &uot;Education also helped me.&uot; With the five aforementioned certifications, he had become something of an impromptu handyman.

Ruffin, who had become a grandfather during his time away, spent 12 years in Dillwyn before being transferred once again, to the Southampton Correctional Center in Capron. Earlier this year, his nightmare finally came to an end.

It was Feb. 11, and Ruffin had played and refereed basketball games early in the day. At 6:20 p.m., his lawyer called and told Ruffin that DNA tests had proven his innocence.

Three hours later, he received another phone call. &uot;He asked, ‘Are you sitting down?’ I said, ‘No, I don’t have a chair!’&uot;

The captain of the guards slid him a seat, and Ruffin plopped down, ready to hear the words that had taken 20 years to be spoken.

&uot;He told me to pack my bags, because I was going home the next day,&uot; he grins. &uot;I just sat back and smiled. I didn’t sleep much that night.&uot;

When he first got back to Suffolk, Ruffin headed over to Birdsong Recreation Center, where he’d crashed the boards so many years ago. &uot;I went in and shot around,&uot; he says. &uot;I noticed their initials, BRC, on the floor, and I went and shot from there.&uot;

Since his release, Ruffin has been a common sight at high school basketball games. This season, with Lakeland and Nansemond River ranked near the top of the Southeastern District, he’s had a great deal to see.

Will Ruffin return to actually participating in the game? He’s not certain. &uot;I probably will, but I can’t say for sure. Not right now, but I might try to be an assistant some time. I’d like to, because I still think I have a jumper!&uot;