By Olivia Mundorf, Heels4Life Journalism Intern (LinkedIn Profile)
Known as “Ruck the Butcher” through his personal brand and social media presence, junior defensive lineman Kaimon Rucker has played an integral role in advancing the Carolina Football program during his time as a Tar Heel.
But at a young age, Rucker wasn’t even sure he wanted to play football, until his father recognized his potential and pushed him to play the sport when he was just seven years old.
Before arriving in Chapel Hill, the Georgia native primarily played as an offensive lineman, until his junior year of high school when he switched positions to join the defensive line. It wasn’t until he made that switch to join the defense that he recognized he was good enough to compete for a program like Carolina, despite some of the doubt he dealt with during his recruitment process.
“Constantly getting told I was too small to play at this level, I’d get swallowed up by the offensive lineman at a power five level. You got all the tangibles, but you’re too small,” Rucker repeatedly heard before he earned the opportunity to wear Carolina Blue.
And ever since, Rucker has made the most of his time in Chapel Hill, both on and off the field, as the game of football has brought him to places that even he couldn’t have imagined. A unique opportunity came last year when he sang the national anthem before UNC faced off against Duke in the 2022 Final Four, which turned out to be one of the most historic moments in Carolina sports history.
I asked Rucker what was more nerve-wracking, playing football in front of huge crowds or singing the national anthem on such a monumental stage. His answer, without hesitation: singing the national anthem.
“I’m having thousands, upon thousands, upon thousands seeing my bare face and I’m singing upon thousands, upon thousands, upon thousands in that stadium. And then the light is beaming on me and I’m sweating. But I held it in, managed to get my nerves under control,” Rucker said.
As Rucker expressed, there is a vulnerability for athletes when they step off the field, when they do not have their helmets to mask their faces. And for Rucker, valuing the importance of the individual, not just in their role as an athlete on the playing field, has shaped his future career interests.
When Rucker started at Carolina, he was an exercise and sports science major, but he eventually realized that his passion for the mental health of student-athletes could be the foundation of a career that would still allow him to work in sports. Rucker is currently studying psychology and communications, with hopes of pursuing a career as a sports psychologist after his time playing football comes to an end.
“It allows me to stay involved with sports but also fulfill my earthly and spiritual requirement of helping others and caring for others, and that is something I would love to do in my career besides football,” Rucker said.
As an athlete playing at the highest level of the sport, Rucker understands the growing role that sports psychologists play throughout college athletics. He even credited UNC’s own sports psychologists for their impact on his football career and his goals of one day becoming a similar role model and resource for student-athletes in the next generation. Rucker acknowledged that UNC has done a tremendous job of advertising resources for student-athletes and considers himself an advocate for continuing to push others to prioritize their mental health just as highly as their physical health.
“I do feel like mental health is more important now than ever. There’s never enough help for mental health,” Rucker explained.
Rucker highlighted the people in his life, including his family, friends, teammates, and coaches who have always been there when he has needed someone to talk to. Rucker understands how valuable it is to be part of the Carolina Family, especially growing up as an only child.
“I never had any siblings, so these guys are my brothers that I never had,” Rucker said. Rucker admitted that, while he has a great support system to lean on in challenging times, he has also been in positions to be that same resource for someone else, that open ear to help and listen to others in times of distress.
Rucker’s passion for raising awareness for the protection of the mental health of student-athletes is now embedded in his character. It’s become a large part of his identity, and his message to others is clear: “It’s okay for people to reassess, to understand it’s okay if you have something going on, you’re not the only one. I promise.”
Each season that Rucker has played at Carolina, he has continued to improve. With 37 total tackles and two forced fumbles during the recent 2022 season, Rucker’s presence on the defensive line was felt, as he emerged as a true leader for the Carolina defense.
He has a long list of goals, written on his mirror, that he is working towards for next season, and he told me there is still a lot on the table that he wants to accomplish.
Rucker knows that he still has a chip on his shoulder. There has always been a sense of pressure. From people who thought Rucker couldn’t compete at a power five level before he made his way to Carolina, to the intensity of singing on one of sports’ biggest stages, and to the mental challenges that have now transpired into a potential career interest.
But for Rucker, the best away to achieve his goals – to continue prove people wrong – is to remain true to himself.
Olivia Mundorf will be graduating in May with her degree in Journalism from UNC’s Hussman School of Journalism and Media. During her time at Carolina, Olivia has focused on pursuing a career in sports broadcasting and journalism, and has spent several semesters covering UNC sports and sharing the compelling stories of the athletes, teams, and community surrounding one of the top athletic departments in the nation. After graduation, Olivia will remain in Chapel Hill as a member of the UNC Sport Administration Graduate Program.