The tattoo on Jerry Ruffino’s left bicep says it all. Branded onto his skin a decade or so ago, the Fenwick High School shield — along with the word “wrestling” underneath it — is a symbol of Ruffino’s pride in and devotion to the school and the program he has built over the last 17 years. Fenwick’s head wrestling coach announced this week that he won’t be returning to the mat next season.
Ruffino departs with quite the grappling resume. Under his tutelage, which officially dates back 20 years when he began as an assistant coach, Fenwick has had 22 Chicago Catholic League individual champs, including Dave Herrera, one of just eight four-time CL champs in the league’s history.
Three IHSA state champs and two runner-ups also emerged during Ruffino’s tenure. Nick Bertucci (2005, 135-pound weight class), Bobby Barnhisal (2009, 152), and last year’s state champ at 103 pounds the Stanford-bound Matt Garelli, who is in the hunt for yet another league and state title this season, have all won individual state titles. Herrera (2003, 215) and Mike Tamillow (2004, 189) were runner-ups.
In all, Ruffino has had 53 individual state qualifiers come through his program and has guided six teams to regional titles and one to a sectional championship victory.
Bertucci, who made history at Fenwick when he became the school’s first state wrestling champ in 2005, said he owes much of his success on and off the mat to his former coach.
“He was one of the most inspirational coaches I’ve ever been around,” said Bertucci, who went on to star at Purdue University and is now working in sales and coaching a wrestling program in Baltimore. “He helped build my work ethic and provide the foundation of who I am as a person. He had a huge impact on my life. Without him I wouldn’t be where I am today.”
Ruffino, 56, who, during much of his tenure, split time at Fenwick with his duties as a full-time fireman for the Maywood Fire Department, said it’s not so much the accolades that have kept him coaching for so long.
“One of the most gratifying things about being a coach is simply working with the kids, seeing them develop into great wrestlers and great people,” he says.
One grappler who stands out among the many that Ruffino nurtured is Sam Kucia, who had no wrestling experience when he came into the program his freshman year in the late 1990s. By his senior year, Kucia had blossomed into a state contender, finishing fourth overall at 171 pounds in 2001.
Ruffino also had the pleasure of coaching sons Pete and Chris, who were his first state qualifiers at Fenwick. The brothers went to state together in 1998. Chris, who has been the assistant head wrestling coach for five years, will take over as head coach next season.
“There are two different aspects to our coaching methods,” said Ruffino of his son Chris, who was named Catholic League Outstanding Wrestler in 2001. “I get them into shape and Chris is more of a finesse type of guy. He’s a wrestler’s coach. He brings a whole new element to coaching with his knowledge of not only the sport, but other programs as well.”
Ruffino will still be seen around Fenwick, probably even more so. He’s the operations manager for the high school and will remain an assistant football coach, something he’s done on and off for the last 17 years.
“I’m not going anywhere. I’m just not going to be tied down during the wrestling season any longer. It will be nice to spend some true holidays during the winter months with my wife, Jan, who sacrificed a lot for the family due to wrestling.”
Now, back to that tattoo on his left arm. The Fenwick shield, really?
“I love the high school and I love the program, and I always wanted it to remain a part of me. It’s a little crazy I realize, but Fenwick has been a significant part of my life.”
It should be noted that Ruffino also has a Cubs tattoo on his right calf.