Dauphin County resident David Umberger was 8 years old when he first met Todd Rucci. The meeting came back in 1988. Rucci was a senior at Upper Darby High School then, and a standout lineman set to participate in the annual Big 33 football game at Hersheypark Stadium before he set out on a college career at Penn State and later played in a Super Bowl in the NFL.
And as happens every year with Big 33 players staying with host families in the weekend leading up to the Memorial Day game, the Umbergers hosted Rucci before his final prep contest 31 years ago.
“My parents hosted players for about 12 years,” Umberger said. “My dad had an affinity for Penn State. So we always tried to host Penn State players.”
Fast forward to this weekend, and the Umbergers are hosting another Rucci, though the circumstances are a bit different. Umberger is now a 41-year-old married father to three boys ages 11, 9 and 5. This is his third year hosting Big 33 players. And the Rucci staying in his household this weekend is Todd’s oldest son, Hayden, the Warwick High School senior tight end and Wisconsin recruit who will play for the Pennsylvania squad in Monday’s 62nd annual Big 33 game at Central Dauphin Middle School’s Landis Field in Speed Ebersole Stadium (2 p.m. kickoff).
“I remember how much an influence just the overall experience I had with these guys at our house when I was a kid,” Umberger said. “All my boys are athletic and into sports. And guys like Hayden bring the mentality that have gotten them to where they are as far as work ethic, commitment, kindness.”
Those qualities are evident to anyone who has interacted in recent years with Hayden Rucci, who has remained humble even as his profile has risen as one of the top tight end recruits in the country. Rucci credits that to the values instilled in him by parents Todd and Stacy, who met at Penn State when Stacy was an all-American field hockey player.
Asked what parts of his personality he gets from mom and dad, Rucci said, “I get my smarts from my mom. And probably style of play from my dad, just finishing every play.”
Rucci made those comments earlier this month inside the Warwick weight room, where he’s spent “pretty much everyday” since the end of last football season in order to prepare his body for the next level — he’ll leave for Wisconsin on June 14.
“Since December I put on 25, almost 30 pounds,” Rucci said. “They (Wisconsin coaches) give us a workout schedule to follow. And then Nolan and I go home and split like a pound of turkey and I have some protein shakes.”
One can only imagine what the grocery bill looks like for the Ruccis in feeding the 6-foot-5 Hayden and the younger but bigger 6-foot-8 Nolan. The latter is a rising Warwick junior and one of the top linemen recruits in the Class of 2021 who is being pursued by several Power Five college football programs.
“(Mom) just said yesterday she had just gotten more lunchmeat and she’s like, ‘You guys cannot eat so much of this,’” Hayden Rucci said.
Hayden Rucci’s selection to the Big 33 game comes after a stellar 2018 campaign in which he pulled down 30 grabs for 645 yards — 21.5 yards per catch — with eight touchdown catches for a Warwick team that went 9-3 and shared the Section One championship and won a District Three playoff game for the first time in program history.
Monday will be a culmination of sorts when it comes to following in dad’s footsteps three decades after dad played in the 1988 Big 33 contest.
“Big 33 was a great experience for me in everything that they do in helping kids through the charitable work that you do,” Todd Rucci said. “I’m excited for Hayden to have that experience just to put together the bigger picture of what football is able to do for the community.”
That charitable work included a visit by Big 33 players to the Lebanon VA Hospital on Friday, and meeting their “buddies” on Saturday evening. Those buddies are students ages five and up from nearby schools who will accompany the players onto the field at Monday’s game.
Of course, there’s also the responsibility for Rucci of serving as a role model for the Umberger boys this weekend.
“My kids look forward to this every year like it’s Christmas,” Umberger said. “Hayden came in Thursday night. We hit it off with him right off the bat. The kids were drilling him with questions. We went to Adventure Sports in Hershey and played video games and mini-golf. It’s like they get a big brother for the weekend and he gets three little brothers.”
Next senior representing Warwick one last time is TE/DE Hayden Rucci @haydengucci playing in the @psfcabig33 game on Monday afternoon. Kickoff @ 2:00 at Central Dauphin - ticket info in link 👇🏼 https://t.co/a1bRPG07xb #WarriorNation pic.twitter.com/JzYz127K2O— Warwick Football (@WarwickFB) May 25, 2019