No matter what, Rick Leonard never forgot about his friend and former Middletown High schoolmate T.J. Rufty, always hoped he’d be in a position to lend help to a guy who’d been dealt an incredibly tough hand.
When Leonard led the Knights to a third straight state football championship in 2013, he and some teammates took a signed ball to Johns Hopkins Hospital, where Rufty was being treated for Burkitt lymphoma, a rare cancer.
The two remained in touch as Leonard went from being a standout at Florida State to an NFL draft pick to a member of the Washington Football Team, all while Rufty adjusted to being paralyzed from the chest down after chemotherapy.
And Leonard, an offensive lineman for the WFT, recently met with Rufty at a Middletown restaurant to tell him that he was planning a football camp to raise money for Rufty’s needs and expenses.
Leonard could not have been happier to deliver the news.
Rufty could not have been more thankful.
“He was honestly in tears,” Leonard said. “This is what it’s all about, doing stuff like this, when you get put in positions that I’ve been so blessed and fortunate to be in. Being able to give back is something I’ve always wanted to do.”
Leonard is hosting a Kids & Pros free youth football camp from 6 to 9 p.m. on Monday at Middletown High School for participants in grades two through eight. The camp will include non-contact skill development, with drills, games and lessons on character. He said a doctor from Frederick Health Hospital will also do a seminar on football safety for parents of campers.
Leonard and former Middletown football coach Kevin Lynott have lined up several sponsors for the camp and solicited donations. All of the proceeds will go to Rufty. Leonard said that amount, after camp expenses, already exceeds $10,000, including more than $3,300 from a Gofundme page (search “Hope for TJ Rufty”).
Ever since Leonard was at Florida State, he envisioned returning to his hometown and hosting a football camp. And when he set out to organize this one, he had a feeling the community would get behind his cause. What has resulted is doubly important to Leonard because it will benefit a struggling friend who has always remained in his thoughts.
Leonard said he was devastated to learn of Rufty’s diagnosis when the two were in high school. Rufty, he said, beat cancer but was left paralyzed by an extreme reaction to the treatment.
According to the Gofundme page, one item on Rufty’s wish list is a handicap-accessible van.
“Just seeing how happy he got when we told him we were going to have this camp for him, it puts a lot of things in perspective,” said Leonard, a former News-Post Player of the Year. “You don’t always get to choose how life goes for you, but you get to choose the attitude that you have, and that kid’s got a kick-ass attitude. He’s really positive and fun and outgoing, and always has been, he’s never lost that.
“He’s definitely an inspiration for me.”
To register for the camp, visit https://coachkevinlynott.com/kids-%26-proscamp-2021.
Training camp prospects
A little more than a week after the camp that’s so near and dear to Leonard’s heart, he will report to another for his job — training camp with the Washington Football Team.
He joined the team’s practice squad late in the 2020 season, making it the fifth stop in just three years since he entered the league as a fourth-round draft pick of the New Orleans Saints. The 6-foot-7, 311-pound Leonard was upbeat about Washington’s offseason additions and his potential for making a 53-man roster for the first time in his career.
Leonard came into the league as somewhat of a project after transitioning from defensive line to offensive tackle in the middle of his college career. He ended up blocking for now Minnesota Vikings star running back Dalvin Cook and doing enough to get selected in the middle of the 2018 draft.
This offseason, Leonard said his focus has been on refining his technique as a guard, the position he’s largely been working on with Washington. He believes his ability to play all along the line will give him the best chance at making the team.
There are likely two starting spots on Washington’s offensive line — left guard and right tackle — that will be sorted out in camp, not to mention several backup roles that Leonard could be in the running to fill.
“There’s some jobs to be had. I’m just approaching it as I have always,” said Leonard, who has been a practice squad player for all of his career. “I’ve played all four positions since I got here. That’s how I’m going to make this team, is being able to play left guard, right guard, left tackle and right tackle. Being able to show versatility and go out there and produce.”
Leonard has worked on increasing his lower-body strength, which will help him as he further develops at guard — where power is crucial in moving and stanching massive interior defenders.
He reports to camp for the defending NFC East champions on July 27 in Ashburn, Virginia, with Washington’s first practice slated for the next day.
“I think we got better at really every position,” Leonard said. “From our draft picks to who we signed in free agency. Coach [Ron] Rivera is building something special here, and it’s a really good time to be a Washington football fan. We had a great run last year, we gave Tom Brady and the Bucs the best run for their money in the playoffs.
“We’ve got a great defense and added a lot of weapons on offense, so it’s going to be a very fun year.”