COLUMBUS - During the mid-1990s, Mike Rucker was a defensive end known for clobbering opposing quarterbacks throughout the Big 12 Conference.
This week, the former Cornhusker is in Columbus tackling even tougher subjects.
Rucker, now 36, spent the past two days addressing middle and high school students at Lakeview, Columbus Public and Scotus Central Catholic.
His message - based on experiences that took him from Saint Joseph, Mo., to the National Football League - was to set goals, choose the right friends and never give up.
Rucker told a group of Lakeview high school students Tuesday he was just like them. "I have made mistakes," Rucker said, but you must learn from them.
Rucker's mother was 15 years old when he was born and his father worked two jobs to support the family.
"It's not how you start," he told the students. "It's how you finish."
And for Rucker, there were plenty of roadblocks during his dream path to the NFL.
As a 10-year-old, his friends called 9-1-1 to see a fire truck. This was Rucker's first lesson about friendship.
"I was there, and because I was there, I was just as guilty as them," he said.
Rucker recalled an encounter when he was 16, visiting his cousin in Omaha. That cousin was in a gang, and a verbal altercation led to Rucker running from a rival vehicle wondering if he was going to be shot.
"For what?" he asked the Lakeview students. "Can you honestly tell me for what?"
Rucker's cousin was eventually killed outside a house party.
"His choice to be in a gang you can say was his choice," Rucker said. "But his choice affected so many other people. ... That changed my life forever."
Rucker narrowly achieved the minimum ACT score to attend college because "I wasn't applying myself," he said.
That's why it's important to begin developing goals now, Rucker told the Lakeview crowd.
"Goals are your road map, your compass, your GPS," he said.
Rucker's road map led to Lincoln, where he won national championships as part of the 1995 and 1997 Nebraska football teams.
But, in 1998 - his senior year - Rucker injured his knee against Louisiana Tech. The all-conference player then shifted his focus toward attaining a degree in sociology before making his return for the final regular season game against Colorado.
Despite the injury, Rucker was drafted 38th overall by the Carolina Panthers in 1999.
"You will always continue to learn," said Rucker. "You will always have obstacles and adversity in front of you. Without obstacles and adversity, you don't grow."
While in the NFL, Rucker said he had to use his intelligence to beat bigger offensive linemen.
"You have to use your brain," he said. "You gotta make the right decisions. That one decision that my cousin made cost him his life, and he had nothing to show for it."
During his pro-football career, which led to seven separate surgeries, Rucker experienced a 1-15 season followed by a Super Bowl appearance just two years later.
"As quick as you can be on the bottom is as quick as you can be on the top," Rucker said.
Rucker, who retired from the NFL in 2007, now does color commentary for preseason Panthers games and focuses on giving back to the community. He, along with several former teammates, co-founded Ruckus House, a child development and learning facility.
Tuesday, he told students to follow their dreams and find a career they enjoy, never letting obstacles stand in the way.
Rucker's appearances were sponsored by the anti-gang group T4C through financial contributions from Pinnacle Bank and Kubler Management.
"He's had an interesting life and been extremely successful," T4C co-founder Mike Fleming said of Rucker. "I always think it's neat to let the kids hear about those people's lives."
The events were organized by T4C's Youth Council, 14 students from Lakeview, Columbus Public and Scotus.