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Analysis: Ruggs’ road back to NFL after prison long, not impossible

Updated August 14, 2023 - 1:19 pm

The sentencing of former Raiders wide receiver Henry Ruggs to at least three years in prison for his role in a crash that killed a Las Vegas woman might not signal the end of his NFL career.

As history has shown, the NFL has been willing to offer players who run afoul of the law a second chance to return to the playing field.

That’s been true in others cases like Ruggs’ in which players were found legally responsible for car crashes that took the lives of others. Or, as the Michael Vick dogfighting saga proved nearly 15 years ago, even when someone commits an egregious crime that not only results in prison time but also incredible public scorn.

The past willingness of the league to forgive clearly leaves a door open for Ruggs to restart his career.

But there are challenges. Among them, returning to NFL form after missing nearly five seasons and finding a team willing to accept whatever negative reaction from the public his addition would create. Plus, that team would have to convince the league that he is worthy for reinstatement.

The NFL declined to comment on the Ruggs situation. Multiple team executives did not respond to requests for comment.

Ruggs has been suspended indefinitely by the league for his role in the 2021 crash that killed 23-year-old Tina Tintor and her dog. He pleaded guilty Wednesday to a felony charge of DUI resulting in death and a count of vehicular manslaughter, receiving a prison sentence of three to 10 years.

If, as some legal analysts estimate, Ruggs serves three years of his sentence, he would be 27 years old upon his release. That would leave him still in the prime of his athletic life.

Assuming he keeps himself in shape over the next three years, it is easy to envision him eventually shaking off any rust to return at or near the athletic form he showed over his first two seasons with the Raiders.

The most recent and comparable example would be Vick, the former NFL quarterback who served 18 months in prison for running a dogfighting ring. Upon his release in 2009, the then-29-year-old was reinstated by NFL commissioner Roger Goodell.

At the time, several teams said they were not interested in adding the former Falcons star as a result of the widespread public contempt and disdain his crimes created. And that will certainly be a challenge for Ruggs, given the tragic results of his actions.

But the Eagles, then under the direction of current Chiefs coach Andy Reid, were willing to sign Vick to a two-year deal. By September of the following season, Vick had taken over as the starting quarterback, kicking off a successful five-year run with the Eagles.

In cases in which NFL players were found legally responsible for the deaths of other humans, second chances have also occurred.

Donte Stallworth, Leonard Little and Josh Brent were each behind the wheel in alcohol-related car crashes that took lives. Upon concluding their legal obligations, all three eventually played in the NFL again.

However, none dealt with the long delay back to the field that Ruggs is facing. Stallworth, Brent and Little all returned to the field between one and two years after their crimes.

If Ruggs can stay in some semblance of shape — as Vick did during his 18 months in prison — he will still be young enough to rework his body back into NFL conditioning.

The questions will be: Will the NFL be in a forgiving mood? And will there be a team willing to give him a second chance, knowing how drastic the public reaction might be?

Contact Vincent Bonsignore at vbonsignore@reviewjournal.com. Follow @VinnyBonsignore on X.

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