Josh Rutter is pumped.
It’s his first-ever collegiate game, a 2005 road matchup with Division I-A Marshall University, and the redshirt freshman linebacker is flying down the field on the opening kickoff.
His adrenaline level is soaring, but he channels it long enough to slice through a couple of blockers and drill the Thundering Herd’s kick returner, recording the first tackle of the game — and of his collegiate career. He jumps to his feet in celebration, and is met by a call from some familiar voices piercing through the crowd of 40,000 fans.
“Boogs!” they yell.
Josh, upon hearing his nickname, flashes a smile as he picks out his family in the stands.
“Immediately, I could hear them all. I could even hear my mom,” Josh says. “That was a good feeling.”
It is a feeling that Josh, now a senior, has become accustomed to throughout his College of William and Mary career. In every single game he’s played — both at home and on the road — he’s had his family there cheering him on.
“That’s one thing I feel really fortunate about,” Josh says. “I’ve got a pretty good following.”
He’s also got a knack for understatement. On this day, prior to the Tribe’s Sept. 20 home matchup with Norfolk State University, his family is out in full force. His parents John and Lisa Rutter are there along with godparents Randy and Missy Gallagher, who aren’t related to the Rutters by blood, but are family by all other measures. The Gallaghers’ three daughters, Brittni, 15, Brooke, 12, and Braedyn, 10, are hanging out with the Rutters’ two youngest daughters, Macey, 6, and Tatum, 2, while son Jarren, 4, chooses to stay a little closer to Dad. (The Rutters’ oldest daughter, 18-year old Abby, is a long-time supporter of Josh’s teams, but had to miss the Norfolk State game because of work). Jarren, who is the spitting image of a young Josh, prepped for the game by chanting “let’s go Tribe” the night before. Rounding out the gang is Grandma Whitfield, Lisa’s mother, and a long-time supporter of Josh’s playing career.
“I’ve been excited to see his games since he was 7,” she says.
Josh’s cheering section tailgates in style, driving three and a half hours from northern Maryland to become the first arrivals to the Yates Hall parking lot. Everything is Tribe-oriented, from the “Rutter 44” jerseys hanging from their tent to the green and gold M&M’s that accentuate their impressive food spread.
They bring the whole gang to home games and nearby road games, while usually only John, Lisa, Randy and Missy travel by plane to the long-distance road games. When the Tribe travels Nov. 1 to Towson University — a short drive from where Josh grew up — the Rutter cheering section may exceed 125 people.
“The Towson game might get a little ridiculous,” Josh says.
As far as father-son relationships go, the one John and Josh share is as close as they come. Each refers to the other as a friend (“he’s my best buddy,” John says), and it’s not uncommon for them to chat two or three times a day by phone.
It was John who first shaped Josh as a player, when he and Randy would pummel him as a 3-year old, while the gleeful youngster would try to break their tackles in living room football. John also coached Josh until high school, and it was during this time that he instilled in Josh his hard-nosed, play-through-pain attitude, a reputation Josh carried through high school and into his collegiate career.
Josh has established a reputation as an indispensable component of the Tribe’s defense. He led the team in tackles as a redshirt freshman with 109, then finished second on the team as a junior with 95 after losing his sophomore season to a knee injury. This year he ranks second on the team with 19 tackles, but, most importantly, he’s become the unit’s vocal leader on defense, a role that went unfilled during last year’s struggles. So far this season, the difference in the team’s performance has been clear: 277 yards allowed per game this year compared to 393 last year.
As game time approaches before Norfolk State, John, the captain of the group, leads the rest of the Josh Rutter fan club on their pilgrimage to Zable Stadium. Every member is wearing Josh’s no. 44 jersey or, in the case of Macey and Tatum, a Tribe cheerleading uniform. Joining the family are E.J. Lewis and T.J. Swanson, long-time friends and former Pop Warner league teammates of Josh.
“These are the rowdies right here,” John says, pointing back to his sons’ friends. Almost on cue, T.J. jumps on John’s back in a failed piggyback ride attempt, nearly sending John sprawling face first onto the brick walkway.
After navigating through handshakes and greetings with a series of Tribe coaches, fans and team officials (“my dad is pretty well-known on campus,” Josh says), John and the gang finally make it to their destination — the railing behind the Tribe’s bench. It is here that they watch Josh, one of the Tribe’s four captains, pump up his teammates.
“This is exciting, man,” John says as he watches Josh lead the Tribe during warm-ups. “Watching him play brings a tear to my eye.”
Josh’s family has become well-known around Tribe football circles for being so supportive of their son, but it’s not without reciprocation from Josh. Last spring, during the College’s final exams period, Randy and Missy came down to Williamsburg to watch Brittni play in a volleyball tournament. Josh spent the whole day with them watching Brittni’s games, opting to hang out with them late into the evening, even though some of his buddies were going out for the night.
“If you get a chance to be with family, you’ve got to take advantage of that,” Josh says.
For the Rutters, that chance comes every Saturday.