Former Flash overcomes head injury, weight gain to become a ‘Gladiator’

Jessie Marks

Photo Courtsey Trae Patton | NBC Photos

Credit: DKS Editors

Not many people recover from life-threatening head injuries to become contenders on the national competition show “American Gladiators.” But former Kent State football player and alumnus James Ruggiero did just that.

On June 30 at 8 p.m., America can watch Ruggiero battle through physical challenges in a quest to leave his mark on the gladiator arena. He must match up against the show’s gladiators in both strength and endurance events and defeat the other contenders in order to advance in the competition.

However intimidating the gladiators and obstacles appear, they aren’t the first challenge Ruggiero has faced.

During his third year playing football at Kent State, Ruggiero suffered a head injury that ended his season. The injury was severe enough to require brain surgery.

Although doctors told Ruggiero he could not play sports after the surgery, Ruggiero didn’t want to stop competing.

“People born round don’t die square,” Ruggiero said.

It was only a matter of recovery time before he was competing again. Once given the green light from his doctor, Ruggiero trained harder than ever.

“It was almost the feeling of being invincible; I could never be stopped,” Ruggiero said. “After a head injury like that, after all I went through, if that couldn’t stop me there’s nothing that could stop me, and I wasn’t going to stop myself.”

The road to “American Gladiators” began in January 2007 when Ruggiero started shedding some extra pounds he had gained after the surgery. With the help of the NutriSystem weight-loss program, Ruggiero lost 60 pounds and now appears as a “success story” on the company’s Web site.

The producers of “American Gladiators” saw his story on the Web site while working on a weight-loss storyline and contacted Ruggiero for casting.

Ruggiero jumped at the chance to appear on the show.

“It gave me an opportunity and an outlet where I could actually prove to myself and my family I was a premier athlete,” Ruggiero said. “And the show, growing up, was legendary. So I absolutely would want to give it a shot.”

Ruggiero endured numerous interviews and stacks of paperwork before the producers determined he would compete in the next step in the casting process: a physical camp that tests the athletic capabilities of the contestants.

Ruggiero estimates that only about 80 people of the thousands of applicants were invited to participate in the camp.

“At the camp, you meet producers and everybody gets to know you, so they see the total package,” Ruggiero said. “If they like what they see, then that is pretty much the final cut.”

Because the events of the competition are difficult to simulate, Ruggiero physically prepared for the show by increasing the intensity of his regular workout regimen, sometimes doubling or tripling the duration.

Aside from his physical preparations, Ruggiero said his time playing for the Kent State football team, from 1999-2002, mentally prepared him for this challenge.

“As a Division I football player there are certain expectations and it’s a year-round thing. That makes a lot of mental fatigue on a person and there is a lot of mental preparation that goes into it,” Ruggiero said. “The show was not for the weak at heart and neither is college football.”

College football may have prepared him mentally, but Ruggiero turns to his family for inspiration. Becoming a family man and developing responsibilities in his personal life changed him as a competitor.

“The responsibility of being the man of the house, being the mentor and idol that hopefully my children look up to someday was really the driving factor that flipped the switch that said I can’t let a head injury or being overweight get to me,” Ruggiero said. “I don’t want their inspiration to come from anywhere but from me. I have to earn that – it’s not just going to happen sitting on a couch.”

Ruggiero hopes viewers at home see something special about him as an athlete while watching the show.

“I set a goal to be better than the best as a competitor,” Ruggiero said. “To do that, I had to do some amazing things. From the very first event to the very last event, I felt like I had one amazing moment after the next.”

Contact student recreation and wellness reporter Jessie Marks [email protected].