FORT BRAGG, N.C. - Students at Fort Bragg's Albritton Junior High School got a special and inspirational treat as former Carolina Panther defensive end Mike Rucker visited the school Oct. 26, courtesy of the Fort Bragg Chapter of the United Services Organization.

He said he was thrilled to support the USO in visiting the Fort Bragg Community.

"It's awesome," Rucker said about coming to Fort Bragg and supporting the USO. "When you look at it, life goes by so fast and there are so many different things that come in and out of life.

When you really get down to the basics and you look at what life's about and you're able to look at our freedoms, stuff that we take for granted sometimes and we jump in our car and run to the store. There are men and women keeping us safe at home. The sacrifice that they're making is one of the biggest sacrifices possible."

He delivered words of encouragement and inspiration to the junior high students at Albritton Junior High School.

"One thing I encourage you guys to do is have goals," Rucker said. "Short-term goals and long-term goals. There were things that I did each day, even in high school, college and pros. Each game I would call mom and we would talk about what we were going to accomplish."

He said even before he began his four years at Nebraska, he and his mother always discussed what he wanted to achieve at each phase of his career.

He explained that short-term goals are often a measuring stick for individuals that will guide them toward their long-term goals.

"I encourage each of you to set short-term goals," Rucker said. "I applied it to football, but it could be applied to your school work. It could be for a test as in receiving the highest grade or you could say, "I want to be on this honor roll." You've got to have goals."

He also spoke to the students about not succumbing to peer pressure and making wise decision when hanging with friends.

"If you show me your friends, I can show you your future," Rucker said to the room of about 30 students. "If you show me the guys or girls you're hanging out with, I can pretty much put you in alignment with the street that you're going to go down. It's very important that you choose your friends and the people that you hang out with."

Rucker recalled an incident that occurred when he was 10 years old. He explained that while standing near a fire station in his hometown of St. Joseph, Mo., one of his friends thought it would be funny to call 9-1-1 to watch the fire trucks leave the station and respond to an imaginary fire.

Although Rucker disagreed with the friend and even left the scene, he said he knew he was in trouble when the police came to his parents' front door.

"I didn't take that phone from him. I didn't call that fire station, but I was with him and because I was with him, I was getting in trouble too," he said. "You've got to say, you know what, this is not right. I am not going to do this."

He encouraged them to find friends who had the same interest that they have. He said it's easier to work harder toward your goals if you have an extra push from your friends." Rucker said. "That's one thing that I can say was really a part of my foundation - the friends that I've had. We all played sports and we all held each other accountable."

He said that if one of his friends thought about doing something wrong, the others would put pressure on him to make him feel uncomfortable that he should not be doing that.

Rucker pointed out that there are numerous athletes who are better than today's NFL, NBA or MLB stars, but the difference between them and stars like Michael Jordan, Peyton Manning or Drew Brees are the decisions that they made earlier in life.

"I encourage you guys to pick your friends wisely, set your goals and good things will happen," he said.
Rucker then fielded questions from the students, including 7th grader Hannah Keys, who asked how to get rid of negative friends.

Rucker acknowledged that there would be peer-pressure and negative comments about the friend who speaks up about doing the right thing and separating himself from the negative group.

"At the end of the day, there are friends around that maybe you haven't looked at as being your friend, but the main thing is that you have to cut that negative group off," he said.

Rucker played with the Panthers for eight seasons, from 1999 to 2007, after being drafted in the second round from the University of Nebraska.

Rucker played on a two national championship teams for the Cornhuskers and was selected by the Panthers as the 38th pick of the 1999 draft.