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Former Michigan center Cesar Ruiz said his late father "still lives through me" as he prepares for the NFL Combine. The Detroit News

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Indianapolis — During his Michigan career, Cesar Ruiz often wore a chain with a dog tag. Upon a closer look, it was laser image of a photograph that featured his father giving him a haircut when Ruiz was a toddler.

Now, all these years later, Ruiz, who played center the last two seasons at Michigan, is at the NFL Combine projected to be a possible late first-round selection in the April draft. He is motivated daily by the memory of his father, Cesar Edwin Ruiz, who was killed in 2007 when his son, Cesar, was 8 years old. His father was helping a stranger fix a tire on the side of the road in Camden, New Jersey, when he was struck and killed by a car.

Ruiz often has spoken of his father, saying they shared a similar personality.

“Funny, goofy, always happy. Always happy,” Ruiz told The Detroit News a few years ago. “I feel like this is who I am. I’ve always been like that since I was younger. I was always a happy.”

It is never easy to understand tragedy, but Ruiz always has embraced the fact his father, who he described as being a “really good guy," was being helpful and performing a good deed.

“At this point, I understand that’s life, that’s going to happen,” Ruiz said. “At the moment, it’s not really what you want to accept.”

Ruiz is one of four Michigan offensive linemen invited to the NFL Combine and spoke to reporters during an official interview session Wednesday at the Indianapolis Convention Center. There are 11 Michigan players here.

More: A closer look at the 11 Michigan players at the NFL Combine

“This whole experience is dedicated to that whole situation, that tragedy,” Ruiz said when asked if he’s working toward his NFL goal for his father. “I still do it, every night, every day I think about it, wish my dad was here to see what I’m doing right now — he’d be mind-blown.

“I’m still playing for my dad. I still play through my dad. My dad still lives through me. That’s how it’s always going to be.”

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Combine Day 2: Talking O-line, running backs and punters The Detroit News

He praised his mother, Latoya Shambry, for holding the family together in the wake of her husband’s death and for encouraging him to play football. Ruiz finished his high school career at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida, before heading to Michigan where he would spend the next three years.

“Football came into my life when I was 10 years old,” Ruiz said Wednesday. “I really played because my mom really wanted me to get out of the house. It was kind of a therapeutic thing for me, one of her things, because I was still mourning the death of my father. And she saw it. Basically, what she did was try to find something that would help me out.

“I never stopped playing it. I had fun doing it. As a kid you play football, you don't really have any expectations or responsibilities. You're just playing football because you love it. And then when I got to high school, that's when I realized this is probably something I'm going to do for a long time.”

He plans to play for a long time in the NFL. Ruiz announced shortly after the Citrus Bowl on Jan. 1 that he would not return for his final season at Michigan to pursue his NFL dream. He has become a coveted lineman, who offers the versatility of playing center, which is his preference, or guard.

ESPN NFL Draft analyst Mel Kiper has Ruiz at No. 32 in his latest mock draft and believes he could go even higher in the first round.

Ruiz confidently said Wednesday he believes he is a first-round prospect.

“If you look at the film if you look at how I dominate people, if you look at my character, how smart I am, I have everything that (it takes) for a first-rounder,” Ruiz said. “I’m very confident in myself that I am a first-rounder.”

So is former Michigan quarterback Shea Patterson, who also is at the combine. Patterson was a senior quarterback at IMG Academy when Ruiz, a junior, was his center. They reunited for two seasons with the Wolverines after Patterson transferred from Ole Miss.

“Remembering him as a junior snapping me the ball when I was a senior and then we played two years at Michigan, it’s just surreal,” Patterson said this week. "I’m so happy for him. He deserves everything. He’s worked so hard to get to this point.

“He’s very smart. He dealt with a lot of the protection IDs and made a lot of the run points. He’s big, he’s athletic and can move. He’s fast. He’s strong. He’s even more determined and a confident guy. His positive energy kinda wears off on a lot of the guys.”

Ruiz, who has had formal meetings with the Rams, Packers, Panthers, Titans, Giants and Broncos and is excepted to add more on Thursday, said teams have been impressed with his ability to draw up plays and describe his film. He’s looking forward to putting his athleticism on display during drills at the combine. Ruiz joked he’s finally comfortable in his sprinter’s stance and hopes to run a sub-5.0 40.

He said a few years ago he was born to play center and while that is his preference, he also started several games at right guard his freshman year and would make the move if needed. But center speaks to him and who he is. He likes the responsibility that goes with it.

“I’m in charge. I’m in charge of the whole show,” Ruiz said. “If something goes wrong I take the heat for it. If things are going good, I take the shine for it as well.”

As Ruiz closes in on the NFL Draft and his professional career, he certainly wishes his father could be here to see his success. Ruiz knows he would be overjoyed.

“He would probably be somewhere smiling at me the same way I'm smiling at him just telling me how proud he is of me,” Ruiz said when asked what his father might tell him. “I know my mom is proud of me. So I'm proud of myself. I know my father would be extremely proud of me.”

achengelis@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @chengelis

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