Before Josh Ruggles could toe the 3-point line, he had to stand on his head.
Before Ruggles could rise to the occasion of the King of the Hill shootout, he had to crouch low.
Before Ruggles could dazzle the crowd in Peoria as a remarkably composed teenager, he amazed doctors and his family as a brave third-grader.
Basketball fans familiar with the Wheaton Academy sophomore associate the number 3 with Ruggles’ spectacular outside marksmanship, underscored by his state 3-point shooting championship the weekend of March 15 and 16.
But that number – three – carries even more resonance in Ruggles’ life off the basketball court.
If it weren’t for a life-changing triumph in the third heart surgery Ruggles endured as a boy, his ascent to best 3-point shooter in Illinois would never have been possible.
‘This is not right’
The flu was going around the Ruggles household, so Josh’s parents were not surprised to see their little boy sprawling on the couch after dinner one night. He was 5 years old.
Another Ruggles child was catching the bug, they figured.
“We said ‘Honey, are you feeling OK?’ He said ‘Yeah, it’s just my heart is going really fast,’ ” recalled Holly Ruggles, Josh’s mother. “We went, ‘What?’ … Sure enough, it was just pounding. I grabbed [his brother, Brandon], who is just two years older, pulled him over, put my hand on both of their hearts, and went ‘OK, this is not right.’ ”
Some trying times were beginning.
Ruggles was rushed to the hospital, and it was soon determined that he had supraventricular tachycardia, a condition that causes a heart to beat abnormally fast for reasons other than exercise, stress or illness. In his case, his heart often pounded about 240 beats a minute, three times faster than normal.
An ablation surgery – during which catheters are inserted through the neck and groin, with the goal being to burn an extra pathway in the heart that was thought to trigger the condition – was planned at Children’s Hospital in Chicago.
The doctors initially expected a successful resolution to the seven-plus hour procedure but, about a week later, the episodes returned.
The prospect of putting their small child through another major procedure sounded awful so Holly and David Ruggles decided to control the condition without one for as long as they could.
For a few years, they managed that way, using whichever quirky techniques seemed to work.
One steamy day the summer before Ruggles entered third grade, he had an especially upsetting episode while competing in the championship game of a baseball tournament in Winfield, where the family lived before later moving to Wheaton.
The family turned to one of its most reliable tactics – standing Josh on his head, allowing the blood to rush to his head and gradually relax the heart – as a crowd of concerned onlookers gathered. It took a long time to stop the episode, and the family soon decided another ablation surgery was needed.
This time, they turned to Dr. Warren Jackman, a noted specialist affiliated with the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center in Oklahoma City.
Ruggles’ second surgery, in November 2005, lasted twice as long as the first – about 14 hours.
It led to the first of what would be two major revelations – Ruggles had a variation of SVT in which he had multiple extra pathways that were problematic, not just one.
The second procedure actually was counterproductive in the short-term.
“They thought they had it, and he came home, and it was a zillion times worse,” Holly Ruggles said.
Ruggles’ heart was more volatile than ever, with more than 700 fluctuations a day.
More surgery would be required for the basketball-loving third grader.
Third time’s the charm
As young as Ruggles was during this period, his memories of his heart woes and related surgeries remain vivid and detailed, right down to his angst about being denied frozen yogurt like the rest of the family enjoyed the night before one of the procedures.
Naturally, his fellow third graders weren’t the most tactful – What if you wake up during surgery, one of them wondered – but their concern was nonetheless touching.
“These kids, for third graders, they made some impressive letters,” Ruggles said. “One of them had a basketball hoop cut out of it and it would fold. It was really impressive.”
The prospect of surgery No. 3, just three months after the second procedure, was overwhelming, but the family had no real alternatives.
“I had to find a lot of techniques to make it stop,” Ruggles said. “One was standing on my head, and then after the second surgery, that didn’t work at all anymore, so I had to squat down and hold my breath, and that would soon get it to stop, but then it got to the point where that wouldn’t even do it.
“I had all these tricks that would work and then it would get to the point where they’re not working anymore, and I’m just sitting here waiting for it to stop, and I didn’t know what to do to stop it then.”
So Ruggles and his parents trekked back to Oklahoma for the third surgery. This time, the family was told a pacemaker was “a definite possibility” pending the outcome of the surgery. That likely would have dealt a fatal blow to playing contact sports for Ruggles, who already was following his father’s footsteps as a basketball zealot.
But the third surgery – finally – delivered the intended results.
Again, the plot thickened. Doctors discovered that not only were there extra pathways involved, but many of them were located in a muscle outside the heart, not inside.
“Basically their comment to us was this is the kind of thing we put in our textbooks,” David Ruggles said.
A couple months after the procedure, Ruggles’ life was close to normal, and it has stayed that way since. He’s not sure how many of his Wheaton Academy teammates even know about his heart history.
Other than a few isolated moments, Ruggles enjoys complete peace of mind.
“I still right now sometimes, whenever I feel my heart do something weird, I get worried,” Ruggles said. “I’m like ‘OK, I’m not letting this happen.’ And then it’ll be fine. My heart will be beating just normally.”
His parents are another matter.
“I’d say the main thing, for my parents, they still sometimes will worry about it,” Ruggles said. “They’ll always check up on me because I’m the one who had the three big-time surgeries. I don’t want them to feel that anymore. I want them to just be fine with it and not have to worry about it.
“But that’s not really something you can get rid of because it’s a part of them, too. They had to go through it all the exact same I did.”
King of the Hill
Any red-blooded basketball fan likely felt his heartbeat quicken a pace or two on March 15 at Peoria’s Carver Arena.
That’s when Ruggles matched his total from the qualifying round the day before and drained a staggering 13 of 15, pressure 3-point shots to win the IHSA Class 3A 3-point contest. His performance included 12 makes in a row but, indicative of the hard-to-fathom standards he maintains, Ruggles came away ticked that he missed his final shot of the round.
The next day, Ruggles defeated the three champions from Illinois’ other classes to be named Illinois’ King of the Hill – the best 3-point shooter in the state.
Wheaton Academy boys basketball coach Paul Ferguson calls Ruggles the hardest-working Warrior he has coached, a notion backed up by the 3,000 shots a week Ruggles hoists year-round. Many of those come in his own home.
“I really, really want to play at the next level,” Ruggles said. “I have the resources. I mean, I’ve got a gym in my basement where I can practice whenever I want. I’ve got goals in mind, especially for this offseason that are specifically so I can get my name out there and get recognized, and make our team a lot better next year, because that’s the main thing.”
After a shooting exhibit like Ruggles staged in Peoria – sinking 26 of 30 3-pointers over the competition’s first two days – it might seem that motivation to keep improving would be hard to come by.
But Ruggles – who has played for the Mercury Elite AAU program alongside Tri-Cities hoops standouts such as St. Charles East’s Cole Gentry and Geneva’s Nate Navigato, Chris Parrilli and Cam Cook – plans to push himself like never before this offseason.
“I don’t at all think, man, how much more do I have to practice, because I’m wide open [during the 3-point contest]” Ruggles said. “It’s a 3-point contest. You get 15 wide-open shots, and how many of those do you get in a game? There are so many other things of my game that I have to work on that are more than just shooting.”
Ruggles made 42 percent of his 3-point shots and 88 percent of his free throws as a sophomore at Wheaton Academy, where he played alongside big brother Brandon, who was a starting senior forward for the conference champion Warriors.
Ferguson anticipates greatness from the 6-foot, 145-pound guard as physical maturation complements an already striking skill set.
“I think in the next two years, his junior and senior year, you’re going to see him be one of the top guards in the western suburbs,” Ferguson said. “Great kid, great leader, and he really works at it.”
Ruggles’ heart checkups are down to once a year. He has scar tissue from his surgeries and there is a possibility of a pacemaker as an adult, but there is little reason for his heart history to be at the forefront of his thoughts.
Still, Holly Ruggles thinks her son’s airtight focus and ability to thrive under pressure might stem from his challenging childhood.
“He just has this approach of ‘I just have to focus and get though this,’ “ Holly Ruggles said. “I sometimes wonder if some of that comes from how he approached surgery.”
When the family traveled to Oklahoma for the last two surgeries, they encountered many children facing much more dire circumstances. Ruggles has kept that in mind, and hopes his own uplifting ending is not the exception.
“If there are other kids who have something like I had or have something going on in their life that could hold them back, you can’t think about the negative things,” Ruggles said. “You have to count your blessings.”