INDIANAPOLIS — Cesar Ruiz and his father should be crushing a buffet spread right now and making plans to return to their favorite spot after the NFL draft.
There is much to celebrate for Ruiz, who starred at center for Michigan and secured his status as a soon-to-be first- or second-round pick with his on- and off-field performance at the NFL combine. And yet there is a hole in his heart.
His father, Cesar Edwin Ruiz, pulled over to the side of Route 55 in South Jersey to help another car change a flat tire in December 2007. He was struck and killed at age 26 by a driver who reportedly fled the scene of the accident.
“This whole entire experience is dedicated to that whole tragedy,” Ruiz said. “Every night, every day, I think about it. If my dad was here to see what I’m doing right now, he would be mind-blown. I’m still playing for my dad. My dad still lives through me. And that’s how it’s always going to be.”
For the son — who was 8 years old at the time of his father’s death — there is some peace in the elder Ruiz’s Good Samaritan actions.
“What I pride myself on is just doing things for people and being a good person,” Ruiz said. “The way it happened, he was doing something good. You really wouldn’t want it any other way if something were to happen like that.”
Ruiz knows all the other ways tragedy happen. He grew up in Camden, N.J., surrounded by gangs and violence and protected by a strict single mother who ordered him to come from school every day. A cousin was shot and killed.
“It will either make or break you,” Ruiz said. “There’s a lot of people I grew up with, it didn’t make them, it broke them. You just have to have a good head on your shoulders. You hear about violence, shootings, killings, rivalries almost every week. It’s something you become immune to [because] as a kid you see it so many times.”
Ruiz left New Jersey after his sophomore year at Camden High School to enroll at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla. The 6-foot-3, 307-pound center earned a scholarship to Michigan, where he became a 31-game starter (five at guard in 2017) and two-time All-Big Ten selection.
“He’s a big man in a skill player’s mentality,” Camden coach Dwayne Savage told The Post. “He always wants to work out with skill guys on footwork and getting faster and stronger.”
The Giants conducted a formal interview with Ruiz at the combine, and he is a strong candidate for their No. 36 pick if still available. Jon Halapio is a restricted free agent coming off Achilles tendon surgery.
“Everything that happens has made Cesar,” Michigan teammate Mike Onwenu said. “He sees stuff that we don’t see, changes stuff on the play and nine times out of 10 he is right.”
Asked about returning to New Jersey, Ruiz’s thoughts immediately went to his mother traveling to all home games. She was unavailable for comment.
“Football came into my life when I was 10 years old,” Ruiz said. “I really played because my mom really wanted me to get out of the house. It was kind of a therapeutic thing for me because I was still mourning the death of my father. And she saw it.”
Little did either of them know it would help Ruiz blossom into a charismatic, mature leader.
“Everybody falls in love with him,” Savage said. “Wherever he goes, he is probably going to be the one on the team making the most commercials.”
Ruiz draws comparisons to the pre-draft version of Cowboys’ All-Pro center Travis Frederick — with a skill-set highlighted by strength, consistency, awareness and ability to combination block.
“He’s a steady Eddie,” NFL Network draft analyst Daniel Jeremiah said. “High floor, know-exactly-what-you’re-getting player [with] a chance to be a Pro Bowl-caliber center.”
Savage brings former Jets linemen Dwayne White and James Brown around his team to set an example. Ruiz counts Giants safety Sean Chandler, who grew up homeless for a time in Camden, as a mentor.
“I knew it was dangerous, but I never thought anything of it,” Ruiz said. “I never saw the outside world before IMG Academy.”
A world of possibilities is just opening to Ruiz.
“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 for a first-rounder,” he said. “I know my father would be very proud of me.”