In rapid succession, Cesar Ruiz weathered two major surprises.
First, with the 24th pick of the first round in the NFL Draft on Thursday night, the New Orleans Saints picked Ruiz, a center who started his final 31 games at Michigan.
"I thought (the Saints) had a made a pick already, and I didn't think I was the guy," he said. "I got the call with, like, two minutes left on the clock. It was unbelievable."
Second, after the selection, he looked at the television screen and saw a picture of his late father, also named Cesar. The father died when the son was eight, struck by a car while he was attempting to help another motorist change a flat tire.
The latter triggered a flood of emotion for the son.
"I was thinking about my Dad," Ruiz said. "I dedicate my whole journey and everything I do to him. That was the first thing that came to my head, was my Dad, and then I looked on the screen and they put a picture of my Dad on the screen. That's where really all the emotions came from. And a big part of it also was the excitement and relief."
And even though his father never saw him play football – he didn't start playing until he was 10 – there is a bond.
"It connects with my Dad because my Dad passed when I was 8," he said. "My Mom had a fear of me going into depression, I wasn't myself. And really, the main thing that helped me cope with that was football."
So he played, and played, and played himself into a first-round pick for the Saints. And the Saints expect him to continue to play as a rookie.
Not be inactive, even though New Orleans' top pick last year – a second-rounder – was Erik McCoy , who started every game at center as a rookie in 2019.
"I think the obvious question would be, hey, he's a center, you had a center last year," Saints Coach Sean Payton said. "Obviously, we think one of them is going to be a guard because we weren't drafting someone that high to come in and be a backup."
The Saints return both starters, left guard Andrus Peat and right guard Larry Warford . Warford is entering the final year of his contract; Peat was an unrestricted free agent who signed a five-year deal to return to New Orleans.
"Every one of these guys is going to come in and compete," Payton said. "Larry's going to have to compete. That's how you improve your team."
Payton said the team landed a coveted player in Ruiz, a 6-foot-4, 316-pounder who was a two-time All-Big Ten player.
"One of the areas we wanted to improve in this draft was an interior offensive lineman," Payton said. "Those are hard players to find later in the draft. We have a real high grade on Cesar. He was a guy that I would say we had a lot of information on.
"He was extremely, extremely productive, a tough player at Michigan. Played with great balance. We feel like he's got guard flex, and we also feel like McCoy has got that same type of flexibility. When we drafted the player there were two players, three players, that we were really looking at staying put (at No. 24). There was a couple of guys we talked about trading up to get, but we felt pretty strong about letting the draft come to us and we were fortunate to get one of the two guys that we had starred.
"I just think it helps our offensive line. We talk all the time about building with the right type of players, but also with your defensive and your offensive line. We always want to draft to certain musts and needs, but certainly offensive line was one of those positions, and particularly inside. So we've got some flexibility.
"He was one of the better interior linemen I've seen in awhile, and I think we're getting a player with great physical ability and we're also getting a player who's got fantastic makeup. He's tough, he's a leader. He's just one of those players that you continue to watch, continue to watch, and I don't care what tape you put on, it all looked the same."
Cesar said he can play all interior line positions.
"That's where my versatility comes into play," he said.
"When I played guard, I wasn't really conducting the show. I'm not telling everybody what to do. (But) to me, guard is basically similar to playing center without snapping the ball. They're actually very similar."
Similar, but he said his preference is to be in charge of the show.
He'll attempt to be a major part of New Orleans' offensive show without the benefit of a rookie minicamp, OTAs or a veteran minicamp. The Saints will not conduct an offseason program as coronavirus precautions will continue to be observed.
But Payton said that Ruiz has the right makeup for the challenge.
"It happened in 2011," Payton said of not having a traditional offseason program. "I would say throughout our evaluation process this year, we're always grading what we think their FBI, or the football intelligence is, and then we're grading how we feel the interview went.
"But more specifically, back to intelligence, we felt this was a season when we read players – for someone to say, we see them contributing his first year – you had to believe that knowing they weren't going to get a rookie minicamp, they weren't going to get OTAs or they weren't going to get a veteran minicamp.
"So you had to as a scout, as a coach, anyone who was evaluating a player, had to really think about making that statement because of the situation going into training camp. We're always looking for smart guys that can pick up quick. This is one of these "A" learn players; made all the calls on their offensive line, really, really sharp and you feel it when you watch him play."
With the 24th pick in the 2020 NFL Draft, the New Orleans Saints selected OL