DAVENPORT, Fla. – It’s not easy to become one of the most memorable figures in franchise history. It takes years of dedication, hard work, consistency, and above all, sacrifice for the club. And in the club’s 20-year history, of the hundreds of people that have come and gone, only a handful has truly earned their place in that upper echelon.
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It’s certainly a tall task, and there’s a reason but a few have ascended to such heights. But the end product—the respect and admiration of your peers, the love and passion from the club’s most loyal fans—is reward beyond compare.
Doing so without ever stepping foot on the pitch? Well, that’s simply the stuff of legends.
But that’s exactly where Fernando and Sean Ruiz stand, alongside the most memorable and beloved figures to ever call the New York Red Bulls home. It didn’t happen overnight, and it certainly didn’t come to fruition without it’s fair share of sacrifice and hardship along the way.
“When you’re around as long as me, all the years just start blending together. I usually just determine things as before Bradley and after Bradley.” - Fernando Ruiz
In 2003, MetroStars head coach Bob Bradley utilized a rule no longer in existence, allowing a goalkeeper switch to be made as a legal fourth substitution. Bradley obliged in the most orthodox of ways, with Eddie Gaven and Tim Howard at the heart of it all.
What happened that day earned Bradley the nickname of "Cheatin' Bob,” but that instant classic will go down in history for more reasons than one.
“It was my first game,” Sean recalled. “I remember the bait-and-switch with the goalie and scrambling for gear. It’s just like how we do it now; when you have to do it, you just do it. So we found something to give to Eddie and we were able to make the switch.”
New York went on to win that day over long-time rivals D.C. United, but the ramifications from that match extended farther than anyone could have imagined at the time. It signaled the start of a 13-year partnership between father and son, one that—much like the franchise itself—has quite the story behind it.
“I ran into Marc de Grandpre. He made me an offer I couldn’t refuse.” - Fernando Ruiz
On the heels of winning his battle with cancer the year prior, Fernando Ruiz made one of the toughest decisions of his life in 2005.
After 35 years, he left his post with New Jersey Transit at a time when money didn’t seem to matter as much. It certainly paid well, but the demands of the job began to take its toll, and working two jobs became an insurmountable task. In the end, he joined the Red Bulls staff full-time.
A Metro original—with the club since its inception in 1996—Ruiz finally made the leap to fully dedicate himself to the job he loved so dearly. It brought him more joy than he could imagine, and it showed in every facet of the job.
To some, he’s “Papi,” to others, he’s “El Padrino,” but to all, he’s a part of the family. And while much of his work is done behind the scenes, he’s still managed to transcend the position, becoming one of the most adored figures in the organization.
“Sometimes they ask me why I do some of the things I do for the kids. I do their laundry, I’ll help them move, I’ll bring them to IKEA to buy furniture, whatever it takes. And my answer is that if my son was ever in the position that they are, I would like somebody to treat my son like I treat them.”
And the concept of family is one that is immediately apparent when in his company. Young or old, from GM down to website reporter, everyone is greeted with the same warm smile, and likely even a playful jab. It doesn’t take long to see Fernando’s core values shine through, so perhaps it should come as no surprise to see his son enter the fold.
“There’s that line where you don’t know where a father ends and a boss starts. That line is sometimes not so clear.” – Sean Ruiz
Few people can possibly know the dynamic that exists between Fernando and his son Sean. After all, it’s not often that your father turns into your boss full-time. But that’s precisely the position that Sean found himself in when joining the team over a decade ago.
That decision, however, came at a price. Following in your father’s footsteps wasn’t unheard of—“taking up the family business” has been commonplace for centuries—but it wasn’t so cut and dry for Sean and his family.
For as much as Fernando wanted to be there for his son, he battled conflicting emotions as to where he would like Sean’s future to take him. Working as an equipment manager was the end goal for Fernando, but in Sean’s case, he couldn’t help but ponder what else could be in store.
“I have always let my son choose his own path as much as possible,” Fernando said. “I’m not going to say I made a mistake, but I gave him the opportunity to come work with me for a summer with the academy team 11 years ago. He liked it and he stayed.”
The trepidation comes not due to an apprehension of conflict between son and father in the workplace, but rather a concern for his son’s best interests. After earning a degree in physiotherapy, Sean was hardly forced into his role alongside his father. Nevertheless, being with the Red Bulls is where he felt he belonged.
“His mother was quite upset about it,” Fernando said with a laugh. “But we had a long talk and we knew we always wanted him to be happy. If you’re going to be a shoemaker, be the best shoemaker you can be; not everybody’s going to be a doctor. He had the chance to have a career in physio or having a business, but he’s chosen this path.”
That path he chose turned out to be all he could hope for and more, as Sean has blossomed in his role with the team. Sure, there may have been other opportunities on the horizon, but for Sean, there was really only one.
“Growing up loving and now working for your hometown club is what people dream of. I’ve been around long enough to say I love this club inside and out; I’d do anything for this club.”
More so than most other father and son duos, Fernando and Sean had to learn to manage the relationship that comes with the territory of being co-workers. In more ways than one, it wasn’t always an easy task.
“Sometimes it’s good, sometimes it’s bad; you have your good and your bad days,” Sean said. “There are days where he’s on me, but there are days where he gives me a little bit of leeway.”
The dichotomy is understandable from both sides. Is it possible to remove yourself from your role as a father to solely act as an employer? How can you learn to take criticism in the workplace while separating it from your home life? It’s something that Fernando admittedly struggled with for years.
“It’s gotten better in the last five years, because at first it was quite difficult. I used to bring the stuff home sometimes, but my wife was the voice of reason who reminded me to keep work at work. I have so much passion for this job. I treat everything with passion, and because he was my son, I used to talk to him a little bit stronger than if he was just a regular employee. But I have learned to change that.”
“We’ve seen good teams, great teams, come through that door. But we always seemed to come up short.” – Sean Ruiz
Change comes with the territory when you become a part of the club, a part of the family. Faces come and go—friends, co-workers, players—but their presence remained one of the few precious constants within the franchise. Both Fernando and Sean served as a reminder that as much as change is an inherent part of the business, the club had an ever-present heartbeat, and epicenter that represented its core values.
Yet year after year, they both endured the same fate from a professional standpoint; all of their blood, sweat and tears ended in heartbreak come season’s end. For as much as any fan who’s been around since the beginning has felt pain, the Ruiz’s felt it tenfold.
But on Oct. 27, 2013, that all changed. Finally, after all they had endured as a family, as a club, they had something to call their own; the 2013 Supporters’ Shield. And at the end of the day, a fellow club legend made sure they both got their long-awaited due.
“The fact that you had someone like Thierry Henry—he’s done everything you can do in soccer—to come up to us, it was an honor,” Sean admitted. “We’re some of the lowest people on the totem pole, and for someone like him to recognize us is just something you can never forget.”
Much of what both Fernando and Sean do on a day-to-day basis goes largely unseen or unnoticed. Both go about their business without much fanfare, willing to do whatever it takes to help the cause. But that’s what makes their roles all the more special; neither are looking for plaudits, but luckily, good things tend to happen to good people.
For Fernando, the win was beyond words. Years of futility were suddenly washed away as the fans and players alike celebrated the night away at Red Bull Arena. But above all, the gesture from the team’s captain was the ultimate tip of the cap.
“What really touched my heart was the respect,” Fernando said. “Respect, for me, is number one. If you respect people, they will respect you back.”
“He does a fantastic job, he’s ready to take over. This could be the beginning of me fading into the sunset.” – Fernando Ruiz
Some say that life never gives you more than you can handle. And over their lengthy stay with the club, both Fernando and Sean have managed to handle quite a bit. The demands of the job are sizeable; it’s a job that can be thankless at times, but always a grind. It requires you to be tuned in at all times.
“You always have to be prepared; you have to anticipate,” Fernando warned. “If you wait until a problem comes up, that’s it. You almost need to read minds.”
Each and every day, Fernando and Sean hold themselves to the highest standards; everything needs to be just perfect. The first ones to arrive, the last ones to leave, year after year it’s the same story.
“We have to have that locker room 100 percent right, 100 percent of the time,” Fernando explained. “There are a lot of things that go wrong in the day, but don’t let it be on us.”
Suffice to say, they’ve gotten it right more often than not.
It’s just a small part of what makes them both such a coveted part of the New York Red Bulls organization. But not just to the players and staff, but the loyal fans who have seen just as much as they have. Adorned on the walls of the South Ward are posters honoring their contributions to the club, showing just how loved they truly are. It may be a small gesture, but one that does not go unnoticed.
“They’re incredible,” Sean said. “Especially when my dad got sick two years ago, they were there offering support to me, my mom, my girlfriend, my sister. I owe a lot to them.
“For many years we felt a disconnect between us and the fans, but over the last year with Ali and Jesse really connecting more with community like with the Town Halls, it’s a way of making them feel appreciated.”
Added Fernando: “I always tried to go above and beyond to show that me as a person, and us as a team, appreciated them all. My granddaughter is even in the Viking Army. She’s as crazy as her grandfather.”
That appreciation has been reciprocated time and again over the years. It’s a bond that eludes description, yet is impossible to miss. Being a part of something bigger than oneself has driven both Sean and Fernando to be at their best, and in a moment of reflection, Sean admitted it’s something he hopes is evident to those passionate fans.
“It’s a grind, but just know that anything I do for the club, I do it with 100 percent. I never did anything because I had to; I did it because I wanted to. I say that thinking of a quote that my dad has, ‘I’ll keep doing this until it’s not fun anymore.’ But everyday I wake up and it’s fun. Being able to say I work for a club in one of the biggest cities in the world, you can’t beat that.”
The fun is still there for them both, but sometimes, that alone isn’t enough.
Entering his 21st season with club, Fernando is beginning to think about notions that previously never entered into his mind. After dedicating such a large portion of his life to the club that is so close to his heart, there have emerged more pressing matters in his life.
“It’s still as much fun as it was the first day, but my wife is not well. Her back is giving her a lot of problems, and now that Sean moved out of the house, it’s just her and I. She was there for me when I had the cancer, she was there for me when I had my heart surgery, and so it’s time for me to be there for her. It’s an issue, but we’re working on it. I’m not saying that I’m done and I’m going to move on, hopefully I have another two, three years. But I’m thinking about it, whereas a year ago, I wasn’t.”
Whenever the end may come, the road to this point been more eventful and memorable than anyone could have imagined. The relationships formed, the memories made, the stories told; it’s all a part of what makes this club such a special place to be. But more so, it’s made special by the remarkable people that put their love and passion into a greater cause.
There are still plenty of great memories yet to be written on his journey, but when and if his time with the club comes to end, Fernando admittedly has one simple request.
“Just to remember that I made a difference. Why? Because I truly enjoy what I do.”