LARAMIE, Wyoming — Forty-six games ago, Dominic Rufran was a different person.
Occasionally, the senior wide receiver pops in the tape of his freshman season and laughs — at the unsure kid in the brown and gold, at what that kid defined as a "proper route," at all the mistakes a converted running back made when he was prematurely thrust onto the field.
"I wasn't very good freshman year. Let's be honest," Rufran said with a self-deprecating laugh. "It's like, 'Wow, I can't believe you actually played.'"
The player wasn't the only one struggling. A young, confused kid in an unfamiliar place, Rufran, as a person, felt lost. The Colorado Springs, Colorado, native was only three hours from home. And yet, he recognized nothing.
Rufran didn't like Laramie. He didn't like anything about it.
He had decided to head north for a four-year scholarship and an opportunity to keep playing the sport he had latched onto at age two, staying up to watch Monday Night Football with his father.
Very quickly, that decision haunted him. He wondered if he'd be better off at home.
"I didn't like being in the dorms," Rufran said. I didn't like eating the Washakie (dining hall) food. I didn't like not having a car. I didn't like the weather. I didn't like the small population. There was just so many things that I didn't enjoy. I didn't enjoy football, because of how they coached and the expectations. On top of that, you had school, you had study hall. You had so many new responsibilities that you weren't used to."
He didn't struggle alone. During that freshman season, Rufran latched onto another freshman wide receiver — Mansfield, Texas, native Josh Doctson. The pass-catchers were inseparable — together on the field, in meetings, at the dining hall, in the dorms.
In a new state, a new program, a new culture, a new everything, Doctson pined for home. He aired his grievances, and Rufran absorbed them. Like a virus, one receiver's doubts spread to the other.
Together, they floated skeptically along.
"He thought that he was bigger than this program in a way. Wyoming wasn't really his place," Rufran said. "I kind of felt the same way. When you do something with someone all the time, the things that they do become you.
"At the time, I was contemplating the same decisions. Should I leave? Should I go somewhere else? Should I go back home, or try Colorado State?"
Following their freshman season, Doctson transferred to TCU. Rufran stayed.
The unsure kid who has since grown into one of the most prolific receivers in Wyoming history chose perseverance over the easy exit. He found Christianity, which in turn has allowed him to accept and embrace a place that has embraced him right back.
He stayed, and he grew.
"I think every freshman at one point in time when they come here either thinks about quitting football altogether or going somewhere else," Rufran said.
"But if you end up sticking it out through everything, it's all worthwhile in the end."
Dominic Rufran wore a blank expression, unsure of how to respond.
For a player with 192 career catches, how do you narrow it down to one that's "most memorable?" Where would you even begin?
"Obviously, your first catch is always a pretty big deal," Rufran finally said. "Your first touchdown catch is always a pretty big deal. Your first 100-yard game is a pretty big deal. You keep taking those monumental steps."
To arrive at where those steps begin, you need to go back much further than three years. Rufran first developed his hands in the front yard, in countless games of catch with his father, Michael.
Like everyone around him, Rufran grew up an avid Denver Broncos fan. He still remembers watching John Elway win the Super Bowl at five years old. His eyes locked onto the running back, No. 30, Terrell Davis.
The speedy youngster always wanted to be just like him.
When he played flag football at eight years old, Rufran usually had the ball in his hand. In his only season at quarterback, there were no plays. He would run left or run right, and throw it up if he couldn't find a running lane.
Surprisingly, not much changed in high school. In his senior season at Palmer High, Rufran was the hybrid quarterback in a Wildcat offense.
After arriving in Laramie with limited knowledge of route-running or more advanced offenses, Rufran had one goal in his first career game against Weber State:
Catch one ball. Just one.
He accomplished that feat, though it wasn't easy. Quarterback Brett Smith, another freshman, threw it in Rufran's direction eight times, and only completed one pass.
"I was a freshman. Brett was a freshman. We weren't on the same page," Rufran said. "I caught a quick little 7-yard out on the last drive of the game, and that's all she wrote."
It would be the first catch of many. A 6-foot, 188-pound senior, Rufran has caught at least one pass in 46 consecutive games, every game of his career. That's the longest current streak in the nation, two shy of Wyoming's school record.
He can tie Jovon Bouknight's 47-game mark this Friday night against Utah State in Laramie with Bouknight, Utah State's wide receivers coach, standing on the opposite sideline.
There have been long catches and short catches, game-winners and milestones. And this season specifically, they have come when it's mattered most.
Trailing Florida Atlantic 19-17 with 2:05 to play on Sept. 20, Rufran hauled in an 88-yard catch-and-run that set up the game-winning field goal. In the Homecoming loss to San Jose State a few weeks later, he recorded two more catches in a frantic final drive that put the Cowboys in field-goal range once again.
"When he sees stuff hitting the fan, he kind of steps up and says, 'You know what, let's go. I'll put us on my back and make a couple plays,'" Wyoming wide receivers coach Kenni Burns said.
If he hadn't chosen to stay — to stick it out three years ago — those 46 games and 192 catches would not have followed.
Because Rufran stayed, he stands on the verge of history.
Kenni Burns wasn't sure what to expect.
When he arrived in Laramie this winter, Wyoming's first-year wide receivers coach had questions about Rufran, the team's leading returning receiver.
Of course, he knew the kid was talented. Rufran had quick feet and gears of acceleration, which would help him against the man-to-man coverage he was sure to face in Wyoming's new pro-style offense.
But after three years under one coaching staff, in one scheme, with one quarterback, would he embrace the sudden changes? Would he lead his teammates into a new era, or rebel against the unknown?
"I'm not going to lie, I was wondering at first if he would take on this offense, just because he's a senior and he's been in something for so long and he doesn't say very much," Burns said.
Rufran was asking himself many of the same questions. Suddenly, he was the remnant of a past regime. A glorified leftover. The coach who gave him a chance had been fired. The quarterback on the other end of 35 of his 37 games turned in his jersey for a chance in the NFL.
Rufran was still here. But for how long?
"Before spring ball, I was uneasy about a lot of things," Rufran said. "I was unsure about our quarterback situation, obviously our new coaches, if I was going to be able to be a factor in this offense, if it was strictly going to be run plays or if I was going to get enough touches."
On top of all of that, Rufran broke a bone in his foot while running routes in January. For all of spring practice, he was a bystander, watching his teammates adjust to a new style of play.
Burns' only evaluation of Rufran stemmed from what he saw on tape.
And despite all those catches, the tape gave mixed reviews.
"I told him when I first got here, 'You've got a ton of ability,'" Burns said. "The issue was getting it to be consistent every game and playing hard every game."
Confronted with adversity, Rufran again stuck it out. He healed, then led his team in voluntary summer practices. He and redshirt senior quarterback Colby Kirkegaard took to Jonah Field every few days, establishing chemistry and improving timing.
"He's gotten more mature, especially as a leader," Kirkegaard said. "I think it reflects a lot on the younger guys. They saw him out there working before and after our scheduled lifts and runs.
"I think that kind of spread throughout the team."
More hard work has yielded more games and more catches. Rufran embraced the coaches, the scheme and the responsibilities that accompanied it.
One of four team captains, he has continued to quietly excel.
"At times you forget the fact that he's got this record," head coach Craig Bohl said. "And I think much of it can be attributed to his attitude. He's a very selfless player. If he catches a pass, he's happy. And if he doesn't, I don't think he's over there doing the Randy Moss or anything like that."
With four regular season games remaining in his college career, Rufran has so many memorable catches that he can't single out just one. There have been highs and lows, and Rufran has persevered through all of it.
Now an elder statesman, he identifies with the freshmen that may be lost and unsure of who they are or what they should be.
He sees himself in all of them.
Forty-six games have taught Rufran that the storm doesn't last forever. Eventually, Wyoming grows on you. Inevitably, hard work wins.
"When you go through something like that, it makes it a lot easier to relay your story and your message to some of the younger guys," Rufran said. "You say, 'Listen, this is where I've been. This is where I was. And if you just stick it out, you'll understand that this adversity — these trials — will help you become a man at the end of the day.
"'This will help mold you into a better man, a better student, a better father.
"'You'll be OK.'"
Information from: Casper (Wyo.) Star-Tribune, http://www.trib.com
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