As he rounded the corner to hug his family, a group of youth basketball players swarmed the 6-foot-4 Rutherford in search of autographs. Rutherford signed shirts, balls and the game day program, which features individual profile photos of the Owls on the back.
One youngster, after receiving the autograph, studied the photos momentarily before asking, Which one is you?
“My picture’s not on here,” Rutherford said, grinning.
He didn’t explain why. The story would have taken too long.
Rutherford was never supposed to play Division I college basketball. He wasn’t on the FAU roster when the season began, and wasn’t even trying to make the team. Until a couple week’s ago, Rutherford’s biggest contribution – if it can be called that – to the FAU basketball team came when his grandfather helped FAU coach Dusty May get his first job in college basketball.
As a youngster May did landscaping work for Dave Rutherford. When May decided he wanted to pursue college basketball coaching as a career, Dave made call to his friend Larry Rink, at the time Indiana University basketball’s team doctor. In the late 90s May served as one of Bobby Knight’s team managers.
Fast forward a couple decades. May, now at FAU, earned his first head coaching job. Much like May a generation prior, Will wanted to try a career in basketball coaching.
Will hadn’t exactly taken the tradition route to NCAA basketball. Born in Fairfax, Va., Rutherford graduated from the International School of Bangkok in Thailand, where his family still lives. He attended the University of British Columbia in Canada for one year before reaching out to May.
Rutherford enrolled at FAU in 2018 as a business management major and joined the Owls’ basketball team as a manager.
With injuries crippling FAU’s depth in late January, May came to a realization.
“What happens if we get a game where there’s a bunch of fouls called and we have to finish with four players?” May asked his staff. “We need to see if Will is eligible to play and put him in uniform.”
May’s decision wasn’t charity. He’d watched Rutherford play on the scout team during practices, seeing an intelligent player who could help on the boards, if necessary.
“One day coach pulls me aside and he says, Hey Will, we’re going to throw a jersey on you.” Rutherford said. “Would you want to do that? I was pretty shocked but I said, ‘Yeah.’ And here I am.”
Rutherford’s first game in uniform came in FAU’s Jan. 31 victory over La. Tech. After the closing seconds ticked away, Rutherford started cleaning up the bench area, a reflex action for team managers, before an assistant told him to head out to the floor and join his teammates in celebration.
Ever since then Rutherford is pulling double duty. He’s a manager much of the week. On game days, he’s an athlete.
“Every once in a while I’ll look back at my buddy Jake (Simmons), one of my fellow managers, and I’ll joke that I need a towel, or for him to bring me some water, just to mess with him a little bit,” Rutherford said, laughing.
Which brings Rutherford to Saturday. With FAU leading Rice 60-41, May called timeout with 15 seconds remaining in the game for the sole purpose of inserting Rutherford, the lone Owl without a last name on the back of his jersey, into the lineup. FAU’s bench erupted in cheers as Rutherford took the court. Seeing the players’ reaction, FAU fans followed suit.
With his mother, Elizabeth Rossini, having made the trip from Thailand to see her son in uniform and his father, Mike, watching a 2 a.m. live stream of the game from Bangkok, Rutherford flawlessly in-bounded the ball to Richardson Maitre, and the Owls dribbled out the remaining time.
Rutherford’s name will forever appear in agate type. It’s on the record. He played Division I college basketball.
“Coach threw me a little gift, got me on the court,” Rutherford said. “It was awesome.”
That appearance led to Rutherford’s first autograph session as an Owl.
“First autographs since probably middle school when I was able to dribble through my legs and they thought I was going to the NBA,” Rutherford said.
Now that Rutherford’s a college athlete those original autographs could suddenly grow more valuable. After all, NCAA basketball is the gateway to the NBA.
“Hey, one step away,” said Rutherford, still smiling.