On Henry Ruggs III and the cousin I hardly knew
A tragic death brings back the story of another young woman who died too soon
It’s been over a week since the car crash involving former Las Vegas Raiders wide receiver Henry Ruggs III that claimed the life of 23-year-old Tina Tintor. An already heartbreaking situation somehow became even more so as details emerged in the days afterward. About Tintor’s screams as she was pinned in her car while the fuel tank caught fire. About Ruggs sobbing as he sat on the ground after the crash.
And it brought back one of my family’s darkest moments from more than 30 years ago.
Ruggs, a 2020 first-round pick by the Raiders, is due back in court on Wednesday. Make no mistake, what happened on Nov. 2 was no accident. Prosecutors said his blood alcohol level was 0.16% — twice the legal limit in Nevada. His Chevrolet Corvette Stingray was traveling at an unfathomable 156 mph when it hit Tintor’s Toyota RAV4, killing her and her dog Max. Ruggs’ football career is effectively over. He was first charged with two felonies: reckless driving and driving under the influence resulting in death. On Nov. 5, prosecutors added two felony charges for the injuries his girlfriend suffered in the crash, as well as a misdemeanor charge for possession of a loaded gun while intoxicated. The former University of Alabama standout faces a maximum sentence of 46 years.
Those are the legal facts of the case against Ruggs. Yet, that only represents half of what’s at play here. The sins we can never rectify are the hardest to live with, especially for Tintor’s family. And perhaps with Ruggs himself.
Since the news broke, I’ve been unable to stop thinking about the crash. All it’s done is dredge up a familiar pain from the past over a cousin I never truly had the chance to know.
Jamie Arlene Fernandez was the only child of my grandmother’s cousin Jeanie and her husband Arsenio. She was an inquisitive, curious child who grew into a typical teenager, a little rebellious, a little stubborn, but ultimately a young woman confident in her own skin while coming to understand her place in the world. I was too young to remember much about her. But family members say she adored me, a younger cousin some 20 years her junior who attached himself to her the few times our paths crossed.
As the stories were passed down to me over the years, Jamie was turning her life around in a way many young adults do once they realize the world doesn’t just revolve around them. She landed a good job with the post office and was excited about what the rest of her 20s and 30s would bring. And so was the rest of my family. Everyone loved her, and everyone wanted to see her find happiness. And by all accounts, she was en route to doing just that.
On July 5, 1989, Jamie was hanging out with her boyfriend — a young man whose name I’ve never learned. As far as I know, emotions were still festive following Fourth of July celebrations a few hours earlier. Jamie was in the passenger seat as her boyfriend, who was drunk, started to drive. They were involved in a crash moments later. Jamie went through the windshield and hit a pole head-on. Mercifully, I guess, she died instantly. Like Tintor — a young woman she never shared time on earth with — Jamie was 23.
As for what happened in the aftermath of Jamie’s death, unsurprisingly, it changed the arc of my family’s history. Jamie’s boyfriend, according to my grandma, “walked away without a scratch and never did a day in jail.” Her parents, Jeanie and Arsenio, never truly recovered. Losing a child, especially in the manner they did, causes a parent to question everything. Themselves. The world. And even God himself.
The Jeanie and Arsenio I remember were always reserved. In part, that was their personalities, but also, a part of them was no longer here. I’d ask Jeanie about Jamie over the years. Her response was, for the most part, the same. That Jamie was a handful, but she was “her handful,” and that she wished every day she could turn back time. As far as Arsenio, a man of few words to begin with but of massive compassion, if I close my eyes, I can see him sitting in his basement in the Germantown neighborhood in Philadelphia watching his big-screen TV cheering on the Eagles or his personal favorite athlete, Allen Iverson. But when I asked him about Jamie, he’d rarely talk. His eyes glassy, all he’d ever say was, “My baby.”
Jeanie and Arsenio died a year apart in the early 2000s. Health ailments were the ultimate cause, but in the back of my mind, I always figured it was at least partially due to broken hearts.
After their deaths, I was connected to Jamie in a different way. Jeanie and Arsenio had saved a good amount of money from businesses they had in and around Philly. That money, or at least a large chunk of it, was supposed to go to Jamie. When that was no longer an option, they left the money to my grandma to pay for my brother and me to go to college. So much of my life, and the opportunities I’ve been blessed with are due to a family tragedy I don’t remember but carry with me every single day.
That’s not to say I haven’t tested the limits of angels looking out for me either. It’s often been said that God looks over babies and fools, and it’s been decades since I was a baby. An ugly truth is that many of us have been behind the wheel of a car when we absolutely shouldn’t have.
My moment came shortly after Christmas in 2014. In a few days, I was supposed to fly to Los Angeles to start a new job. I had parked on the side of the road in Colonial Heights, Virginia, and fallen asleep behind the wheel. A police officer’s knock on my window startled me awake. The car was off. Keys out of the ignition. But I knew I was in trouble — and, honestly, I should’ve been.
That fear from that moment will forever live in the pit of my stomach. One, because I was objectively in the wrong. I failed every sobriety test and at that point, I figured I’d be spending the night in jail. Two, because it was myself and two cops on a dark road in Virginia. For reasons still unclear, one of the officers — a young Hispanic guy who looked to be around my age and had just started the job — decided to let me go if someone came and drove me home. My mom and grandma did.
The next morning, they didn’t yell at me. They didn’t need to. There was nothing they could’ve said that would’ve made me feel worse than I already did. Days later, they dropped me off at Richmond International Airport for a one-way flight to California. The entire trip, I thought about how I could’ve hurt or killed myself and left my mom and grandma in the same situation as Jeanie and Arsenio a quarter century earlier. Or, even worse, how I could’ve hurt or killed someone else who was just trying to get home days after Christmas. Had that happened, I probably much rather would’ve died myself.
Why I was given that moment to learn and move on while Ruggs wasn’t is a question I’ll only have answered when I get to see Jamie again. The life he envisioned for himself is gone forever. He took a life, all because of a selfish decision.
Criticizing Ruggs, though, does little to offer any comfort. Maybe that’s why his former Raiders teammate, quarterback Derek Carr, spoke about the situation, not with forgiveness, but with empathy. A young woman lost her life in the most painful and tragic of fashions. That much will never change. Yet, the driver of the car that took her life, in essence, took his, too. That will never change either — and Ruggs has to live with that anguish.
Every now and then, I think about Jamie’s boyfriend. Is he still alive? Does he ever think about her? If I had the chance to speak to him, what would I say? And how much different would my life be if I had the chance to grow older with the cousin I never knew?
Henry Ruggs III’s story is a stark reminder that life is a result of the decisions we make. And that those decisions rarely affect just us.