College and high school sports have been cranking up for the fall season over the last month. For the first time in nearly 40 years, Jim Rueda hasn’t been part of it.
Rueda retired on Aug. 2 after 38 years on the sports staff of The Free Press, much of that as the newspaper’s sports editor.
In the past, this would be a busy time for Rueda, with schedules to coordinate, previews to write and games to cover. Instead, he’s been able to relax a bit, spending time with his grandchildren, catching some live music and some pro sports and really digging in on some fantasy football draft research.
“I’ll be honest with you,” Rueda said. “I have not missed it. I pick up the paper every day to see what’s going on and keep myself informed, but I’m glad I don’t have to schedule people to cover stuff anymore. I miss talking to players and coaches, but the day-to-day stuff, I don’t miss.”
Rueda has been retired for only a month, so that attitude could change. He’s already done a couple of stories as a freelance writer and may cover the occasional game in the future.
“It’s going to be interesting,” he said. “I’m not sure how it’s going to evolve. I hope to go to more MSU events as a spectator.”
A Twins game at Target Field and a trip with his son to the Cincinnati Masters tennis tournament are activities he didn’t have time for in the past, when August meant summer was over for a Mankato sports editor, with Vikings Training Camp in town followed by the start of high school practices.
Rueda’s first gig with the newspaper came before his official service time started — in 1976 when he was a student at Minnesota State. The Free Press was looking for someone to cover an MSU football game and contacted the student newspaper where Rueda, a mass communications major, was working. Rueda eagerly volunteered.
Little did he know that he was embarking on a four-decade career.
Stringing work turned into a part-time job at the paper, and, before he knew it, the latter became a full-time gig. Eventually, he took on the sports editor role, succeeding Morgan Brandrup in 1991.
“I kind of back-doored my way into it,” Rueda said. “I’ve never really had to put together a resume or look for a job.”
Through the years he hired several part-timers, giving them the same opportunities he got from The Free Press. Many continue to work in journalism today.
“He gave so many people their first opportunity to be a real reporter,” said New Hampton (Iowa) Tribune editor Bob Fenske, who worked at The Free Press as a part-time sports stringer for three years and later as a full-time education reporter. “He was a stickler on all the things that were important but was also a lot of fun to work for.”
Busy nights of covering games or taking phone calls from coaches and writing up briefs often ended with a single compliment from Rueda:
“Good J.O.B.,” he’d say, always spelling out the last word.
“I’ve always appreciated that he gave me a chance,” Fenske said.
Rueda noted that his time at The Free Press ran nearly parallel to a couple of big moments, one locally and one nationally.
The Queens, New York, native arrived in Mankato in the fall of 1975 when Mankato East High School was just 2 years old. When he looks at the faces and names on that school’s athletics hall of fame display, he said, it’s a stroll down memory lane.
“I know I’ve interviewed almost everyone on that wall,” he said. “That’s a weird feeling, that I’ve seen all those teams play and talked to all those people. That’s kind of cool.”
And that’s just one spot in the paper’s coverage area, one that includes about than two dozen high schools and colleges.
Nationally, Title IX’s passing in 1972 created more athletic opportunities for girls and women, so Rueda made sure to chronicle those sports, too.
“That pretty much doubled our coverage,” Rueda said. “That was a huge change. ... I felt we had a responsibility to give those teams their due in the newspaper and to try to spread the coverage around.”
Same goes for so-called minor sports. While football, basketball, baseball and, eventually, hockey drew a lot of interest, Rueda wasn’t going to limit the sports pages to those events.
That hasn’t gone unnoticed, said Paul Allan, Minnesota State’s associate athletic director for communications, who has worked with Rueda since he arrived at the university in the mid-80s.
“I think Jim took his role with The Free Press very seriously, and he took a lot of pride in providing a lot of coverage of all sports,” Allan said. “You could tell it wasn’t because he had to but because he enjoyed it. ... Jim was a driving force behind that.”
Rueda was often the one to take on some of those other sports, including wrestling, swimming, gymnastics, cross country and tennis. He wasn’t afraid to ask questions about the sports he knew nothing about, either.
For example, longtime Mankato West coach Luverne Klar and Minnesota State’s Rummy Macias, he said, answered his questions and taught him everything he needed to know about wrestling. Eventually, covering the state high school wrestling meet became annual highlight of Rueda’s coverage.
Pinning Rueda down on other career highlights is tough, but there was, he said, a pretty magical autumn in 1987 when he covered the Gustavus Adolphus football team’s 10-0, MIAC championship season, as well as the Minnesota Twins’ home games during the World Series.
In 2017, Rueda was inducted into the Minnesota State Athletics Hall of Fame in the builders category for his coverage of the Mavericks at The Free Press.
“He’s going to be missed,” Allan said. “I think his work was under-valued. It was never about the accolades with Jimmy; it was about doing the work. Jim was a bit of a grinder.”