By RJ Sepich
Matthew Ruffner sat in a bar in Tucson, Ariz., and watched his beloved Pitt Panthers football team play the Notre Dame Fighting Irish on the evening of Nov. 14, 2009.
Ruffner couldn't make it to Heinz Field that night because he was in Arizona on military duty, training to fly helicopters. Still, he wasn't going to miss the opportunity to watch his 12th-ranked Panthers in a primetime game against one of their biggest rivals.
A graduate of Indiana University of Pennsylvania, Ruffner became an avid Pitt fan five years prior when he watched Tyler Palko lead the Panthers to a stirring 41-38 win at Notre Dame.
On this particular Arizona night, Jackie Bignardi was the bartender serving Ruffner and she found herself instantly drawn to the charismatic soldier wearing Pitt gear. The two hit it off, although not immediately because Ruffner was laser-focused on the television during the game. Once Pitt had finished off the Irish with a five-point win, a connection was made between Jackie and Matt.
"He was just awesome. He was so nice and genuine," Jackie said. "He told me how he had a 'man crush' on this former Pitt player named Tyler Palko, and he just knew how to make me laugh. It's kind of clichéd, but I believe it really was love at first sight. And to make it even better, Pitt beat the Irish that night, 27-22. I'll never forget that score."
After that night, Bignardi and Ruffner became inseparable.
The two made an unlikely pair. Ruffner was a helicopter pilot from Pennsylvania; Bignardi was a Brazilian-born bartender living in Arizona. Despite their differing backgrounds and the long distance they lived apart from each other, they found a way to make it work.
"When Matt left Arizona to go back to Pennsylvania, he would fly me to Pittsburgh every three weeks," Bignardi explained. "And every time I'd visit, we'd go to a sporting event. We'd see Pitt play, we'd see the Pirates play, we'd see the Penguins play. Those were our dates."
After about a year, Jackie moved to Pennsylvania. With their courtship going on three years, Bignardi and Ruffner knew they wanted to get married in the future. They decided to wait on an engagement until Matt returned from his upcoming year-long tour of duty in Afghanistan.
"There was no hurry. We were happy and in love," Bignardi said. "We wanted to wait and get through his deployment. We wanted to do things the right way."
Bignardi admits that she often thought about their wedding day, and she already knew what song they would dance to at their wedding.
"We always sang to 'Sweet Caroline.' That was our song because it was Pitt's song," she said. "It was something special between us. I told my mom that was the song Matt and I would dance to at our wedding someday."
On Nov. 28, 2012, Matt left for Afghanistan. Before he got on the plane to depart, he hugged his girlfriend tight and whispered in her ear.
"Don't worry, Jackie," Matt said. "I'll be home in no time."
Matthew Ruffner never made it home.
While serving with the Pennsylvania Army National Guard's Company B 1-104th Attack Reconnaissance Battalion on April 9, 2013, Ruffner and his co-pilot Jarett Yoder died when their AH-64D Apache helicopter went down in eastern Afghanistan. The cause of the crash is still being investigated.
He was 34 years old.