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Pitt, Notre Dame and Love at First Sight: The Story of an American Hero

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Matthew Ruffner did ceremonial flyovers for Pitt, Steelers and Pirates games on the North Shore.

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.

*****


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Matthew Ruffner wasn't a complicated man. When he found something he loved, he devoted himself to it wholly.

"Matt was a pretty straightforward guy," said John Cornetto, a longtime friend and fellow military helicopter pilot. "He loved his family, his friends, his girlfriend Jackie, flying helicopters...and Pitt football."

Ruffner grew up in Punxsutawney before moving to Harrisburg and then Columbus, Ohio, where he attended London High School. A standout running back and defensive back in football and a talented baseball player, Ruffner graduated from London in 1997.

When looking at colleges, Matt decided not to play sports at the next level and settled on returning to the area where he spent his younger years.

"Matt should've gone to Pitt. I'll never understand why he didn't," said his father Chuck. "But he always said he wanted to go to school closer to Pittsburgh because he loved the city. And that's what he did."

Matt ended up choosing Indiana University of Pennsylvania and participating in the ROTC program. It was at IUP that Cornetto and Brad Bedner first met Ruffner.

"I remember on his dormitory floor at IUP, everyone claimed to be his best friend," said Bedner, who lived with Ruffner during college. "He was just one of those of people that everyone was drawn to -- like a big brother. He was such a great guy."

While at IUP, Matt dreamt of one day flying helicopters in the military and protecting his country. His friends once laughed at his ambition, but Ruffner remained determined. Not long after graduating college, Ruffner's hard work was rewarded. He accomplished his goal and became a certified military pilot and flew helicopters over Heinz Field and PNC Park for pregame ceremonies. Matt's talent and passion soon led to a promotion, giving him the opportunity to train other aspiring pilots at the Fort Indianatown Gap outside of Harrisburg.

For Ruffner, however, being a flight instructor wasn't enough. Training pilots and watching them go overseas on behalf of the United States of America wasn't enough. He wanted -- needed -- to serve his country in action and fight alongside many of the same pilots he helped train. So Matthew Ruffner left his family, friends and girlfriend to become a Pennsylvania Army National Guard Chief Warrant Officer and serve his country for what would've been a year in Afghanistan.

He died doing what he loved.

"Matt was one of the best pilots I ever met," Cornetto said. "He absolutely loved being in the air. I flew with him once, and it was the best flight I've ever had. He's the one who convinced me to apply to flight school to fly helicopters."

*****

Matthew Ruffner was buried at Burnside Cemetery near Punxsutawney on April 20, 2013.

Carried by numerous fellow soldiers, his casket slowly made its way through Punxsutawney with an American flag covering it. The people of Ruffner's hometown lined the streets to thank and honor him for his service and sacrifice.

As Matt's casket was lowered into its final resting place, a trumpeter played the customary military hymn "Taps" and ceremonial rifle blasts broke the silence. His parents, Chuck and Diane Ruffner, said a final goodbye too early to one of their sons, eyes filled with tears.

Soldiers removed the American flag from the casket, folded it and handed it to Diane, whispering to her the six words no mother of a soldier ever wants to hear.

"On behalf of a grateful nation."

Matt was a son, a friend, a boyfriend, a Pitt fan, an athlete, a musician, a pilot and a soldier.

But above all else, Matthew Paul Ruffner was a true American hero.

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Matt Ruffner's family (left to right): Matt's sister-in-law Mary; Matt's mom Diane, holding niece Cara; Jackie and Matt, holding niece Caitlin; Matt's brother Jeff; and  Matt's dad Chuck.

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