Curtis Rukavina was on his end of season getaway trip in Santiago, Chile in December last year at La Castellana enjoying a late dinner – a native Chilean dish called Chorrillana – with fellow backpackers. The local eatery was dimly lit with Spanish music playing in the background. Rukavina had his cell phone with him for only one purpose: football communication. That night it buzzed with a text from a trusted colleague, and Rukavina looked at the message right away.
Colleague: 9:23: “Put Victor Butler on the neg, I’m friends with his agent and he’s convinced he wants to come play up north and wants to play for you guys.”
Rukavina: 9:29: “Wow.”
Colleague: 9:31: “You get him on the neg?”
Rukavina: 9:33: “Done.”
Rukavina emailed the CFL football operations department and within seconds of the first text Butler, who has 65 games of NFL experience as an outside linebacker/pass rusher, was added to the Argos neg list, and he eventually signed with Toronto.
“You’re always on the clock, it doesn’t matter where you are. I felt good about adding Victor because it was a position of need for us,” Rukavina says.
The 28-year-old’s dedication to his work as a scout and football executive is one of the main traits that’s allowed him to rise in the pro football ranks quickly. His dad was a football coach so he grew up close to the game and he started playing at eight years old in the Mississauga Football League. Collegiately, Rukavina played at Erie Community College for two years and transferred to the University of Guelph for the final years of his eligibility. Earlier this month, he moved from a scouting role with the Argos into a job with the Buffalo Bills.
After graduating, Rukavina was coaching at Guelph in 2014 when an opportunity came about with the Toronto Argonauts. As Rukavina was helping prepare the defensive game plan in the bowels of Alumni Stadium the week of Guelph’s homecoming game against Queen’s that season, his phone started ringing with an old teammate turned scout on the other line. Chris Rossetti, who was the Argos director of player personnel at the time, said there was an opening in the scouting department and Rukavina would have to start now.
Rossetti: “Are you in?”
Rukavina told then-Guelph defensive coordinator Kevin MacNeill about the position he had been offered and it was off to Toronto for the coming Monday where Rukavina began his pro football scouting ascent.
“It was a whirlwind. I went there and put my head down. Jim Barker [Argos general manager from 2011-2017] introduced me to the salary cap and how to manage it. Chris [Rossetti] taught me how to scout, what to look for and how to write reports. I had a lot thrown at me in a short time,” Rukavina explains.
“I got my first taste of scouting in January 2015 when the Argos sent me out on the road to my first college all-star game.”
Then Rukavina turned his focus to helping the team prepare for the CFL draft that May. Making film cut-ups, working the magnetic rankings board and writing reports on players. He was progressing at a fast rate and impressing Barker. In March of 2015, Rukavina was elevated to the role of player personnel assistant.
“He was a young guy who was passionate about learning football. He did every grunt job there was. He had to go pick guys up from the airport and bed checks. Every job and task I gave him he did at a high level,” Barker says. “When I wasn’t asking him to do things, he was watching film and he would ask me questions or he would sit in when I was talking to [then-head coach] Scott [Milanovich] about players. He was trying to learn how to evaluate players.”
Two months after Rukavina was in his new role, Rossetti left for a pro scouting job with the Miami Dolphins. At that point, Barker told Rukavina that the team was not going to hire anyone for the position Rossetti left and that he would give him the chance to run with it.
“It was new waters for me. All of a sudden I was handling contract negotiations, working the neg list, aiding in the weekly cap projections and learning immigration protocol for players,” Rukavina says.
“You get situations where you need a receiver or a defensive end in the span of a day, so get out the hot list, make contact with a player, negotiate a contract, organize travel plans, get them up here. That’s when I realized I can do this.”
(Photo: Johany Jutras)
One of Rukavina’s prized finds while with the Argos was defensive back T.J. Heath, who had been on his personal watch list. While Rukavina was touring NFL training camps in August of 2015, a stop in Carolina at Panthers camp provided an up-close look at Heath. Athleticism, size, length and ball skills stuck out to Rukavina when he watched Heath and he added him to Toronto’s negotiation list. When Heath was a free agent heading into the 2016 year, Rukavina got him signed to be in Argos camp. Heath tied for the league lead with seven interceptions and earned CFL all-star honours in his rookie season north of the border.
February 2016 saw Rukavina promoted to director of player personnel, the same position Rossetti held before leaving for the NFL. It was a confirmation of Rukavina’s abilities and he handled the role without the official title for nearly a year.
“Curtis came in, he worked a year doing a bunch of junk, then the next year he got a little bit more responsibility and he was ready to become the director of player personnel and did a fantastic job in that role,” Barker says.
Rukavina was clearly fast tracking, he had been in the CFL for a year and a half and already earned lots of responsibility from a four-time Grey Cup champion football man in Barker. As Rukavina was moving up quickly in Toronto’s front office, he was doing the same in the minds of scouting connections he had developed in the NFL. After the 2017 NFL draft, Buffalo let go pretty much their entire scouting staff, which created openings.
“It sparked with Rossetti planting the seed for me,” Rukavina says.
New Bills general manager Brandon Beane called Argos counterpart Jim Popp in May asking for permission to interview Rukavina. Afterward, he went down to Buffalo for an interview for a pro scout position.
“I talked to people about what to expect so I would be prepared. I met with Beane, Joe Schoen [Bills assistant GM] and Brian Gaine [Bills vice president of player personnel] individually,” Rukavina explains.
Rukavina grew up a Bills fan, living an hour and a half away from where the team played, the family had season tickets for many years and the Erie Community College Kats, where he played collegiately for two years, share a parking lot with the Bills home stadium, New Era Field at Ralph Wilson Stadium.
The same day Rukavina interviewed, he was outside watching the team go through organized training activities at the Bills practice facility when Beane walked up beside him and asked: “Are you in?”
Rukavina responded: “Heck ya! Let’s do it.”