By Donna Cornelius
Journal Features Writer
Football season brings excitement, high hopes and a whole new crop of gridiron stars. Fans can’t help hoping their favorite player might become the Heisman Trophy winner or the next big thing in the NFL.
And those with a shrewd frame of mind might also wonder if the photo that player autographed at Fan Day could one day be a prized collector’s item.
David Rula didn’t start his sports memorabilia collection for monetary reasons, though he’s acquired some highly-coveted pieces. When the former Mississippi State University basketball player first got into his hobby, he was aiming for a specialized collection.
“I intended to have a Mississippi sports room, but it just because a sickness,” he said, laughing.
The casual visitor to Rula and wife Natalie’s tastefully-decorated Mountain Brook home won’t see items from Rula’s extensive collection; most of his treasures are in his sons’ bedrooms and in the basement.
But in those spaces, the walls, halls and even closets are filled with sports memorabilia from players who are stars in basketball. And football. And baseball, golf, hockey and boxing, too.
College basketball fans may find Rula’s name a familiar one. He played on the Mississippi State University team that went to the Final Four in 1996 after a Sweet 16 appearance the year before. His teammates included two first-round NBA picks, Eric Dampier and Dontae Jones.
Rula, who’s 38, serves on Dampier’s foundation board, and the two have worked together on fundraising events, Rula said.
“Eric and I are still good friends,” Rula said. “When he went pro, I got his jersey. Through him, I could get NBA jerseys at player prices, which are 40 percent off.”
Rula’s role as a dad is what brought him to Birmingham. He has two boys: Holland, 13, a seventh-grader at Mountain Brook Junior High, and Larson, 11, a student at Cherokee Bend Elementary.
“My first wife had moved here, so I moved here to be with my kids,” Rula said.
A native of Jackson, Miss., Rula had worked for his family’s construction business for 14 years. He gave that up to be closer to his sons.
Career-wise, “I had to reinvent myself,” he said.
With partners Matt Greer and Ryan Cooper, Rula owns Digital Marketing Services, a digital printing company. Birmingham Business Journal recently ranked DMS as the eighth largest printer in Birmingham, Rula said.
“I didn’t know a thing about Birmingham when we moved here, but I’ve loved it,” he said. “I love the food, the culture and the diversity. People have really welcomed us.”
His sons love his hobby, he said.
In Larson’s room are framed NBA jerseys from Shaquille O’Neal, Dwight Howard and Kevin Garnett and an All Star jersey from Dirk Nowitzki.
Also in Larson’s room is something that Rula said is a “must-have” for any serious collection: a red Michael Jordan Chicago Bulls jersey.
“The red Michael Jordan jersey is worth more than the white,” he said.
Rula listed other requisites in a serious sports memorabilia collection: items from the U.S. Hockey Team that won an Olympic gold medal in 1980 and from boxer Mohammed Ali. He has both.
Son Holland’s room boasts NBA jerseys from stars Larry Bird and Magic Johnson, framed and hanging side-by-side over the bed, and the signed, official stat sheet from Jason Kidd’s last triple/double.
Another prized piece is the helmet quarterback Brett Favre wore in his first season with the Green Bay Packers.
“Our business worked on his family’s property in Mississippi after Hurricane Katrina,” Rula said. “They let me go into the house and pick out something, and that’s what I chose.”
Most of the things he’s collected have come to him through other ways.
“About 90 percent of what I have, I got in person or through relationships,” he said. “And I’ve built my collection through trading. Since I had access to NBA players through Eric, I could trade for things like my pieces from Ali and Tiger Woods.”
Dampier isn’t Rula’s only Mississippi connection. Although Jonathan Papelbon, a pitcher formerly with the Boston Red Sox and now with the Philadelphia Phillies, graduated from MSU a few years after Rula, the two became friends and once owned a duck-hunting camp together, Rula said.
Papelbon provided tickets to the last Red Sox-New York Yankees game played at Yankee Stadium. Those tickets and a photo of Rula and Papelbon made at the game are framed and hanging on Rula’s wall.
In one basement room designated the “golf room” is a group of flags from the 2010 Masters Tournament.
“If the player writes the date on the flag, it doubles in value,” Rula said.
He also has one of the yellow bibs given to players ranked No. 1 on golf’s Champions Tour. This one belonged to his friend Michael Allen; Allen wore it when he played in Birmingham’s Regions Traditions tournament.
Some of the more unusual pieces in Rula’s collection are a soccer ball signed by Pele, a mounted copy of a Wall Street Journal article called “Where Are They Now?” published 10 years after MSU’s Final Four appearance, and an extremely large shoe signed by member of the Los Angeles Lakers—with one notable exception.
“I don’t have anything from Kobe Bryant,” Rula said. “He can’t sign except according to his contract terms.”
A Kobe Bryant item is on Rula’s “white whale” list, as is a piece from one current soccer star.
“I’d like to have something from Lionel Messi, the next Pele,” he said.
At one time, Rula said, he set a lofty target for himself as a collector.
“My goal was to collect things from all 50 of the top NBA players of all time,” he said. “I thought someone might offer me $1 million for this. I’m up to 18 of them now, but I’m not going to be able to complete it. There’s one Bob Pettit jersey left, and it’s about $33,000.”
It’s not surprising that Rula’s most prized item is his Final Four ring—which is actually a replacement.
“The first one was stolen,” he said. “It was in my mom’s jewelry box at their house in Florida. Balfour has the mold, and the company owner is from Jackson and a family friend, so I was able to get another one.”
His second most valued collectible, he said, is “my U.S. hockey stuff.”
Also on the list are his and Dampier’s Mississippi State jerseys, his Johnson and Bird jerseys, the Lakers shoe, Favre’s football helmet and the Jordan red jersey, he said.
Right now, Rula said, he’s stopped actively collecting.
“My wife wouldn’t allow me to get more,” he said, laughing.
Natalie is a nurse who’s currently a clinical liaison for Gentiva Hospital. She’s also an Ole Miss graduate, so the Rulas have the Mississippi version of an Alabama-Auburn marriage.
Rula said both his sons are “good athletes” who play with the Vestavia Soccer Club. Larson plays basketball, too, like his father and Rula’s dad, who was also an MSU basketball player.
While Rula is getting involved with the Alabama Steel, a summer basketball program for children in grades 4-7, he doesn’t coach his sons, he said.
“I’m a dad—I just watch,” Rula said.