THE basketball world first caught a glimpse of her pretty face when it was flashed on the giant screen at the Robinsons Midtown Mall in Manila during the 2011 PBA rookie draft, shortly after his beau Mark Barroca was picked in the first round by B-Meg.
A loud cheer rang out inside the mall, not so much for the rugged Far Eastern University sparkplug who made it to the pro ranks after a controversial end to his varsity career, but more for the comely lady who unabashedly shed tears of joy for her man. Almost immediately fans were both smitten and intrigued by their unique love story.
Years later, Ruselle and Mark share their fairy-tale story to Spin.ph, proud that after a two-year courtship, a controversy that almost ruined the player’s career, the curious stares they got and still get from strangers, ridicule on cyberspace, and the intrigues that cast doubt on the feelings of the girl, came the happily-ever-after part.
Now Mr. and Mrs. Barroca, and blessed with a baby aptly named Faith, here’s their story.
Love at first sight
It was naturally love at first sight for Mark. “Nung nakita ko siya, alam ko na, biglaan na lang narinig ko yung ting! ting! Noong narinig ko yung music, yun na. Doon ko na nalaman na siya na. She’s the one. Kaya niligawan ko na siya,” he said.
But it was not so for Ruselle, a homebody who knew very little about UAAP basketball and had no idea what the fuss was all about when friends had their pictures taken with members of FEU’s varsity team, Mark Barroca included.
“After ng isang game sa Cuneta Astrodome, game nila (Mark) ‘yun versus La Salle, nagpa-picture sila (friends ko) sa mga players. Eh di, nakidikit na din ako pero di ko kilala yung mga taong pinagpi-picture-an nila,” she recalled. “Tapos eh may ka-close si Mark dun na friend ko tapos naging friends na din kami ni Mark.”
Besides, Ruselle then was deep into her relationship with his first boyfriend and had no plans of entertaining suitors.
“Noong time na tinanong niya ako kung pwede manligaw, sabi ko hindi ko talaga siya type. Parang gusto ko lang siyang kaibigan, tapos may boyfriend ako, ‘yun talaga ang nagustuhan ko kaya sinabi ko kay Mark na hindi pa ako ready,” said Ruselle.
The broken-hearted suitor initially retreated, but soon came back with renewed vigor. They remained friends over the next two years, giving them the opportunity to know each other better until the time came when Ruselle’s two-year relationship with his first boyfriend ended.
Still, it wasn’t easy for Mark to win her heart.
“Iniiyakan ko pa siya dati kasi wala pa ako feeling sa kanya kasi gusto ko lang kaibigan kami tapos kumportable lang ako sa kanya,” she said.
Barroca said: “Matagal ko siya niligawan. ‘Yung sa two years na before naging kami, sa first year wala pa gaano, unti-unti muna so nung nagtagal, the following year, sobrang seryoso na. May time na sinabi ko na sa kanya sagutin na niya ako kasi parang nainip na ako kasi two years na din.”
Reaching the Summit
Believe it or not, Barroca first earned ‘pogi points’ with the help of Strepsils lozenges and bottled Summit water likely taken from the FEU team’s supply, which he delivered without fail to an ill Ruselle by taking the stairs all the way to her ninth-floor classroom.
“Nadaan niya ako sa Summit at Strepsils,” Ruselle laughed. “Lagi siya may dala sa akin na ganoon, siguro dahil lagi sila may libreng tubig (sa team). Tapos nasabi ko sa kanya masakit lalamunan ko kaya lagi niya ako binibigyan nung gamot.
“Ang room ko nasa ninth floor. Palaging mahaba ang pila sa elevator kaya maghahagdan siya, aakyat siya hanggang makarating sa room ko para ibigay yung tubig at gamot.”
It also helped that the 5-7 playmaker soon won over Ruselle’s mom. “Ang una niyang binigyan ng bulaklak yung nanay ko, hindi ako. Yung mommy ko sobrang mahilig sa basketball kaya inuna niya niligawan. Botong-boto sa kanya mommy ko, wala naman siyang nakikitang masamang ugali ni Mark,” said Ruselle.
There were also the countless times when Barroca would fetch her after classes and take Ruselle to her home in Tandang Sora, Quezon City.
“Sabi ko, ang tiyaga naman nito ihahatid ako sa bahay kahit malayo, kahit di niya kabisado ang Maynila,” said Ruselle. “At feeling ko kasi pag kasama ko si Mark yung may magtatanggol sa akin. ‘Yung di ako iiyak, parang may Superman ako.”
After a long courtship, the point finally came, Ruselle said, when she saw Barroca not as the mischievous and playful varsity star but as a deeply religious young man, a caring big brother to his 10 nephews, and a loving son to his parents.
“Noong umuwi kami sa Zamboanga nakita ko kung paano niya asikasuhin yung pamilya niya. Kasi may sampu siyang pamangkin na maliliit na bata tapos noong sabay-sabay kami kumain, isa-isa niyang nilagyan ng kanin yung plato nung mga bata.”
When she was finally ready to say yes, Ruselle took Mark to the chapel inside FEU’s Morayta campus to seal their relationship.
“Noong sasagutin ko na sya, dinala ko sya sa simbahan para di n’ya ko lokohin,” she said.
Love withstands test
The sight of a beautiful girlfriend turning emotional at the sight of Barroca being picked fifth overall by B-Meg turned the couple into instant hits on cyberspace, with Ruselle’s picture becoming among the top searches in the weeks after the rookie draft. But what most people hardly realized was that their comments had already become hurtful.
“Nasaktan ako, affected ako pag nakikita ko sa Facebook at sa ibang sites (ang mga comments). May nagsabi kasi sakin na yung picture namin naka-post pinagkakatuwaan,” said Ruselle. “May time na sumagot ako kasi kung di ako sumagot iisipin nila na tama yung ginagawa nila, pero hindi naman tumigil.”
Ruselle said she was so affected she once stopped opening her social network accounts.
“Noong time na ‘yun tinigil ko na magbukas ng Facebook kasi pag binubuksan ko nasasaktan lang ako. Hindi na ako sumagot kasi below the belt na,” she said.
Doubts about her true feelings for Mark soon followed, not only from the people who don’t know them but, worse, from the people around them.
“Ang sabi kaya nakakuha ng ganyan si Mark kasi mayaman siya, marami siyang pera tapos yung babae, ako daw, mukhang pera,” she said. “Sinasabi ng tao pagdating daw ng araw na wala si Mark iiwanan ko daw.
“Ang dami nasasabi na di ko talaga mahal yung tao. Eh ako naman di pa player yung tao close ko na siya, di ako after dun sa kasikatan niya. Hindi naman sa pinapatunayan ko na mali ang sinasabi ng tao kasi mahal ko talaga si Mark. Kung di ko mahal to di ko tiisin sinasabi ng mga tao sa akin,” she added.
But their biggest test came way before that, when Barroca, then in his third year with the Tamaraws, was mysteriously dropped from the roster as rumors of game-fixing swirled around the team. Tears still welled in Ruselle’s eyes to this day as she recalled those dark days.
“Noong natanggal siya sa FEU, tinatanong ako dati ng prof ko, nagbenta yung kaibigan mo? Umiyak ako pagkatalikod ko. Tinatanong nila ako kung nasaan si Mark. Alam ko nasa chapel siya pero di ko yun pwede sabihin. After ng class ko hinihintay ko muna magdilim dun ako dadaan sa likod ng chapel para dalawin siya tapos nag-iyakan kami.”
The lowest point of Barroca’s playing career, however, only served to bring them closer than ever.
“Oo, yun (controversy) talaga nagpa-strengthen nung bond namin,” said Barroca. “Noong time na ‘yun pinakita niya sa akin yung support niya sa akin, as girlfriend ko. Di niya ako iniwan.”
That dark episode was the reason for the tears Ruselle shed on draft day.
“Umiyak siya sa (PBA) draft kasi instead na may nangyari sakin na di maganda after noong sa FEU, may blessing pa,” Mark said.
Ruselle continued: “Umiyak ako kasi nag-flash back sa akin lahat ng nangyari sa kanya. Wala naman kasi makakapigil sa isang tao na makamit yung mga pangarap niya. Kahit ano pa ang ibato laban sa kanya, naging successful pa rin siya.”
Now, Barroca’s star has started to shine for San Mig (formerly B-Meg) and there is bliss in his family life, their union blessed with a three-month-old daughter the couple had named Natalie Faith.
“Oo naman, blessing higit sa lahat ‘yung baby namin. Pinangalan namin sa Bible kasi gusto ko maging mabait siya, religious, may takot siya sa Diyos. Kaya ngayon pa lang pinagpe-pray na namin yung baby,” Barroca said.
More than ever, Ruselle is still by Mark’s side as he goes through the ups and downs of life as a pro player.
“Siguro ‘yung mga nangyari, hindi pa natatapos doon. Madami pa darating hanggat andito ka sa mundo ni Mark madami ibabato sa kanya,” said Ruselle. “Kaya ipagtatanggol ko siya, po-protektahan ko siya, gagawin ko ang lahat bilang asawa niya.”