Tuesday June 8th, 2010

Musings, observations and the occasional insight as we creep within two months of the Bengals and Cowboys kicking off the NFL's 2010 preseason in the Aug. 8 Hall of Fame Game in Canton...

• More than just a stellar 16-year NFL receiving career will end Wednesday when Isaac Bruce retires as a member once again of the St. Louis Rams, after being "traded'' by the San Francisco 49ers on Monday. It'll mark the end of an era of sorts in the NFL as well, because Bruce is the league's last remaining player to have suited up in the regular season as a Los Angeles Ram, the team that drafted him out of then Memphis State University in 1994's second round.

Hard to believe, but the Rams have already logged 15 seasons in St. Louis, after relocating from Southern California in the spring of 1995, and Bruce only played 12 games of his rookie season as an L.A. Ram. The NFL franchise that started in Cleveland in 1937 played 49 seasons in Los Angeles (1946-94), and some folks still believe the Rams are destined to return to SoCal at some point in the not-too-distant future.

Bruce, of course, will always be linked first and foremost to the "Greatest Show on Turf'' Rams of 1999-2001, the club that went to a pair of Super Bowls and won one in January 2000. And it's somewhat fitting that both he and ex-Rams quarterback Kurt Warner left the NFL stage in the same offseason. It was that 73-yard lightning bolt of a touchdown strike from Warner to Bruce with less than two minutes remaining that won Super Bowl XXXIV for the Rams against Tennessee, and it's still the most significant play in the franchise's long and storied history.

"That honor and that distinction could not be held by two better guys,'' former Rams head coach Dick Vermeil told me by phone Tuesday morning. "They are both very deserving of it. It's just a shame that neither one got to end their playing career as a Ram. [St. Louis] told them both they love them now, but it would have been easier to show them that a long time ago.''

I expect Warner and Bruce will be wearing the yellow blazer of a Hall of Famer some day, and while Bruce may never have been the game's most dominant receiver at any point during his career, his long and distinguished body of work and statistical heft (fifth in receptions all time with 1,024, second in receiving yards with 15,208, ninth with 91 career touchdown catches) left a solid mark in the record books.

Vermeil, who had Bruce for three years in St. Louis (1997-99), said Bruce was "the best receiver I ever coached, and I've been around some good ones.'' He recalled how Bruce at times would actually practice making an easy catch more difficult -- grabbing it with one hand, etc... -- to prepare himself for tougher receptions during a game.

"I used to stop him during practice and say, 'Why are you doing that?' '' Vermeil said. "But he wanted to make the easy catch more difficult in order to work on some other skills.''

That Bruce will hold the distinction of being the game's final playing link to the Rams' Los Angeles era -- a team that gave us such NFL luminaries as Merlin Olsen, Deacon Jones, Bob Waterfield, Elroy Hirsch and George Allen -- adds one more impressive footnote to Bruce's career résumé. He was the L.A. Rams' last active player and the first St. Louis Ram to make the Pro Bowl, an accomplishment no other player will ever duplicate.

• It's difficult to add anything meaningful to the scores of tributes to John Wooden, the UCLA basketball coaching legend who died last week at age 99. But the one time I was fortunate enough to interview him, at the McDonald's All-America high school basketball all-star game in Philadelphia in the spring of 1987, I walked away cognizant that I had just met one of the true giants in both the world of sports and in life. And I'm not talking about his level of celebrity, fame or accomplishment as much as I am his character and the sheer impact of his presence.

I'll never forget that when I interviewed Wooden 12 years into his retirement, he seemed the happiest that I wasn't asking him about his own coaching legacy, but that of another longtime basketball coaching great, Morgan Wootten of the storied DeMatha High program in Hyattsville, Md.

Wootten, a 2000 inductee in the Basketball Hall of Fame, and Wooden were old friends and two peas in a pod, and Wooden once said of Wootten: "Morgan Wootten has been called the finest high school basketball coach in the country. I disagree. Morgan Wootten is the finest coach, at any level, I have ever seen.''

That fairly well summed up the John Wooden that I met at the Spectrum in April 1987, while I was still covering high school sports for the St. Petersburg Times. He was a legendary but self-effacing figure who never felt the slightest need to remind you of his place in coaching history.

• I couldn't help but ask Dick Vermeil for his reflections on Wooden as well, given that he coached alongside him at UCLA in the mid-70s, at the close of the Wizard of Westwood's career. In many ways, Vermeil's earnestness and ability to invest himself in the lives of the players he coached reminded some of Wooden's gifts.

"He had a tremendous value system that he imparted to athletes,'' said Vermeil, who was UCLA's head coach in 1974-75, Wooden's last two years with the Bruins. "He was just so real, and such a great example that you wanted to emulate it. He had a way of establishing unbelievable credibility in a short period of time, and that credibility allowed him to gain tremendous respect and a deep level of trust from the people around him.

"He was just very believable, and even though his players didn't always agree with him, they trusted him and had faith in him that everything he did was for their good and for the betterment of the team. He taught me to coach the entire person. He'd say you don't coach football, you coach a person who plays football, in the same way he didn't coach basketball as much as he coached people who played basketball.''

Mired in an eight-game losing streak with the Rams in 1997, his first season back in the NFL after a 14-year absence from coaching, Vermeil said he got a surprise phone call from Wooden one Monday morning in St. Louis.

"You talk about a timely reinforcement,'' Vermeil said. "He said, 'You know what you're doing and you've got a plan for the job ahead of you. Just stick to your guns and it'll all work out for good in the end. Don't waver.'

"As far back as my days at UCLA, John would convince me, 'Don't worry about those people next door, meaning USC. They're always going to be better physically. Just help the players you have be the best they can be and the rest will take care of itself.' All the concepts he used in coaching were always human concepts.''

• Given that it has been the storyline that dominated other recent offseasons, I've been pleasantly surprised at the lack of Brett Favre will-he, won't-he chatter so far this year. Then again, two reasons come to mind: Maybe we've finally learned No. 4 will always take every last available moment to make his decision; and it is only June 8, after all. That's about 70 days shy of when Favre opted out of retirement last year, reporting for duty in Minnesota at the very late date of Aug. 19.

So we've still got plenty of time to crank up Favre Watch 2010.

• Whose idea was the 14-pound sand-filled football in Minnesota? The one that fumble-prone running back Adrian Peterson is carrying around these days to get over his case of the dropsies? All I know is the Vikings had better hope he doesn't lose his grip, because if he bobbles it away and it winds up breaking his foot, it'll be the worst idea an NFL coach has had since Jacksonville's Jack Del Rio put that axe in the Jaguars' locker room a few years back and told his guys to "keep chopping wood.''

SI Apps
We've Got Apps Too
Get expert analysis, unrivaled access, and the award-winning storytelling only SI can provide - from Peter King, Tom Verducci, Lee Jenkins, Seth Davis, and more - delivered straight to you, along with up-to-the-minute news and live scores.