Colorado's Nelson Spruce is a campus star, but remains one of the nation's most unheralded players
When the students chant the name throughout Folsom Field, it may sound like boos to an outsider. Don't be mistaken. From "Westbrook" to "Bloom" to "Spruce," it's a tradition that many CU alums can familiarize themselves with. It's a badge of honor.
Wide receiver Nelson Spruce has already broken most of Colorado's receiving records, including career receiving yards and receptions, and is one touchdown shy of the school's all-time receiving touchdowns mark. His head coach has predicted to the media on multiple occasions, a "long" NFL career for Spruce, who also holds the Pac-12's all-time receptions record.
At 6' 1", 205 pounds, Spruce might not stand out like a typical football player on campus. Yet, no one seems to catch students' eyes more than, wait for it:
Throughout the week, Spruce may hear the echo of his last name as he walks to class or grabs lunch on the hill and although flattering, it also reminds him of all work he's put in since he first arrived at CU as a freshman.
"When I was a redshirt freshman you're just another guy on campus," Spruce said. "I've definitely seen a gradual increase in attention I've received over the years. It's cool, not only for me, but for the team, I feel like our team is getting a lot more recognition the more competitive we're getting."
When students first began the 'Spruce' chant last season it took a few catches before Nelson realized, "Oh they're saying Spruce." But he quickly got used to it.
"That's one of the reasons I love playing at home and getting that first catch," Spruce said. "The first time hearing that is awesome."
Spruce hasn't only received attention from students, but also from those who records he's broken. Former Colorado wide receivers Michael Westbrook (previous holder of CU's all-time receiving yards) and Scotty McKnight (receptions record) reached out to congratulate Spruce.
"You see these guys at the top of the record boards when you're coming in as a young freshman and you're just trying to get into the starting lineup," Spruce said. "Then, to be getting texts from them after breaking their records is something that is pretty cool."
Yet, despite all the records and career statistical accomplishments, Spruce still won't receive some of the national attention others might. He's used to it, and it helps fuel his fire.
"I think I fly under the radar, and that's something I'm okay with," Spruce said. "I've kind of been doing it my whole career, even coming out of high school … Now, I get to play against (Pac-12 athletes) and show them what I can do on that type of stage. So, I definitely play with a chip on my shoulder because of that."
When it comes to the competition, however, they know what to expect from Spruce. After most games throughout his Pac-12 career he says that it has become typical for opposing defensive backs and coaches to come up and tell him, "You're a hell of a player," or, "I respect the way you play."
"That's what you play the game for," Spruce said. "To play at the highest level and earn the respect of your competitors."
Spruce's doubters won't go away though, especially as he looks to embark on a career in the NFL. He's prepared for it and knows what he has to do to overcome the feat.
"I'm a pretty good athlete, but I'm not a physical freak like some of these guys," Spruce said. "I'm a guy that has to come into work every day, can't cheat the game, can't take any shortcuts. Any opportunity I have to get better, I'm going to take it because I feel like that's the only way I can be successful."
A finance major who will earn all-academic honors to go along with likely all-conference honors, Spruce insists he'll outwork his competition.
"I feel like if I'm putting the work in off the field then it carries over to on the field and vice versa," he said. "I like to attack everything like that."
Now he hopes that can continue on to the next level, where maybe he'll hear "Spruuuce!" echo from stadiums on Sundays.
Anthony Lepine is SI's campus correspondent for the University of Colorado. Follow him on Twitter.