Aundray Bruce, a 21-year-old outside linebacker from Auburn who on Sunday will become the No. 1 selection in this year's NFL draft, was a shy, awkward child who seldom spoke because of a severe stutter. While in grade school in Montgomery, Ala., he refused to raise his hand in class, and at home he retreated to his bottom-bunk bed to draw sketches of cartoon characters. "I couldn't pronounce some words, sometimes even my own name," says Bruce. "So I didn't speak. I didn't want to be made fun of."
His mother, Lucille, paid for speech therapy sessions and smothered him with love. She called him Boobie, for baby. His older brothers, Arthur, now 36, and Sylvester, 35, encouraged him to play sports. After Aundray's seventh-grade basketball games, they treated him to meals at McDonald's. They challenged him by setting outlandish scoring goals for him, and if he came close, they would reward him with T-shirts and sweatpants.
"Aundray was the quietest fellow," Sylvester says. "I sure didn't think he'd amount to anything spectacular."
On April 6 he signed a five-year, $4.15 million contract with the Atlanta Falcons, who have the top pick in this year's draft and, as has become the custom, made their choice known long before draft day. "Aundray can become as good as Lawrence Taylor and Carl Banks," says Ken Herock, the Falcons' director of college player personnel. "He has all their qualities. There might be something missing, but we can't see it."
April 24, 1988
What is missing is celebrity; Bruce may be the least-heralded No. 1 pick since the NFL merged with the AFL in 1967. He was never a finalist for the Lombardi Award, which is presented annually to the top college lineman or linebacker. In his two years as a starter for the Tigers, Bruce never did lead the team in tackles for a game or a season. In '87 he had eight sacks in 11 regular-season games.
Bruce's detractors question whether he deserves to be No. 1. His admirers agree that he lacks motivation but say he merely needs an old-fashioned disciplinarian—somebody like Atlanta Falcons coach Marion Campbell—to get him in line. One NFL team's scouting report reads: "Needs a challenge...inconsistency undefinable."
Bruce, who's 6'6" and 250 pounds, may be neither as passionate about football as Taylor is, nor as hardworking as Banks. "In NFL jargon, he's a three-and-one player," says George Young, the New York Giants' general manager. "He goes hard for three plays, then takes one off."
Inconsistency has indeed been Bruce's major failing. For example, in Auburn's 1987 opener, against Texas, he made eight tackles. He had 10 two weeks later at North Carolina, and against Georgia Tech he had the finest game of his career: nine tackles, three sacks, a fumble recovery, a forced fumble and three interceptions, including one he returned 45 yards for a touchdown. But in between, against weaker teams like Kansas and Vanderbilt, he was less impressive and was accused of not going all out.
"We never knew which Aundray would show up," says Kurt Crain, Auburn's other All-America linebacker, who figures to be a middle-round choice in the draft. "That's his one drawback. I often had to tell him during games, 'C'mon, we need you.' "
Bruce's erratic stats may be slightly misleading; against weaker opponents, he and the rest of Auburn's powerful first-string defense were often pulled early. Besides, Bruce says, "when an opponent is weak, I have a tendency not to come as hard. I will do just enough to make it obvious I'm the better player. Then I save myself for the games that mean the most."
He'll not have the luxury of taking breathers in the pros. And when he goes full-bore, Bruce is a sight to behold. He has been known to work himself into a frenzy at the line of scrimmage. Tears will stream down his cheeks, and he will taunt opposing tackles and tight ends with cries of "You can't stop me!"
Bruce claims to hold an unofficial Auburn record for starting fights in practice. Football's violence clearly turns him on. "When I'm on the line, I feel a burning sensation in my stomach," he says. "In that intense moment, I want everything to start moving. I can't act that way off the field. People would think I'm psycho. Actually, I'm a laidback guy. But when I play football, I'm an intense ball of heat."
On a cool March evening, Lucille Bruce's tiny four-bedroom house in the Gibbs Village projects of Montgomery is buzzing with visitors. A couple of skillets of cornbread and a vat of collard greens are warming on the stove. In the oven, three chickens sputter in an enormous roaster. "Mama still thinks she's cooking for an army," says Bruce.
"I don't know how to cook just a little bit," says Lucille, almost apologetically. But her penchant for producing big meals is understandable: She raised 14 children—seven boys and seven girls—almost by herself. Her husband and Aundray's father, Willie James Bruce, was found slumped over the wheel of his tractor-trailer, shot to death when Aundray was still a toddler. "The police never found out who did it," says Arthur.
Lucille worked as a maid and a babysitter to feed her brood. Arthur and Sylvester supplemented the family's income by washing cars and moving furniture. Daughters Corine, now 40, Delores, 39, Willie Mae, 37, and Barbara, 33, did the grocery shopping, cleaned the house and helped cook meals and raise the younger children. "It was important for our family to be close," says Sylvester. "No matter how tough things got, we wouldn't be divided."
Bruce, the second youngest, received most of Lucille's attention. He was forever challenging another of his sisters, Teresa, to races on Gibbs Street. Teresa, a year older, never lost. "Boobie would fall, tear his britches and come home crying," Lucille recalls. "I'd sew 'em up, and he'd go right back out there."
Says Aundray, "Teresa was a headache. Everybody looked down on me because I couldn't outperform my sister." He retaliated by playing practical jokes on her. After school he would hide under her bed, and the moment she plopped on the mattress, he would reach out and grab her ankles. Sometimes he would hide in the closet instead, and burst from it to surprise her. While she was taking a shower, Aundray would go outside and sneak up to the bathroom window. Then he would holler. "I'd nearly break my butt," says Teresa, "I'd jump so high."
By his sophomore year in high school, Aundray had grown to 6'3" and 185 pounds and had developed into one of the best players on the Carver High football team. He started at tight end and outside linebacker, but also played at eight other positions: tackle, end, noseguard and cornerback on defense, and tackle, wide receiver, running back and quarterback on offense. And he returned kicks. "I couldn't afford to take him out of the game," says Davis Brock, Carver's coach.
During practices Brock made Bruce work harder than everybody else. When the first team took water breaks, Brock insisted that Bruce keep playing with the scrubs. As a prank Bruce appeared at practice one day wrapped in Ace bandages from helmet to cleats. Brock laid down the law—20 laps around the field. "Aundray had so much talent, but he only performed at 70 percent of his capabilities," Brock says. "I was determined he would reach his potential."
Says Bruce, "I was just playing football to keep in shape for basketball. Basketball was my first love."
Indeed, he was such a gym rat that Dan Lewis, Carver's basketball coach, sometimes had to return to school at 9 p.m. to shoo Bruce home. In organized workouts, however, Bruce often tried Lewis's patience. Without warning, he would throw the 6'3", 190-pound Lewis over his shoulder and spin him around. One day practice was delayed for an hour when 16 basketballs disappeared from the gym. Bruce finally allowed that as a prank he had hidden the balls in a friend's car. Lewis made him run the bleachers in the gym for an hour and a half. "Without stopping," Lewis says.
Bruce usually redeemed himself on the court. As a junior and senior he led Carver to the state class 4-A championship. As a senior he was named the state tournament's MVP and won an All-Star game dunk contest. On the NCAA's February signing date for football letters of intent, Auburn was the only Division I-A power to offer Bruce a scholarship. He called a press conference to seal the deal but never showed up. "I can't do it, Coach," Bruce told Lewis. "I love basketball too much."
Instead, Bruce decided to wait for a basketball scholarship. Austin Peay, Jacksonville, Alabama State, Tennessee at Chattanooga and Auburn at Montgomery offered scholarships, but Bruce set his sights on Alabama. Undeterred by the Crimson Tide's lack of interest in his basketball potential, Bruce drove to the university to ask for a football scholarship, figuring that once he got on campus he would eventually be able to play both sports. But 'Bama wasn't interested in him for football, either.
Bruce stopped at Lewis's house on the way home from Alabama to repeat a question he had often asked his coach: "What are my chances of playing in the NBA?"
"Not good," Lewis replied.
"All right, I'll sign with Auburn," Bruce said.
But at the beginning he felt out of place there. "I went a whole month without seeing my mother," he says. "I called her every night and kept asking the coaches to give me time off to go home. But they said no. I was lost."
As a freshman, Bruce starred on special teams. He would tell teammates that he would give them a Snickers bar if they could beat him downfield on kickoffs. He never had to pay off. However, he found the transition to playing outside linebacker against major college talent difficult. He was a natural at covering backs and wide receivers man for man. But going one-on-one with strong tight ends or bulky tackles was another story. "They'd hit him in the mouth and knock him backward," says Joe Whitt, Auburn's outside linebacker coach.
More than once Bruce threatened to quit, but Arthur wouldn't let him. Arthur had been a talented schoolboy running back until he was forced into the role of family breadwinner. "Not all things in life come easily," Arthur, who now works as a butcher, told Aundray. "Stay in school. Get your degree. Don't blow this chance."
Bruce became a starter as a junior. He had also earned a reputation as a first-team wacko. He waltzed around campus in a Donald Duck cap and terrorized teammates and others. Freshmen found their cars in the athletic dorm parking lot up on jacks; Bruce had removed the tires. Other players endured rude awakenings; he punched them as they slept.
Bruce's most questionable pranks involved the use of a 22-inch machete. Just before a bed check in the athletic dorm, Bruce peeled off his clothes and dumped baby powder over his body. When assistant coach James Daniel, a dour fellow, stepped into Bruce's darkened room, Bruce sneaked up on him, brandishing the machete.
"He screamed real, real loud and ran out of the room," Bruce says, laughing. In return, Daniel invited Bruce to join him for "breakfast" at 6 a.m. the next day. "He ate and I ran stadium steps," Bruce says. "But it was worth it. That man finally showed some emotion."
Worse was the night the machete-wielding Bruce charged onto a field on which 500 high school cheerleaders had gathered for a clinic. Slicing the weapon through the air, he let out a war cry, sending screaming teenagers scurrying for cover. His coaches confiscated the machete. "I guess I started something I didn't want to start," he says sheepishly.
Bruce says he has mended his ways, that childish—and dangerous—stunts are a thing of the past. "I got a grip on myself. I realized I had only two more seasons to prove I was a classy player and a classy person, so I had to grow up quick," he says.
Part of that growing process has involved his younger brother, Kirby, now 18, who two years ago began running with the wrong crowd. He fell behind in his studies, and Lucille made him quit the Carver B basketball team.
Then Kirby's girlfriend was shot and killed. "My little brother went from bad to worse," Aundray says. "He wasn't my little brother anymore."
During the 1987 season Aundray invited Kirby to spend weekends with him at Auburn. After games they would go to movies and take walks on campus. "Kirby needed to see the kind of situation I'm in," Aundray says. "Even though I'm his brother, he looks up to me."
This past January, following Auburn's 16-16 tie with Syracuse in the Sugar Bowl, Bruce dropped out of school, as do so many NFL prospects after their final college seasons, and he has been able to spend more time with Kirby. He has promised to buy Kirby a pair of sneakers every time he does well in school. At last count, Kirby had earned 15 pairs and was on schedule to graduate from Carver this summer. "Kirby was like me as a kid," Bruce says. "He just needed to express himself and feel accepted."
Bruce remembered how Arthur and Sylvester had given him the confidence to overcome his stuttering, and he sensed that it was his turn to be a father figure. "I didn't miss having a father," Bruce says. "It was more like I wished I could have had one. I was lucky I had brothers and sisters who were like a father and mother to me. They brought me up, they did right by Mama.
"I love my mama dearly. Somehow she always came up with food for us. I will give her anything in my possession. My only goal right now is to move her out of the projects. I could never repay her in money. I won't ever make enough to do that."