The thing about St. Louis receiver Isaac Bruce is that there are
two of him. There is Isaac, a decorous, godly young man, and
then there is Bruce, a jaw-happy revelation. Isaac is the
well-mannered, reticent guy. Bruce is the strutting,
chest-thumping scourge who broke four Rams receiving records in
1995. Recently, as Isaac contemplated his duality over a plate
of chicken wings in a St. Louis sports bar, he visibly struggled
to contain his alter ego. His solemn expression wavered. He
sighed. Isaac tries to be self-effacing, but sometimes Bruce
gets the better of him. Finally, Isaac gave up. "It's hard to be
humble on the field," he said hopelessly.
Before last season few would have suspected that the Reverend
Ike, as some of his St. Louis teammates call him, harbored such
a divided nature. As far as they knew, Bruce was a deeply devout
and painfully shy second-year receiver, the 13th of 15 children
from a staunchly Pentecostal family. After all, Bruce, who
aspires to be a minister, went through his entire rookie season
without uttering a single complete sentence. He went to and from
practice every day with a Bible tucked under his arm. Rams
quarterback Chris Miller tried to engage him in conversation,
but Bruce would just nod or shake his head, silently, and return
to the Book.
When running back Johnny Bailey moved into Bruce's suburban
apartment complex in Crevecoeur, Mo., last summer, he did the
neighborly thing and invited his teammate out for a night on the
town. "No," Bruce replied, without elaboration. Bailey persisted
and on another evening said enticingly, "I'm going to a club
tonight." Bruce stared at Bailey and answered in his monotone:
Bailey rolled his eyes. "I know," he said. "I know you're not. I
don't even know why I ask you."
July 31, 1996
Gradually, however, the Rams noticed there was something else
lurking in Bruce's habitually reverent expression. "He has a
kind of a smirk," says receivers coach Mike Martz. One of the
first indications that Bruce was not all he outwardly seemed
occurred during training camp last July when he booby-trapped a
watercooler to erupt into a geyser as Martz tried to get a
drink. Then, in a preseason game at Oakland on Aug. 12, Bruce
spiked a ball against the end-zone wall after a 26-yard
touchdown catch. The gesture drew the ire of a bunch of biker
dudes in that section of the stadium. Bruce stayed in the end
zone, threatening to take on the Raiders' faithful, until his
teammates pulled him away.
St. Louis coach Rich Brooks likened Bruce's transformation to
something that ought to take place "in a phone booth." Bruce
played like the Rams' own personal stealth bomber, a skinny
projectile who rose out of nowhere to finish the season with
1,781 yards on 119 catches, both team records. In one midseason
stretch, he had six straight games of 100 or more yards
receiving. "One thing I know now is that there's no such thing
as a sophomore jinx," says Bruce, who made his first Pro Bowl
appearance in February.
The team's fortunes rose as Bruce's stock did. His number 80
jersey became the hottest-selling sports item in town. Despite
his seemingly frail six-foot, 178-pound build, Bruce was both
unstoppable and durable, catching balls over the middle and
playing on special teams. In the first start of his NFL career,
the 1995 season opener against Green Bay, he blocked a
first-quarter punt and then recovered the ball. Five seconds
later he caught a 23-yard TD pass.
On Oct. 12 Bruce schooled Atlanta with 10 catches for 191 yards
and two touchdowns, and contributed a 51-yard punt return. The
following Sunday he gouged San Francisco for 173 yards on nine
receptions. "People have to start double-covering that guy,"
49ers receiver Jerry Rice declared. Not that it mattered. When
Philadelphia doubled up on Bruce the next week, he just stepped
up the back talk. "Oh, I feel so special," he said after
catching nine passes for 105 yards.
But once the uniform came off, Bruce receded and Isaac took over
again. In street clothes and a cap he goes virtually
unrecognized off the field, looking like an adolescent mall rat.
"He's the biggest star in town no one knows," Rams assistant
p.r. director Kirk Reynolds says.
Even Bruce's mother, Kairethatic, pokes fun at her son's
reticent public persona. "He has to show an I.D. card before
anybody believes he plays pro football," she says. Just 23,
Bruce is wondrously inexperienced at celebrity. Once, as he was
browsing through a local galleria at midseason, an autograph
seeker approached. Bruce cowered under his cap. The fan quietly
made him a deal. "If you sign this, I won't tell anyone who you
are," the fan said. Bruce gratefully cooperated.
The Rams have developed an obvious affection for Isaac and his
evil twin. Although he still refused to go out on the town,
Bruce did invite Bailey over for a Sunday dinner or two. In
return, Bailey dragged Bruce to a riverboat casino for some
blackjack. There Bailey discovered an extrovert trying to break
loose: Bruce quickly won $600 and proceeded to gamble it all
away. Last fall Bailey even dragged Bruce to a player bash,
although Bruce hesitates to admit it. "Yeah, I went to a party
once, just to see how it was," he says. "It's nothing I could
get used to."
When some college teammates from Memphis State came to visit and
talked Bruce into going to one of the city's most popular
nightspots, he had to ask for directions. When the group arrived
at the club, Rams defensive end Robert Young crowed in
amazement. "How'd y'all get Mr. St. Louis out of the house?" he
Bruce will never be mistaken for a social butterfly. He claims
the only reason he goes out is so he will stay awake past 7 p.m.
He has a bad habit of dropping off on his couch and then rising
at 3 a.m. ready to start the day. Sometimes he goes mall
strolling just so he won't fall asleep. He's rarely looking to
Life without luxury is all he has ever known. The four-bedroom,
two-bath home on 29th Avenue in Fort Lauderdale where he grew up
with his eight sisters and six brothers was no palace. Bruce's
father, Jesse, worked long days as a roofer. His mother, a
Pentecostal minister who calls herself K, ruled the household
with nonnegotiable discipline and a Bible in her hand. "I never
allowed defiance in my house," she says. Every morning as the
children got ready for school, K would sit in the hallway
outside their rooms and read Bible verse aloud. On Sundays they
went to church for six hours. "Church is all this family knows
how to do," says Bruce's sister Charlotte.
Isaac's dual nature first showed itself in a peculiar episode of
surreptitious disobedience. His siblings vividly remember a
13-year-old Isaac stepping out of a crowd to deck a bully in a
schoolyard fracas and then vanishing back into the mob. "My
brother can put on that innocent face," Charlotte says. "He
learned how to sleep with his eyes open in church."
After leading Dillard High to the Florida State 4A championship
his senior year, Bruce earned a scholarship offer from Purdue.
When he failed to make the grade on the SAT, he landed at West
Los Angeles College. Finding himself buried in the Oilers'
option offense, Bruce soon transferred crosstown to Santa Monica
Junior College. For two years he lived with two teammates in a
dingy one-room apartment on the edge of Los Angeles
International Airport, listening to jets roar overhead every
night. Every morning he rode a city bus across the sprawling
metro area to school.
Bruce was recruited by a bunch of Division I-A schools: Cal,
Colorado State, Fresno State, Memphis State, San Jose State,
Virginia and Western Michigan. When Tigers receivers coach Randy
Fichtner visited Bruce during a West Coast trip, he took one
look around the apartment and wondered if his prospect could
surmount the long odds he was fighting to graduate. "It wasn't a
question of whether he was talented enough to make it," Fichtner
says. "It was a question of whether the elements would let him."
At Memphis State, Bruce finally blossomed, becoming the school's
first 1,000-yard receiver, in 1993. During his two years in
Memphis, the Tigers appeared just once on national television,
against Miami in the last game of his college career. Bruce, of
course, wanted to make the most of the exposure, but in the
first half he got blindsided and bit partway through his tongue.
He took three stitches at the half but did not miss a snap,
finishing the game with two touchdown receptions. The Rams
selected him in the second round of the 1994 draft.
Bruce spent his rookie year utterly dumbstruck at being in an
NFL locker room. In retrospect, his teammates have learned, he
wasn't standoffish so much as determined not to waste his
chance. He slaved in the weight room and listened with rapt
attention at meetings, two traits the veterans eventually took
approving notice of. "Isaac has gotten here all by himself,"
Bailey says. "He's done it with his own discipline."
But he could use some more discipline. As the season wore on, he
faced growing harassment from defensive backs and didn't always
handle himself well. "I get a little shaky in the head," he
admits. When he got frustrated, the Bruce in him jumped out chin
first. On Nov. 19 he had to be restrained from going after the
Falcons' Darnell Walker when, in a long day of jousting, the
cornerback held him to 91 yards, breaking his 100-yard streak.
"They're going to slap you around and try to disrupt you,"
11-year vet Jessie Hester counseled. "You have to wait for your
opportunities, and your moment will come."
Bruce listened and obeyed. He closed the season with a
career-high 15-reception performance against Miami. It was clear
that if the defenders weren't going away, neither was he. Bruce
spent this off-season working on sprint drills, hoping to crank
out another fraction of speed. "I'll just keep catching passes
until the defenders give up," he says. "I think I'm a guy who
can outrun them."
Bruce's productivity in 1996 will depend in part on who is
throwing him the ball. The Rams are in transition at
quarterback: Miller was released in March after team doctors
advised that he take a year off to recover from a series of
concussions. Bruce will have to develop a relationship with
journeyman signal-caller Steve Walsh, who signed with St. Louis
in April. "I'm just going to be open-minded," Bruce says.
This much seems certain: Bruce, who is already being talked
about in the same breath as Rams greats Elroy Hirsch and Henry
Ellard, is a receiver of surpassing grace who runs routes like
epigrams, his patterns serving as his chief mode of
self-expression. "He's a quiet man, but game day brings out
whatever emotion he has tenfold," says Hester. "He just explodes
on every snap. It's scary how good he can be."