Isaac Bruce will be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame this weekend, and this makes me very happy. It fills me with joy. It makes me wanna Bob & Weave.
How can I possibly sum up my feelings? I’ll go with this: I love Isaac Bruce. Love everything about him. The man, the player, the spirit within him, the images, the memories. He’s the finest person I’ve had the privilege to cover, and get to know, in my 32 years as a St. Louis sports columnist and broadcaster.
Isaac’s Canton coronation takes me back in time, to the dome, the thunder dome in downtown St. Louis. This was Isaac Bruce’s house. It belonged to him more than anyone who played there. And yes, I really mean that.
With all due respect to Kurt Warner, Marshall Faulk, Orlando Pace, Aneas Williams and Torry Holt, the dome was Isaac’s place — and will always be Isaac’s place.
It will always be Isaac’s place because he got there first, and he did extraordinary things first, and he elevated a franchise, and he stayed there and played there until others (except Holt) had moved on. Think of your days inside of that building, and the big plays and memorable moments that Isaac Bruce gave you.
Close your eyes and see No. 80 running a route, and making cuts so quick and sharp that he left defensive backs on the turf — twisted and broken pretzels. Close your eyes and think of him snatching the ball out of the haze, seemingly illuminating the dome lights, and zig-zagging away, and cranking his speed to a full sprint, his eyes getting big as he neared the end zone.
And though it didn’t happen in Isaac’s place, close your eyes and dream the dream all over again: Isaac curling back to put his eyes and body and hands in place and in alignment with an underthrown pass that would let him gallop into history as the football hero who won the Super Bowl with his talent and tenacity.
The throw from Kurt Warner fluttered a bit; the courageous No. 13 had been hit as he unloaded. But the football landed safely in Isaac Bruce’s grasp. Of course it did, because Isaac was there to take care of everything — just as he did by catching a touchdown pass in Warner’s first NFL start.
And Bruce would be there again, tracking the pass, everyone in the place tingling with nervousness with less than two minutes left in the 34th Super Bowl. Isaac’s catch-and-run lasted 73 yards, and then it lasted for 21 years, all the way to Canton, and it didn’t stop there.
That play will last forever — and no one can take it back. Not the Tennessee Titans, not the NFL, and not the team owner who shall remain unmentioned. This was Warner to Bruce to St. Louis to Canton and into eternity.
I say that the dome in St. Louis is Isaac’s place because he made our Sunday’s light up. He did that in 1995, when the stadium opened — before Warner got to town from the Arena League, before Faulk got to town after forcing a trade from Indianapolis, or Pace and Holt became St. Louis Rams through the NFL draft. Isaac Bruce was there before Dick Vermeil, and Az Hakim, and Ricky Proehl, and Adam Timmerman, and London Fletcher.
It is Isaac’s place because he gave us a Great Show of offense before the Rams’ famous “Greatest Show” offense ever existed. In 1995 and ‘96, the first two seasons of STL Rams football, Bruce averaged 102 catches, 1,564 receiving yards, and 10 touchdown grabs. Those numbers were remarkable. And still are.
Understand that Isaac Bruce did this for a losing team that did not have another playmaker of note. He did this while pulling in passes from quarterbacks Chris Miller, Mark Rypien, Steve Walsh and Tony Banks. He did this even though every defensive coordinator on the Rams’ schedule knew that they had one man to stop — No. 80 — and they couldn’t get it done. They rolled coverages to his side. They tried to hammer him as he broke from the line of scrimmage. They tried to zone him, confuse him, distract him, intimidate him. Fail. Epic fail.
No. 80’s crazed competitiveness and pride were a part of his supreme athleticism — made him faster, stronger, more alert, more determined. He definitely was a man possessed, but with God and not a demon. He could not be conquered.
And this was when the Hall of Fame career began. This was when Bruce revealed his greatness to St. Louis, and to the NFL. In virtually every big moment that would lead the 1999 Rams to the Super Bowl championship, you could see No. 80 on stage, creating an enthralling drama.
Bruce blocked a punt in the STL Rams’ first regular-season game, the 1995 opener at Green Bay. And after blocking that punt, he got up and caught a touchdown pass to give the Rams momentum and confidence and an eventual upset win.
When skeptics asked if the 1999 Rams were for real, Bruce gave them an answer by hauling in four touchdown passes in a 42-20 victory over the betting-favorite San Francisco 49ers.
In the first NFL postseason home game in St. Louis history, Bruce raced for a 77-yard touchdown that rattled the dome and the Minnesota Vikings. The Rams exploded for 35 points in the second half to win 49-37. (I think the buzzing in my ear is the result of being in the dome that day.)
There was Super Bowl 34. There were big performances from Bruce when the Rams were desperate for big plays from anyone. Bruce’s competitiveness became their competitiveness. His fire inside became their fire inside. That 1999-2001 Greatest Show team were his team, simply because he set the tone and the example more than any other.
Bruce was (and is) a man of God who walked the walk, and never used his faith in an insincere way; it wasn’t to be used and cheapaned as a billboard of phony self-promotion. He’s a Christian through his actions. He was (and is) searingly honest, and quietly kind. I say “quiet” because he doesn’t want to draw attention to the many touches of grace and kindness he’s given to friends and strangers alike.
During and after our many conversations, I wanted to become a better person. I wanted to work even harder. I wanted to raise my standards and be a better co-worker. I wanted to get back to going to church. Isaac has no idea of the impact he made on me as a fellow human being. This is another reason why I love this man. When the Reverend spoke, I listened. And I tried. But I could never be the person that Isaac is. That’s because no one can be the person that Isaac is.
“If you’re lucky enough to play this game, and then to make it to this level, to the NFL, you’re going to meet your heroes,” retired Rams defensive tackle D’Marco Farr once said. “You’re going to meet your Emmitt Smiths, you’re going meet your Troy Aikmans, whoever you consider the hero, whoever inspires you to be better than what you are.
“You’re going to see that guy, you’re going to shake hands with him, you may even have to hit him. But it’s a weird deal when one of your heroes, or your biggest hero, is your teammate and he’s younger than you are.
“It’s not about what Isaac says. It’s about how he carries himself every single day. His locker was three down from me and just the way he did things I just looked at him and I wanted to be everything that Isaac was about.”
When Bruce retired from the NFL, only Jerry Rice had more career receiving yards than Bruce in league history. Only Rice, Marvin Harrison, Cris Carter and Tim Brown had caught more passes. As a voter on the Hall of Fame selection committee, nothing was more frustrating for me than watching Bruce have to wait for the call, telling him he’s a Hall of Famer. But he’s going in. He’s going in, and St. Louis should be happy and proud. And St. Louis should remember No. 80, and how he created the Greatest Show as the first star on before the other stars arrived.
And we should remember Warner to Bruce, and the Super Bowl parade down Market Street, and the thunder dome that will always be Isaac’s place.
Thanks for reading…
Check out Bernie’s sports-talk show on 590-AM The Fan, KFNS. It airs Monday through Thursday from 3-6 p.m. and Friday from 4-6 p.m. You can listen live online and download the Bernie Show podcast at 590thefan.com … the 590 app works great and is available in your preferred app store.
The weekly “Seeing Red” podcast with Bernie and Will Leitch is available at 590thefan.com …
Follow Bernie on Twitter @miklasz