Isaac Bruce commanded respect but didn’t crave attention.
As was the case with Torry Holt, his running mate for all those years at wide receiver with the St. Louis Rams, Bruce never felt the need to stomp on the Dallas star, pull a cellphone out of goal-post padding for a TD celebration or propose to a kicking net.
“I just didn’t feel like I had to completely rub your nose in it,” Bruce said. “There was chatter back and forth between defensive backs and myself. But just to completely, like, humiliate someone — that just wasn’t me.
“I grew up watching people like Barry Sanders. I was in a Pro Bowl with Barry Sanders. And Barry, every time he got in the end zone, it was like: ‘I expect to be here and I’ll be back.’ I kind of took that notion and ran with it.”
That he did. Bruce was always very particular about not being arrogant. But that didn’t mean he lacked confidence. Far from it.
Go back to 1994, to the first interview he did as an NFL player after being drafted in the second round out of Memphis State by the Los Angeles Rams. He told a reporter that his vision was to be “the best No. 80 in California.”
Safety Keith Lyle, also part of that ’94 Rams draft, was nearby. Lyle gasped when he heard those words come out of Bruce’s mouth. Because the one, the only Jerry Rice was very much in his prime — and wearing No. 80 — at the time for the San Francisco 49ers.
“My long-term vision as far as football is concerned, playing football, has been me standing there at a podium in Canton,” Bruce remembers telling the reporter.
Yep, at the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
“And just culminating everything and having it finish right there,” Bruce continued. “Having the curtain come down there.”
Bruce isn’t there yet, but he’s oh, so close. In the first two years of his Hall of Fame eligibility, Bruce made the semifinal list (of 25 candidates) but not the list of finalists.
But this year, he is among the 15 finalists for induction into the Class of 2017. As a finalist, it means his candidacy gets discussed for the first time at the selection meeting room on Feb. 4, by all of the Hall of Fame voters in attendance.
Pardon the local bias, but at face value, there doesn’t seem to be much to discuss.
Numbers and longevity
When Bruce retired, he ranked second all-time in yards receiving (15,208) to the incomparable Rice and was No. 5 in receptions (1,024). In typical Bruce fashion, he didn’t even know about passing the 15,000-yard milestone until being informed of it during a 2009 team meeting with San Francisco — where he played his final two seasons.
“I was floored,” Bruce recalled. “I kept my poker face. But I was like, there’s only one other person to hit 15,000 yards in the history of the NFL, and I’m second? So I was really surprised and grateful.”
Signature plays and big moments
Let’s start with the historic first game for the “St. Louis” Rams, the 1995 season opener at Lambeau Field in Green Bay. The then-obscure Bruce blocked a punt, and then on the very next play lined up on offense and caught a touchdown pass from Chris Miller. It was the first TD for the team since the move to the Midwest. Bruce forever became part of the team’s lore in St. Louis.
There’s lots more. In 1999, at a time when the team had lost 17 straight games to the rival 49ers, Bruce caught four touchdown passes to almost single-handedly end the losing streak. It was after this game that 49ers great Bill Walsh, then a team executive, walked into the middle of Dick Vermeil’s postgame news conference and told the coach of the 4-0 Rams in a stage whisper: “You’re going all the way.”
There’s of course the game-winning catch in Super Bowl XXXIV against Tennessee. What about Super Bowl XXXVI against New England? Bruce suffered broken ribs in the first half of that game. Although he wasn’t very effective the rest of the way, he kept playing and at least served as a decoy.
Even when he was pretty much running on fumes as a player, Bruce’s last touchdown catch as a pro late in the 2008 season came wrapped in emotion and irony. Then playing for the 49ers, Bruce’s fourth-quarter TD catch sparked San Francisco to a 17-16 win at the Edward Jones Dome against the Rams, who had cut Bruce after the 2007 season.
‘Greatest Show on Turf’ member
We’ll let Rick Venturi answer this one. Venturi tried to defend Bruce for several seasons as an assistant coach in New Orleans, then was part of Rams staffs in 2006 and ’07 during Bruce’s final two seasons in St. Louis.
“The thing about Isaac that people will forget at times is that he was good on bad teams,” Venturi said. “He didn’t just get good with the ‘Greatest Show on Turf.’ He carried some bad teams. When you got ready to play the Rams before the ‘Greatest Show,’ the only guy you worried about was Isaac Bruce. Your coverage was all directed to Isaac.”
In 1995, Bruce caught 119 passes for 1,781 yards for a 7-9 team. The yardage total still ranks as the fifth-best single-season total in NFL history. Believe it or not, Bruce didn’t even make the Pro Bowl that year.
The following year, he played for a 6-10 team that was even worse on offense with Steve Walsh, rookie Tony Banks and Jamie Martin all getting time at quarterback. Bruce led the NFL in reception yards with 1,338 yards on 84 catches.
“Yeah, we were awful,” said Mike Martz, who was Rams wide receivers coach in 1995 and ’96.
Martz recalled a team meeting before the ’95 season in which he was asked by coach Rich Brooks to evaluate Bruce, who had caught only 21 passes and missed several games while injured as a rookie in LA in ’94.
Martz said he told Brooks that Bruce was not only a starting-caliber player, but could be an upper-echelon player in the league with a chance of being unique.
“Brooks laughed at me,” Martz recalled. “He said, ‘That skinny little kid won’t be healthy more than two games in a row his whole career.’”
Brooks quickly saw the error of his ways. And 1,000 catches and 15,000 reception yards later, the skinny little kid is knocking on Canton’s door.