When I think of Isaac Bruce, I remember my first broadcast for FOX, which was in 1998 in St. Louis. Dick Vermeil’s Rams were preparing for their season-opener against the Saints, which in those days was a division game.
Kurt Warner had yet to burst on the scene. Marshall Faulk was playing for the Colts. Torry Holt was getting ready for his final year with the Wolfpack. Orlando Pace was just getting his toes wet in the pro football waters.
In fact, across the street at Busch Stadium that weekend, a guy named Mark McGwire was going for the fabled home run record held by Roger Maris. Throughout the broadcast, we would break into the coverage to watch McGwire’s at-bats. McGwire didn’t break the record that day. Quite frankly, I can’t remember off the top of my head who won that game between the Rams and Saints.
But I do recall that in our production meeting on the Friday before the game, I met “The Reverend” Isaac Bruce for the first time. The public relations staff warned me that The Rev might not show, and if he did, he might not say much.
Bruce did show. He didn’t say much — he never did — but he always let his play do the talking. It’s kind of how we wish all the young kids coming into the league would do it. There was a time when wide receivers were just receivers. Not stars, not divas. Championships weren’t won because of their talent.
And now Bruce is leaving the game as quietly as he came in, and as quietly as he played.
The Rev was a surgeon when it came to route running. To this day, his routes are as beautiful a thing to watch as anything the game has to offer. His 20-yard in-cuts left corners with broken ankles. No one to this day can make a full-speed cut across the field like Bruce could. It’s still the highlight reel that Mike Martz shows young receivers in the league. Holt, his counterpart for over a decade, watched and learned everything from Bruce.
The squeaky wheels often get the headlines and news conferences — and sometimes even reality TV shows — and provide a great deal of entertainment. But when we are teaching the next generation how to play the game, don’t we want to teach them how to be true pros? That was Bruce. He was a technician, incredibly durable and productive for 16 seasons.
I don’t always understand where the Hall of Fame stands on receivers anymore. Lynn Swann is in, and rightfully so. But he averaged 37 catches per season for less than a decade. Many who double that production are on the outside looking in, and many more with impressive resumes are coming soon.
When we talk about Bruce, we’re talking about the quiet leader of an offense that defined football for a great five-year run. No team was more fun to watch than the Rams. Always, quietly going about his business, was Bruce.
Let’s hope the Hall voters listen to how The Rev played the game. He gets my vote.
– Brian Baldinger