The love affair between Isaac Bruce and St. Louis started nearly from the day the Rams arrived in the Gateway City.
In the 14 years that followed, that love only became more passionate, mutual and ultimately enduring.
“I felt like the city adopted me and drafted me into their family,” Bruce said. “I kind of did the same thing with them. I felt like I was home for the second time in my life. We kind of had that mesh. We meshed together early in that 1995 season and it only grew from there.”
On Sunday, that relationship becomes eternal when the Rams raise Bruce’s No. 80 jersey to the rafters of the Edward Jones Dome for reasons that go beyond his prodigious and prolific production on the football field.
See, the bond between Bruce and the city of St. Louis goes well beyond first downs, touchdown catches and even Super Bowl victories.
THE FIRST MEETING
The initial meeting between Bruce and St. Louis came in 1995, the first year the Rams played in the city after moving from Los Angeles.
Bruce was drafted by the Rams in 1994 and had spent one year with the team in Los Angeles. But Bruce knew, like many of his teammates, that a move was in the offing.
Even as a rookie, Bruce had prepared himself for a new start elsewhere. While Bruce felt bad for the diehard Rams fans that were still around in the team’s final days in Los Angeles, the move to St. Louis had him excited about the opportunities it could provide.
“I think when we first came to town in ’95; a lot of expectations were placed on us,” Bruce said. “Most of them were placed on us by ourselves. But just kind of knowing the history of the St. Louis Cardinals - the Big Red - that was there before we got there and football had gone away from that city for a long time so they were hungry. They were hungry for football and when we got there, it was a perfect match. It was our chance to stake our place and put roots down and we found what I believe was the perfect place.”
St. Louis had been without football since the Cardinals picked up and moved to Arizona after the 1987 season. In the eight years that followed, St. Louis had endured numerous misfires in attempts to draw an expansion team.
Football in the city was becoming a distant memory until team owner Georgia Frontiere teamed with local businessman Stan Kroenke and a host of others to build the Edward Jones Dome and bring the Rams to St. Louis.
Finally, on Sept. 3, 1995, the Rams made their debut under the St. Louis banner at Green Bay. In one of the world’s most famous football venues, Bruce announced his presence with a sequence so scintillating that Rams fans couldn’t help but feel like it was love at first sight.
In the second quarter of that initial game, Bruce blocked and recovered a punt that set up his 23-yard touchdown catch on the next play. It set the tone for a thrilling 17-14 victory and set the Rams on a brand new course in their new home.
“That was like the beginning of it all,” teammate D’Marco Farr said. “We didn’t know who Isaac Bruce was. It went from Isaac Bruce, who is this great athlete to Isaac Bruce the great receiver that we all know now all in a span of about 10 games after that. You knew he was great from that moment on.”
Upon returning to St. Louis for the home opener, it didn’t take long for the signature “Bruuuuuuuuuuuuuuce” call to ring out every time he made a play.
Those plays came at a rapid fire pace as Bruce posted one of the greatest receiving seasons in league history with 1,781 yards, 119 receptions and 13 touchdowns. The yardage total still stands as the second most prolific season in NFL history.
As Farr tells it in folklore, Bruce’s bond with St. Louis developed so quickly he soon wielded power over the newly built Edward Jones Dome.
The story goes that Bruce, who would regularly ‘9’ routes or routes where he simply just goes deep down the field, would look back for the ball in the air and the lights from the corners would hit him directly in the eyes.
“He didn’t like that,” Farr said. “So they changed them. Think about that. That’s better than any T.O. or Ochocinco thing ever. ‘I don’t like those lights, they are blinding me on the deep ball.’ In other words, I’m going to be open.”
An ardent student of the game, Bruce was taken aback as a rookie when he was issued a number he associated with the historic lineage of Rams receivers. The No. 80 had once belonged to giants of the organizations past such as Henry Ellard and Elroy “Crazylegs” Hirsch.
Bruce immediately recognized the responsibility that went with his new digits.
“I knew the history of it, meaning the two guys that wore it prior to me getting it,” Bruce said. “I knew it was a number that was held in very high esteem in my estimation. When I got it, I was proud to wear it.”
Bruce also made it a point to learn the history of the receivers in the team’s history. He knew the records for all things receiving and he knew what standards had been set by the likes of Ellard.
When Ellard returned to the Rams a few years later to become the receivers coach, things had come full circle. The reserved and classy Ellard became a living color mentor for Bruce rather than just a piece of history to strive for.
“Watching him he just grabbed my attention because he wore No. 80,” Ellard said. “That was my number so I wanted to know who this guy was that was wearing my number. I was very amazed to watch him and the similarities we had between one another. Our route running, the way we change direction and the quickness were very similar. It was shocking the similarities we had. It’s special to share that with a guy who carries himself the way he does. He’s not flashy; he just likes to go about his business. He doesn’t want any attention.”
By the time Torry Holt arrived in St. Louis, Bruce had long since established himself as the offense’s go-to guy and a receiver recognized throughout the league as one of the best at his position.
Bruce had also made it a point to set a tone for all of the team’s younger players. The Rams had endured losing seasons every year since they arrived in St. Louis but Bruce wanted everyone who entered the team’s training facility to recognize that to build a winner, everyone had to buy in with every ounce of their being.
That’s why Bruce was never above picking up a piece of trash that might be strewn about a meeting room or to stop and take some time to get to know everyone in the building whether it was the general manager or the janitor.
“I knew the goals we had set before ourselves could not be accomplished unless we took that ownership,” Bruce said. “If we wanted to be a World Champion someday, we had to say ‘Here are the things that you have to do.’ It’s kind of tough to eat a cake and really enjoy a cake without putting in the right mixtures and everything. We knew we had to do the mixing part and the mixing part always began with players and leaders on the team showing the people on the team what we do and how we do it. I knew that was important.”
Like Bruce, Holt knew plenty about stepping into the role of a receiver in the organization. Of course, a lot of what Holt knew was about Bruce himself.
Bruce conveyed to Holt and all other new players who stepped in the building the three things he believes every NFL player should envision when he gets to the league.
According to Bruce, the top goal should be to play in the Super Bowl. The second goal should be leaving a legacy that leaves the NFL and the community a better place than it was when you arrived. And the third goal was to promote and improve the organization you play for.
Holt took those lessons and more to heart and, along with Bruce, formed one of the most dynamic receiving duos in league history.
“My thing was I had heard a lot about Isaac when I got drafted here,” Holt said. “When I got here, I thought ‘Wow, this dude is good.’ So I knew right then I could learn something from him, how to run routes, how to compete, learn how to be a pro on and off the field. I have learned a lot from him from my years watching him.”
A ST. LOUIS ORIGINAL
With his surgical route running, Bruce was able to separate himself from defenders. But what separated Bruce from other players in the league and endeared him in the hearts of St. Louis fans was the way in which he carried himself on and off the field.
Always humble but always hungry, Bruce never wanted for attention. Maybe along the way his desire to stay out of the spotlight kept him from reaching a Pro Bowl or two or cost him some commercial endorsements.
But none of that ever mattered to Bruce, for he simply wanted to respect and admiration of the people who mattered most on Sundays.
“I always believe that a confident person really doesn’t have to have a microphone in front of his face,” Bruce said. “He can always go out and prove to people who he is by his play. You sit down and turn on the film and we make the people take notice who needed to take notice, meaning opposing defensive backs and defensive coordinators. Trust me, they knew.”
For 16 years, defensive coordinators and defensive backs lost plenty of sleep over the prospect of defending Bruce. Today, Bruce sits seventh in league history in receptions (1,024), third in receiving yards (15,208) and ninth in receiving touchdowns (91).
He’s also first all time in the category of fewest selfish moments.
“Does he have a big pen? No, I don’t think he does,” former coach Mike Martz said. “Does he have a cell phone? No, I don’t think he does. Is he quiet, humble respectful, is he everything that you want your players to be and aspire to be in your kids and everything else? Absolutely. What else is there? Find a flaw in Isaac Bruce. I challenge anybody to find a flaw in Isaac Bruce, please.”
Bruce made his retirement official in June of this year after being traded back to the Rams so he could retire in the only NFL destination he ever truly called home.
Because of his relationship with St. Louis, it was critically important to Bruce that he find a way to say goodbye as a Ram. That’s what he knows, that’s what he is.
And in five years or whenever the Pro Football Hall of Fame comes calling; Bruce wants it to be known that it will be something very meaningful to him.
“It’s important, it’s important, I will just say it’s important,” Bruce said. “I don’t know if important has a degree, it is important.”
For now, Bruce is spending most of his free time with his wife Clegzette and new daughter Isabella.
Aside from that, the always forward focused Bruce is setting up plenty of goals for life after football. He has long maintained that to achieve something, you must first say you are that achievement and he’s doing so again in retirement.
Bruce plans on staying involved in the ministry, something he has long been interested and involved in. Over the summer, he worked as a coaching intern with Martz in Chicago and acknowledges that coaching could one day be a possibility. And somewhere down the line, Bruce would like to become owner of an NFL team.
In his retirement, Bruce and family will make a home in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla. But make no mistake; he will also maintain his home in St. Louis.
For the better part of his adult life, Bruce has had a house in St. Louis but somewhere along the way it became his home. The organization is a part of him as much as he is a part of it.
And perhaps most of all, Rams fans and the people of St. Louis who help honor Bruce today have become something more as well, something that can never be broken or taken away.
“I think I said one time before that when you become a family like the Rams became family when we were adopted into St. Louis in 1995, you knew that trials and tribulations and tests were going to come but you are always family,” Bruce said. “You don’t kick family out of the house just because you are going through a situation. You may be going through a downward swing but family is always there for each other. And family is always at its strongest when you are encouraging each other and pulling each other back up to where it should be going.”