When Isaac Bruce returns to Inglewood to be honored before the Rams-Titans Sunday Night Football game at SoFi Stadium, he won't be far from where he began his college career – and also had some formidable years.
This is an oral history of his first two years in Los Angeles and how they shaped him into the player and man he is today.
Bruce arrived in Los Angeles in 1990. Originally set to play for Purdue University after graduating from Fort Lauderdale (Fla.) Dillard High, circumstances instead sent him to L.A. to attend West Los Angeles College.
Bruce: "My very first impression (of Los Angeles) was, this is home, because it looked like South Florida. It was a lot cooler. I was into the West Coast rap at that time. I mean, I think that had started to take off. So I kind of got a visual from those guys the way they talked about Los Angeles and California as a whole, you know, in their songs and everything. But when I got there, just flying in and you fly over Inglewood, which is where I lived, which is where the stadium is right now off of Arbor Vitae. How many times have I seen that and written that on letters before there was cell phones and text messages? But it's funny, because SoFi (Stadium) sits right on that street. So yeah, I just felt like it was an extension of South Florida, as far as being a melting pot. A lot of different backgrounds and cultures. And I just, I fit right in."
Bruce lived with three other people, including a teammate, Sam Rogers, in a quad dorm on Northrop University's campus that had a common room but no kitchen.
Bruce: "The big planes right from LAX would fly right over, about maybe 12,000 feet right over our heads. It was fun man. My transportation was the green bus headed to Sepulveda. I'd take the green to Lincoln, and then I'd hop on the number three, (that would) take me all the way down Pico. I get off at Pico, into class, stay on campus all day until after practice, until it was time to go home, man. So it really tested your mettle to see if you wanted football to be your profession or be in that industry."
The overall conditions weren't the greatest, either.
Rogers: "The conditions was what made 98% of the players leave. Me and Isaac, were the only two, we stuck in it. We stayed in the dorms, basically hiding in the dorms that we weren't supposed to be in until he got over to Santa Monica (College), and they helped him find a place to stay and I moved over to a buddy's house of mine."
Bruce had "many opportunities to go home and just say forget it," but he credits the grace of God for pushing him through those challenging times, which, besides the trek to campus, also included difficulties being able to eat every day.
Rogers, who transferred to Colorado after their one season together: "When I left to go to Colorado, he was still here, so he was still fighting. He didn't have a person to lean on. Like back then, we all leaned on each other as much as we could. We created a brotherhood that, whoever parents' sent money, we all pitched in. Whoever got a girlfriend and brought food, we all make sure they brought the food. So that's how we was able to survive. But when everybody else checked out and went back home or went to other places, me and Isaac was the only two. But he stuck it out and that shows his character, why he played the way did. And coming from a large family. He had (14) siblings, so that would make you have a drive like no other."
During Bruce's freshman year, he met 14 guys from different states, including Texas and Michigan (Rogers), as well as Florida and Colorado.
Between his own background and his skillset, it didn't take long for him to make an impression.
Rogers: "The first thing I remember about Isaac, meeting him before the football field – a lot of us are from out of town, and we would sit there and talk to each other and understand each other's culture and where they came from. The first thing I remember about him, (was him) telling me about Florida and a certain food they eat down there, and one of them was called Conch. And I'm like, 'What the hell is Conch?' So that was first my first impression of him, giving us the vibes of what Florida was like. And then on the football field, when I first seen him run a route, I said, 'Oh, this guy special.'"
Marlin Briscoe, West Los Angeles College wide receivers coach and Bruce's first position coach in college: "Isaac, he was ahead of his time. When I first got a glimpse of him as an athlete, he was running around a track and that was before I knew who he was. Rob Hager, who was the head coach at the time, said, 'That's Isaac Bruce right there.' And I'm looking, and I'm seeing this kid with this perfect stride, that you would be see on a professional field. And I said, 'That's the kid you were talking about?' He said, 'Yes sir. That's just the beginning of it.'"
Bruce had a quiet demeanor, but that was not to be mistaken for a lack of confidence or direction. For Rogers, it was the combination of confidence and cockiness that made Bruce so special.
Rogers: "He was beating our DBs so bad, because I was a defensive player, and one of the coaches, I'll never forget, Coach Porter got up there and said, 'This is how you do it! You got to get in!' So he lined up against Isaac, and Isaac made him fall on his tail. Everybody just laughing their butts off, like, 'Yup, that's why y'all DBs look like that.'"
Besides learning under the tutelage of Briscoe, a former AFL quarterback and NFL wide receiver, Bruce also honed his craft in other ways.
According to Rogers, a lot of players and Olympic track athletes came and worked out at their junior college because it was located in Culver City, a central area in California.
Bruce: "As far as football is concerned, Los Angeles gave you the ability to better your craft, which was football for me, all year long. I had the opportunity to run routes with guys who were playing Canadian Football at the time, learn from them. I had the opportunity to play against guys who were playing Canadian Football as defensive backs. Every level, from high school to junior college to college, to guys who were professionals at that time, and I felt like that really helped me. Just battling those guys any time we could, it was special to me, man."
Both Rogers and Briscoe used "smooth" to describe Bruce – it was what Rogers said he and his teammates called Bruce that because Bruce ran his routes so smooth and precisely.
Briscoe: "He just illuminated what a kid should be, especially at that level of play, which would be a freshman, a first-year player at West LA College. And he was above the talent scale. The only problem with Isaac, we didn't have a quarterback. We didn't have somebody that could complement Isaac's ability."
Consequently, Bruce transferred to Santa Monica City College, where he finished the 1991 season with 42 receptions for 677 yards and seven touchdowns to earn all-conference honors. He later earned a scholarship from Memphis State (now the University of Memphis).
Bruce: "When I went over to Santa Monica City College, Coach Dave Burrell – he had experience over at UCLA. He was the position coach over there for a while. I felt like his tutelage, he really helped my game as well."
Bruce posted 39 receptions for 532 yards and five touchdowns in his first season at Memphis State in 1992, then tallied 74 receptions for 1,054 yards and seven touchdowns in his second and final season in 1993 – a strong performance that led to him being chosen 33rdoverall in the second round by the Los Angeles Rams in the 1994 NFL Draft.
Rogers, meanwhile, went to the Buffalo Bills in the same round, at pick No. 64 overall.
Rogers went on to play 10 seasons in the NFL, Bruce 16, with Bruce spending 14 of his 16 NFL seasons in the horns, racking up 942 receptions for 14,109 yards and 84 touchdowns en route to being enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio as a member of its Class of 2020.
For Bruce, those early years in Los Angeles remain an impactful time in his life that played a huge part in shaping his future.
Bruce: "It definitely taught me how to mid-stream adjust. I wanted to go from Dillard High School in Fort Lauderdale to Purdue University and get my college degree started, but that didn't happen. So just adjusting to the junior college world 3,000 miles away from home, to be honest I had a really great time. If I could consistently eat, and I mean like had a guaranteed meal every night, I would've enjoyed it. I wouldn't have wanted to grow up, I wouldn't have wanted to go past 18 years old, just be where I was. But honestly, it taught me the value of a dollar, how we can see the times when our parents made sacrifices, as far as putting money here, or putting money versus this over here. I learned that very quickly being in junior college."
He's also glad he didn't give up when those times got challenging.
Bruce: "It's cliché, but just having your eyes on the prize. I felt like the end result was a lot better than the current situation. And it was a lot better than the past situation. So being able to really at times talk yourself through those moments and really kind of check and see where you are, see where your feet was at that time and what progress had you made. I mean, for me, I had completed two years of college. Got an AA degree. I felt like I had decent coaching from a football standpoint. … So I just counted up that cost, and having another opportunity to be recruited by Memphis while I was there, I felt like the progress I had made was a whole lot larger and bigger than really just giving up and quitting."
The stadium where Bruce will be honored on Sunday in Inglewood sits fairly close to those landmarks of his junior college days. He says he sees it every time he flies in.
The last time Bruce was in Los Angeles, he had a rental car and actually drove over to the Northrop dorms and hit a few other familiar spots.
Bruce: "I didn't go to West L.A., but I always go near the Fox Hills Mall, because that was kind of like our hangout spot when we had extra money. Santa Monica is my spot. I try to get past Santa Monica as best I can anytime I'm there. My coaches obviously have passed away, but so many great memories from that school and just playing there. And I can't help but to go to Inglewood. I mean, the stadium's in Inglewood, Randy's Donuts, The Forum, and I lived right down the street from those places. Those bring back very good memories for me when I'm in L.A."