MINNEAPOLIS — So much of the focus in the NFL this week is rightly on the Eagles and Patriots. After all, those two teams will play to determine the 52nd Super Bowl champion on Sunday.
But for at least 18 men in frigid Minnesota, what could happen Saturday is more significant.
There are 18 finalists for the Pro Football Hall of Fame's Class of 2018 — 15 from the modern era, two senior finalists, and one contributor finalist. Isaac Bruce, the Rams' all-time leader in receptions and yards receiving, is among them.
This is Bruce's second time as a Hall of Fame finalist. He was in the same position last year in Houston when his former quarterback, Kurt Warner, was selected for enshrinement in the Class of 2017.
All finalists will wait in their hotel rooms on Saturday afternoon for a either a knock on the door or a phone call. If they get the knock, it means they're one of the four-to-eight members of this year's Hall of Fame class. A phone call means not this year.
Even though Bruce has been through all this before, he said just before Friday's Pro Football Hall of Fame Merlin Olson Super Bowl Luncheon that the experience doesn't feel much different. And what he's mainly concentrating on is the how he'll respond — no matter Saturday's outcome.
"I think there's normally three responses that you can choose in things like this," Bruce said. "One being frustration, one being confusion, and another being grateful. I choose to go with the latter — being grateful and being thankful. Coming from where I came from and looking at my stature personally and the personal gifts that were given me, all I can do is a be grateful."
The Rams' No. 33 overall pick in the second round out of Memphis in 1994, Bruce played listed at 6-feet and 188 pounds but proved doubters wrong throughout his career. Through 14 seasons with the Rams and two in San Francisco, Bruce ranks No. 5 all time with 15,208 yards receiving, No. 12 with 91 career receiving touchdowns, and No. 13 with 1,024 receptions. He went to four Pro Bowls while registering eight 1,000 yards receiving seasons as a Ram.
And while winning championships was always a priority — which he did with the club in 1999 — Bruce says becoming a Hall of Famer was one of his career goals, too.
"I'm not surprised that I ended up here. I wanted to be the best at what I did," Bruce said. "I feel like I reached that pinnacle and the gifts that were given me were developed. I used those gifts and I developed the character to be able to stay there. So, I always believed and saw myself standing at a podium in Canton, Ohio receiving the golden jacket."
That vision could become reality in just a few months after a few knocks on his hotel-room door on Saturday. But even as this year's Hall of Fame process comes to a head, Bruce says he's not feeling nervous.
"I think nerves come when you don't prepare, when you're unprepared. I've prepared for this, I've envisioned it," Bruce said. "You know one of my favorite quotes that George Foreman once spoke is, 'If the first time you envision yourself with the Championship belt around your waist is when you're stepping in the ring, you should cancel the fight — because you'll probably get knocked out and you'll probably lose.'
Check out photos of Pro Football Hall of Fame Finalist Isaac Bruce.
"I've had this moment envisioned in my mind a long time ago, I've prepared for it," Bruce continued. "Now just the holding process — the holding process is different. But there is a mighty weapon that I use, which is being grateful, being thankful. And I do praise and worship during those times. I like to say that I live a hallelujah lifestyle, and with a hallelujah lifestyle there is always joy and it always has blessings with it. So, that's what I'll be doing."
Being selected to the Hall of Fame would be a life-changing event for Bruce. But in many ways, it's something he feels might mean a bit more to those around him.
"My wife always says I minimize stuff, and I always look at that as a compliment because to me there is nothing bigger than salvation, No. 1. And I have my children, I have my wife," Bruce said. "I think it's bigger for Rams nation — Los Angeles and St. Louis. It's bigger for the guys who coached me, guys who helped me, teammates, family, and friends. It's huge for them because when I speak to them and this subject come sup, they do most of the talking about it. So, it's really for them."
In that vein, former Rams defensive tackle D'Marco Farr — who played with Bruce from 1994-2000 — put his feelings plainly.
"Really, if I was in that room, I would probably just shoot off the cuff and say, 'If I need to convince you that Isaac Bruce is a Hall of Famer, then get out of the room,'" Farr said Friday, adding Bruce was a consummate teammate and consummate professional. "And he did it the right way — no doubt."
But still, making the Hall of Fame would feel gratifying on some level for Bruce — right?
Yes and no.
"I prepared to score touchdowns and once I got there I was like, 'OK, cool.' So, kind of like the Barry Sanders effect," Bruce said, referring to the Lions' Hall of Fame running back. And then he used another analogy. "The cooking part is fun, the journey is fun, but when the German chocolate cake is done, when it's finished you probably have one piece. Your discipline kicks in — you have one piece and you say, 'OK, I'll wait till tomorrow and get another piece.'
"It's there, so I don't think it's being arrogant," Bruce added. "It's expectation and that's the breeding ground for miracles. So, that's what I look at."