Fifteen minutes before the biggest game of his life, Isaac Bruce
put his foot down--squishing a fallen orange pylon in a corner
of the Trans World Dome's south end zone while giving his
delicate right leg one last stretch before show time. Then
Bruce, the St. Louis Rams' explosive and emotive wideout, heard
what he later described as a "click, click, POP" and felt a
sharp burn in his right groin. His stomach dropped, and for the
next few minutes Bruce descended back into the sore-hamstring
hell that plagued his 1997 and '98 seasons, purging him from the
ranks of the league's elite receivers and threatening his
athletic identity. He walked gingerly through the tunnel,
grabbed a cell phone from his locker and entered the training
room in search of something to heal him.
Just as no hoopster will ever replicate Michael Jordan's
greatness, NFL receivers can forget about trying to be like Ike.
Bruce is a unique talent with a singular personality, an impudent
iconoclast guided by an all-consuming faith in God. The treatment
he sought for his injury before Sunday's NFC divisional playoff
game against the Minnesota Vikings gave new meaning to the term
alternative medicine. Rather than alerting St. Louis's medical
staff to his condition, Bruce isolated himself in a small
corridor and called his mother, Kairethiatic, back in his
hometown of Fort Lauderdale. When she didn't answer, he started
dialing up siblings--and given that Bruce has 14 of them, the odds
were good he'd reach a live voice. Older sister Juliana Joseph
picked up on the first ring. "Hey, I was just watching you on
TV," she said from the living room of her Fort Lauderdale home.
"What are you doing?"
"Pray with me," Bruce said, and he and Juliana immersed
themselves in the first book of Peter, chapter 2, verse 24: "Who
his own self bare our sins in his own body on the tree, that we,
being dead to sins, should live unto righteousness: by whose
stripes ye were healed."
Several minutes later Bruce stood on the Rams' sideline and
watched the vaunted Vikings offense finish an 11-play,
game-opening drive with Gary Anderson's 31-yard field goal. After
the ensuing kickoff St. Louis took over on its own 23 and issued
a swift and thunderous response. Quarterback Kurt Warner, who in
4 1/2 months has gone from being an anonymous backup to an
American sports sensation, faked a handoff to All-Pro running
back Marshall Faulk and threw a heavenly spiral to Bruce, who had
run a post route from the left slot and was open in the middle of
the field. Bruce caught the ball at the 50, sliced past flailing
free safety Anthony Bass and zoomed untouched into the same end
zone in which his groin had betrayed him earlier.
As he and several teammates celebrated with their Bob 'n' Weave
dance, Bruce felt no pain, unlike the Vikings, whose agony had
only just begun. Flaunting one of the most potent attacks ever
assembled, the Rams, with Warner completing 27 of 33 passes to 10
receivers for 391 yards and five touchdowns, raced to a 49-37
victory and took several rapid steps toward the Super Bowl.
Though St. Louis will face the league's most imposing defense
when the Tampa Bay Buccaneers come calling for this Sunday's NFC
Championship Game, the Rams have no intention of slowing down.
"They'll have to score--a lot--to beat us," Bruce said after
Sunday's game, in which he caught four passes for 133 yards,
including an eight-yard slant that set up Faulk's pivotal
one-yard touchdown run midway through the third quarter.
St. Louis appears to be on the fast track to its first Super Bowl
title, and for all the obvious catalysts--Warner, the NFL MVP, who
threw for 41 touchdowns during the regular season; Faulk, who set
a league record for most combined rushing and receiving yards in
a season; NFL coach of the year Dick Vermeil; and offensive
coordinator Mike Martz, who will take over for Vermeil in
2002--Bruce, 27, is at the top of the list.
Bruce's health means everything to the Rams. While Bruce missed
15 of 32 games due to recurring hamstring injuries in 1997 and
'98, St. Louis hobbled to a 9-23 record. He approached the '99
campaign determined to prove his value to a large group of
skeptics that had included, at times, his coach. "His pride, his
ego and his career were on the line," Vermeil says of Bruce. "He
made as concentrated an effort to remain injury-free as any
player in football."
Not only did Bruce play in all 16 games in '99, catching 77
passes for 1,165 yards and 12 touchdowns as the Rams cruised to
an NFC-best 13-3 record, but he also emerged unscathed from a
threat to his well-being far more daunting than a bum hammy. On
the night of Dec. 7 Bruce and his girlfriend, Clegzette Sharpe,
attended a Missouri basketball game in Columbia and headed
eastbound on I-70 for the 115-mile trip back to St. Louis.
Shortly after the drive began the left rear tire of Bruce's
Mercedes blew, and the car skidded out of control toward a gully.
Remembering advice his mother had given him long ago, Bruce, who
was not wearing his seat belt, took his hands off the steering
wheel, raised them into the air and screamed, "Jesus!" The car
flipped twice and landed upright in the gully, and though the air
bags never deployed and the convertible roof collapsed, Bruce
walked away without a scratch and Sharpe suffered only a small
cut on her forehead.
Last Friday night, as he dined with childhood friend Robert
McKenzie, Bruce recounted the accident. "I heard every window
break--first the driver's side, then the passenger's side, then
the windshield," he said. "It was freezing, and when I got out of
the car, a short, stocky guy with long hair appeared out of
nowhere and asked, 'Do you want me to call an ambulance?' I said,
'Uh, yeah,' and five minutes later some firefighters showed up. I
mentioned that someone had called for an ambulance, but they
didn't know what I was talking about, and the stocky guy was
nowhere to be found."
Bruce took a sip of his virgin pina colada and stared at his
questioner. "I'm thinking the guy was an angel," Bruce said.
Though he knows such proclamations tend not to impress
reporters--"Y'all are afraid to write the word Jesus," he
says--Bruce is not self-conscious about spreading the Gospel. In
retrospect he attributes the prolonged hamstring ailments to his
"disobedience" as a Christian. Bruce, who regularly tithes, had
stopped making payments to the Bountiful Blessings Cathedral of
Deliverance Church of God and Christ in Memphis, the city where
he lives in the off-season. "I hooped every day this past spring,
and my legs were fine," he says. "Then I got to minicamp and,
boom, the hamstring went out again. That's when it hit me that I
was doing something wrong but didn't want to admit it, and I
couldn't accept my healing." Bruce quickly wrote a six-figure
check to cover the back payments, and until the groin scare
cropped up before Sunday's game, his legs had stayed pain-free.
It hasn't been so easy for Bruce to shed the emotional pain
stemming from five seasons of futility. Jarred by two events
early in his career--the team's move from Anaheim to St. Louis in
1995 and a trade that sent running back Jerome Bettis to the
Pittsburgh Steelers before the '96 draft--Bruce stopped trusting a
franchise that relied upon him as its lone offensive weapon. The
frustration boiled over in October '97 when, after a 17-9 loss to
the Seattle Seahawks, Bruce criticized the offense's effort.
Vermeil, in his first year, shot back, referring to Bruce as a
"so-called superstar." Their relationship has been strained ever
"I don't want to create a big controversy about it," Bruce says,
"but I'm not scared of Vermeil--even though he wants me to be.
Vermeil wants overachievers, guys who'll be indebted to him for
their success, but I was already established when he came, and I
felt like he was waiting for an excuse to get mad at me. In our
second meeting after he became coach, he told the players he'd
never rip us through the media, and then he did it twice, to a
lineman named Jesse James, and later to me. I felt like I was in
a position to say that guys weren't hustling, because I was in
the huddle. He had told me to be a leader, and I thought I was
being a leader by pointing that out."
When asked how Vermeil changed after last season, Bruce replies,
"We're not in pads as much, and he lets his assistants, Mike
Martz and [receivers coach] Al Saunders, do some coaching. But
the real change was we started paying. Vermeil said after last
season we would win without spending money. That's how the game
had passed him by; all the good teams spend money, and we had to
get more talent. People say we grew as a team. I'll tell you how
we grew--we went out and got Marshall Faulk and [free agent guard]
Vermeil shrugs off any conflict with Bruce, saying, "You can't
make him fit a mold; you have to let Isaac be Isaac." He lauds
Bruce for taking it upon himself to improve areas of his game in
practice and calls him "a complex, gifted athlete, probably the
best vertical, one-on-one, bursting-type receiver in the league."
Vermeil gets no argument from Bruce, who says, "I don't think I'm
the best; I know I am."
The matchup against the Vikings, with their star-studded wideout
tandem of Cris Carter and Randy Moss, brought out the best in
Bruce. After falling behind 14-3 on Sunday the Vikings struck
back to take a 17-14 halftime lead--only the third home game in
which the Rams had trailed all season. Undaunted, St. Louis
showed it can counterpunch, literally and figuratively. Rams
cornerback Todd Lyght cited the significance of a second-quarter
play in which defensive tackle John Randle, the Vikings' cackling
enforcer, "elbowed Ike in the gut. Ike came right back and caught
a pass over the middle [for 22 yards], and after the play he
elbowed Randle back. That showed them we wouldn't be
The Rams seized control in the third quarter, which began with
Tony Horne's 95-yard kickoff return for a touchdown and wound
down with Warner finding backup tight end Jeff Robinson for a
13-yard score. It was 49-17 before the Vikings put up 20 points
in garbage time.
If Sunday was St. Louis's baptism--it was the Rams' first victory
this season over an opponent that finished with a winning record,
and the franchise's first playoff game in a decade--it served as
another testament to the undercurrent of faith running through
the team's core. Bruce sometimes attends the same church as the
ultrareligious Warner and is one of about a dozen players who
visit the quarterback's home for Wednesday-night Bible study.
"Isaac's an unbelievable person and player," says Warner.
Last Saturday night the Warners stayed home to celebrate the
eighth birthday of their daughter, Jesse, devouring a
chocolate-frosted yellow cake made by the man with the golden
arm. Kurt nervously fretted over a red dress that Jesse had
received from her grandfather Gene Warner and Kurt's stepmom,
Mimi. "Looks like it might come up over the knee," Kurt said
before retiring to his room for some last-minute studying. Alone
upstairs, Warner began focusing on a 388 route Martz had
included in the game plan, one in which tight end Roland
Williams runs an out pattern from the right side while receivers
Bruce (in the slot) and Torry Holt (on the outside) run post
patterns from left to middle. If they give us Cover 2, Warner
thought, we'll hit it big.
With 9:23 left in the first quarter, Warner broke the huddle for
his first NFL postseason play with the call and coverage he was
craving: Minnesota was in a two-deep zone and Williams occupied
strong safety Robert Griffith, leaving Bass, the free safety, in
the unenviable position of deciding whether to run with Bruce or
the speedy Holt. Bass went with Bruce, but it didn't matter. His
groin inexplicably healed, and the receiver with the unshakable
faith snatched Warner's pass in stride and never looked back. "I
wanted to get Isaac involved early," Warner said later, "because
when that happens, he sparks the entire team."
As usual, Warner was on target: Once the Rams caught fire and
Bruce was on the loose, the Vikings didn't have a prayer.
COLOR PHOTO: COVER PHOTOGRAPH BY PETER READ MILLER COVER PLAYOFF FEVER! ISAAC BRUCE AND THE HIGH-FLYING RAMS CATCH'EM IF YOU CAN
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY PETER READ MILLER STATEMENT The hometown fans rocked when Bruce scored on a 77-yard touchdown pass on the Rams' first play from scrimmage.
COLOR PHOTO: DAMIAN STROHMEYER OLD PROS Warner (opposite) and Horne, whose 95-yard return put St. Louis ahead to stay, hardly looked like playoff rookies.
COLOR PHOTO: PETER READ MILLER [See caption above]
COLOR PHOTO: DAVID E. KLUTHO NOSE TACKLE Vikings return man Robert Tate found out the hard way that St. Louis is special on special teams coverage, too.
"I'll tell you how we grew," Bruce says of the Rams' rise. "We
went out and got Marshall Faulk and Adam Timmerman."