A Quick Tribute to “Ike”

Isaac Bruce is active for today’s game against the Rams, and is “75% sure” that he will retire when it’s done. Rams fans will want to give him a nice sendoff if this is the case, possibly including the burning of effigies of Jay Zygmunt and Drew Bennett outside the stadium. (Hey, it’s 9 effing degrees outside. We’re burning effigies for warmth, not just spite!)

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.

— Michael Silver in SI, “The Spirit of St Louis

Here are a few quick memories:

When the Rams arrived in St Louis, Bruce and Jerome Bettis were the only players of any note on the offense, and the Bus didn’t stop here for long. Unfortunately, Bruce’s talent remained mostly untapped during the next few injury-plagued years. In games he played, he was often electric. Few receivers could amass the kinds of yards he did — 191 yards and 2 TDs against Atlanta in 1995, 229 yards and a score against Baltimore in ’96, 233 with 2 TDs against Atlanta in ’97 — from quarterbacks as erratic as Chris Miller and Tony Banks.

However, after Bettis’ trade and his health issues, he was often angry and dissatisfied with himself and with his team. He rarely gave in to any diva-esque displays that we come to expect from the most talented WRs in the game, but once was enough.

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 since.

However, much like Steven Jackson this season, Bruce rededicated himself to his health and preparation and came back strong for the fateful 1999 season. A season in which everyone’s job appeared to be in jeopardy after Vermeil was forced to purge many of his assistants, and the team brought in a big gamble at quarterback — Trent Green. Bruce’s own position on the roster might be usurped by the drafting of a brash young talent from North Carolina.

Instead of embracing just one weapon in the passing game, however, the Rams under Mike Martz used all of them. All the time. And Bruce’s career was reborn. And the Rams’ faith in Bruce was renewed, as they inked him to a massive $42 million dollar payday.

Formerly fragile, Bruce missed only one game until turf toe sidelined him in 2005. However, he returned for full seasons in 2006-07, and continued to be a reliable target on the field.

However, the Rams — driven largely by fan dissatisfaction with their team’s all-too-apparent inconsistencies on defense and special teams — responded in the only reasonable way possible: by firing the architect of their offense and releasing Bruce.

A collective “WHAT????” flooded the Saint Louis airwaves as the Rams went and signed his replacement, Drew Bennett, to perhaps the worst contract in St Louis sports history — eclipsing even Tino Martinez’s albatross deal. Meanwhile, Bruce was reunited with Martz in San Francisco less than a day after his release. And naturally, he immediately became the team’s leader in reception yards and touchdowns.

This season, though, he has been a largely forgotten man as age, minor injuries, and a highly inconsistent 49ers offense have put him on the sidelines. In last season’s return to the dome, he caught the game-winning touchdown in a hard-fought 17-16 win. Fans cheered him anyway.

In this season’s farewell, who knows how much time he’ll see, or how much impact he’ll have? But one thing is for sure, the fans will cheer him anyway.