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 since.
"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] Adam Timmerman."
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 intimidated."
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 step-mom, 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 Tony 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."