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� 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 tide, 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 east-bound 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 pi�a colada and stared at his questioner. "I'm thinking the guy was an angel," Bruce said.