Aundray Bruce, a 21-year-old outside linebacker from Auburn who on Sunday will become the No. 1 selection in this year's NFL draft, was a shy, awkward child who seldom spoke because of a severe stutter. While in grade school in Montgomery, Ala., he refused to raise his hand in class, and at home he retreated to his bottom-bunk bed to draw sketches of cartoon characters. "I couldn't pronounce some words, sometimes even my own name," says Bruce. "So I didn't speak. I didn't want to be made fun of."
His mother, Lucille, paid for speech therapy sessions and smothered him with love. She called him Boobie, for baby. His older brothers, Arthur, now 36, and Sylvester, 35, encouraged him to play sports. After Aundray's seventh-grade basketball games, they treated him to meals at McDonald's. They challenged him by setting outlandish scoring goals for him, and if he came close, they would reward him with T-shirts and sweatpants.
"Aundray was the quietest fellow," Sylvester says. "I sure didn't think he'd amount to anything spectacular."
On April 6 he signed a five-year, $4.15 million contract with the Atlanta Falcons, who have the top pick in this year's draft and, as has become the custom, made their choice known long before draft day. "Aundray can become as good as Lawrence Taylor and Carl Banks," says Ken Herock, the Falcons' director of college player personnel. "He has all their qualities. There might be something missing, but we can't see it."
What is missing is celebrity; Bruce may be the least-heralded No. 1 pick since the NFL merged with the AFL in 1967. He was never a finalist for the Lombardi Award, which is presented annually to the top college lineman or linebacker. In his two years as a starter for the Tigers, Bruce never did lead the team in tackles for a game or a season. In '87 he had eight sacks in 11 regular-season games.
Bruce's detractors question whether he deserves to be No. 1. His admirers agree that he lacks motivation but say he merely needs an old-fashioned disciplinarian—somebody like Atlanta Falcons coach Marion Campbell—to get him in line. One NFL team's scouting report reads: "Needs a challenge...inconsistency undefinable."
Bruce, who's 6'6" and 250 pounds, may be neither as passionate about football as Taylor is, nor as hardworking as Banks. "In NFL jargon, he's a three-and-one player," says George Young, the New York Giants' general manager. "He goes hard for three plays, then takes one off."
Inconsistency has indeed been Bruce's major failing. For example, in Auburn's 1987 opener, against Texas, he made eight tackles. He had 10 two weeks later at North Carolina, and against Georgia Tech he had the finest game of his career: nine tackles, three sacks, a fumble recovery, a forced fumble and three interceptions, including one he returned 45 yards for a touchdown. But in between, against weaker teams like Kansas and Vanderbilt, he was less impressive and was accused of not going all out.
"We never knew which Aundray would show up," says Kurt Crain, Auburn's other All-America linebacker, who figures to be a middle-round choice in the draft. "That's his one drawback. I often had to tell him during games, 'C'mon, we need you.' "
Bruce's erratic stats may be slightly misleading; against weaker opponents, he and the rest of Auburn's powerful first-string defense were often pulled early. Besides, Bruce says, "when an opponent is weak, I have a tendency not to come as hard. I will do just enough to make it obvious I'm the better player. Then I save myself for the games that mean the most."