Few have seen the things Bobby Bruce has seen. Even fewer have his athletic potential.
Two aspects of the Titusville High senior linebacker’s story are most significant. First, it is a story of transformation. Second, it’s a story whose ending has yet to be written.
“The odds are stacked against him,” Terriers head coach Wayne Lawrence said Wednesday after practice, “but we see how far he’s come. He’s realized he can succeed. He can make it.”
That’s been proven repeatedly on the football field, from the time a ninth-grade Bruce flattened Titusville’s all-time leading rusher, Jaleel Davis, in a scrimmage, to his first varsity action, when he blew up a Merritt Island return as a member of Terriers special teams.
In this year’s season opener against Sebastian River, Bruce made 10 tackles and forced two fumbles. Last week against Lake Brantley, he added 11 more tackles. In 2015, he finished the year with 119, making double-digit tackles in seven of 10 games.
Lawrence pauses as if waiting for outsiders to see it as bravado, but he makes the comparison to NFL greats anyway, describing his team leader as having the passion and tenacity of Ray Lewis and the football knowledge and instincts of Lawrence Taylor.
“This kid has always been a phenomenal football player. You’ve got to be born with these traits. When we’re shaking hands with opponents after games, every coach talks about this kid.”
In February of 2010, everybody was talking about Johntay Gowdie, the 17-year-old cousin of then-13-year-old Bruce. Gowdie starred at tailback through just about every level of youth league football. When he left one of Bruce’s summer league basketball games, he said he’d be back.
He never returned. Hours later, he was accidentally shot dead by a friend. It was a too-close-to-home shock to a teenager who had already experienced more than his share.
“I wanted to really just end it, end myself, because that’s who I looked up to,” Bruce said this week. “A lot of people said I was going to end up like him.”
Bruce witnessed a shooting just outside his house at age 7. Walking home from elementary school a year later, he saw smoke rising in the distance.
“That’s somebody’s house smoking,” he thought. “I hope that’s not my house. I walked to my house and saw it going down to the ground.”
Bruce eventually was kicked off his youth basketball team after Johntay’s death.
“I just didn’t have my head right. I didn’t care any more.”
The youngest of five children, there are no high school graduates in Bruce’s immediate family, and he has never met his dad.
One of the shining lights is his older brother who has served in the military for 10 years. Bruce’s closest relationship is with his 85-year-old grandmother. He lives with her and has her name, “Margaret,” tattooed on the inside of his left forearm.
Tattooed on top of his hands are his late cousin’s initials, “J” and “G.”
“People ask me why I got them, about how I’ll be able to get a job with tattoos there, but I want to always be able to see them, to remember him.”
Bruce admits he has gotten himself into trouble at times, but his coach has witnessed a transformation in his player’s view of life since he first showed his ability on the field.
“What you’ve been around and what you’ve experienced is your normalcy,” Lawrence said. “He came to school looking at things from one perspective. The things that he’s seen filter over into his daily life. Now, he’s seen an opportunity to get out of the life he’s been in.”
His path out of that life will be football. Now one of the county’s leading tacklers and a first-team All-Space Coast linebacker last year, he was the rare freshman playing varsity because, even with his penchant to step outside of the game plan, his instincts have made it worth the risk.
“We just figured we’ll live with some of his mistakes as a freshman,” Lawrence remembers. “Even now sometimes, we’ll see him go up to the line and we don’t even have a blitz called. We don’t encourage that, because we want him to play soundly in our system, but we trust his instincts.”
His 6-foot, 210-pound body and his performance have already attracted college scouts. Bruce knows he needs to improve academically if college football is to be his next stop.
“School is not easy for everybody. I’ve got obstacles I’ve got to get over,” he said. “I’ve got to get my reading up so I can get my scores up.”
If he can do that, athletic scholarship offers will come.
“I want my grandmother to see me on TV for something good, for something I like,” he said. “That’s football.”
He hasn’t guaranteed any television appearances yet, but Bruce’s life of transition is also one of promises. One, fulfilled, was to win the youth league championship his cousin could not win before his death. Bruce and the Junior Terriers did that.
Another was made to his brother on a trip to visit his military base in Alaska two summers ago.
“I was about to throw my life away over something somebody said, so he bought me a ticket to go see him,” Bruce recalled. “I made a promise that I would stay at Titusville and I would graduate.”
That should come in May. Titusville assistant coach Brian Hepburn, one of the first Terriers coaches to see Bruce’s potential and to express that to the young player, is optimistic that more football will follow.
“We dont know yet where he’ll end up, but we’ll know they’ve got somebody special in Bobby,” Hepburn said. “He could be next year on somebody’s special teams and work his way up the depth chart. He’s going to make his mom and grandma and coaches very proud.”
Contact McCallum at 321-242-3698 or email@example.com. Follow facebook.com/FLtoday.brianmccallum and @Brian_McCallum on Twitter.
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