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O/NSO: Remembering Kevin Bruce edition

15 min read
O/NSO: Remembering Kevin Bruce edition

The Obvious: The painful WeAreSC headline said it all, “Kevin Bruce, former USC 1975 football team captain and WeAre columnist, passed away Wednesday morning after a long battle with cancer.”

The Not So Obvious: Friends, the headline was accurate, but it wasn’t even close to describing Kevin Bruce, the man, the football player, one of my true best friends in life. I had followed Kevin’s career from his high days at La Canada (Calif.) St. Francis, an all-boys high school, in the San Gabriel Valley section of the Los Angeles region. At the time, he a two-way player, who played on the offensive line and was a linebacker. He was highly decorated, but he was not highly recruited. Kevin’s father played college football and played in the NFL.

The Obvious: Not every USC recruit even in the glory years was a 5-star prospect.

The Not So Obvious: It was by chance that Kevin Bruce had a good game when USC coaches were watching St. Francis in the CIF playoffs to evaluate another player and noticed the play of this relatively unheralded, headhunting linebacker. Thinking he was going to play either in the Ivy League or at Stanford, Kevin, according to him, was blown away by the USC scholarship offer, and he had no doubt he was going to play and succeed at USC under legendary coach John McKay

The Obvious: Everything in life has a beginning, and it has an end.

The Not So Obvious: I had never met Kevin Bruce before he joined WeAreSC. One day in 2014, our late publisher Garry Paskwietz called me and said that Kevin Bruce wanted to know if I was covering the Trojans at Boston College, and he really wanted to meet me. Meet me? Garry gave me Kevin’s phone number. Kevin was living in Boston so he could be treated by doctors for cancer.

So, we met on the North Side of Boston, the Italian section for dinner at a crowded restaurant called Bricco. It’s amazing because when we both first saw each other in front of the restaurant, we embraced like long lost teammates. Kevin made you feel part of his team from the get-go. From that point on, we would grow extremely close to the end of his life. Kevin passed at age 68.  

Our conversation in the Bricco restaurant revolved around everything about USC and high school football and coaching. It was over two hours of pure enjoyment, laughs, and his legendary teams and the iconic names who were his teammates. It was very apparent we both checked the boxes of each other’s general likes and dislikes regarding USC football and its future under then head coach Steve Sarkisian. We both learned there and then, neither of us were shy about speaking out our opinion on the state of USC football.

I think what captured his imagination is how much I knew about him and the Trojans teams he played on. You know names like Richard Wood, Anthony Davis, Otha Bradley, Haden and McKay, and, of course, the coaching staff of John McKay and especially Marv Goux. I think in a gentle way he tested me on my knowledge of football from the Xs and Os to general coaching philosophy. I absolutely recall him saying to me, “You know your s*it, and I don’t say that about everybody.” I responded, “I think you’re the smartest inside linebacker I’ve ever meet.” To which he replied, “Well, if I hadn’t gone to USC, I would have been at Stanford or on the East Coast at an Ivy League school.”

Kevin Bruce, a leader’s leader on and off the field.

There was no doubt Kevin was different, much different intellectually than most of the inside linebackers I had met or interviewed over the years. This dude was a different cut, wired different, motivated differently, goal-oriented different. If I had the authority, I would have demanded every USC freshman and transfer class football players be given an orientation address by the ultimate Trojan warrior. You could feel Kevin’s extreme passion, his drive for excellence in a USC uniform. It wasn’t an act; it was real with true conviction.        

The Obvious: Football is a game of violence with sometimes controlled and uncontrolled aggression.

The Not So Obvious: I think what struck me in our early conversations with Kevin was as intellectual as he was, he said without hesitation or apology, “I like to hurt people.” It was stunning to hear him say that, and he repeatedly again and again with a smile. He explained that football is a violent game, and it was based on domination, intimidation, and survival of the fittest. His expectation as a player was sort of a masochistic personality to hunt or be hunted. He would tell me numerous stories about the violence he participated against Notre Dame, UCLA, and Ohio State. A finger poke here or a punch there. Notre Dame did it. UCLA did it. Ohio State did it. It was no holds barred, and it was up to the game officials to keep things in order. Believe me, if you could have been there for those stories, I never grew tired of listening to them because they were so revealing in what happens between the white lines in a bigtime rivalry or bowl game. Kevin brought it all to life. However, make no mistake, off the field he was a true gentleman, a class act, and a wonderful person and teammate.

Kevin told me how he (6-0, 215) once went toe-to-toe in the 1975 Rose Bowl with Ohio State’s All-America offensive tackle Kurt Schumacher (6-3, 252), an eventual No. 1 draft pick, and Kevin had the stitches and scars to prove it in Troy’s dramatic comeback 18-17 victory. After the game, Kevin told me he walked over to the Ohio State dressing room and searched out Schumacher and introduced himself. He saw that Schumacher was heavily cut around the nose and forehead, and the Buckeyes tackle admitted he received those wounds from Kevin. Make no mistake about it, Kevin was quite proud of his physical accomplishment and the facial autographs he left on Schumacher.     

Ohio State’s All-American OT Kurt Schumacher had quite a rumble with Trojans’ linebacker Kevin Bruce in the 1975 Rose Bowl.

The Obvious: Meeting Kevin Bruce and gaining vast knowledge of what made USC football reach and maintain its storied level reinforced why the present-day Trojans standards of excellence should never ever be devalued.

The Not So Obvious: I can’t tell you the amount of time he and I both went off at how today’s Trojans – outside of the Pete Carroll era – were a total and complete embarrassment to those players that set the standards so high decades or generations before. To be expected, Kevin would bring out a continuous barrage of locker room profanity to describe– like many of you – the lack of physicality, especially in the Clay Helton era. It drove him nuts to see players in cardinal and gold uniforms play like the “P” word and still call themselves Trojans. A number of times he said a majority of the players after Carroll would never have made his teams (1972-75). They wouldn’t have – to put it civil – had the testosterone to compete. “El Capitan”, as I liked to call him, didn’t mince words over his complete displeasure over the direction of the teams. The hiring of Lincoln Riley gave him hope that the greatness of USC might return…if Riley could fix or pay attention to the needs for defense.     

The Obvious: Cancer is a horrendous disease.

The Not So Obvious: In the course of his fight with cancer, Kevin would comfy in me and those intimately close to him his cancer battle, trying to stay ahead of his medical opponent. It was incredible to see the strength and courage that he brought to the playing field being transitioned to his fight with the evils of brain cancer. I had known other friends in the teaching profession that had the type of brain cancer Kevin had, and the prognosis was always the same – terminal. Kevin would describe to me in dark humor how surgeons would remove part of his skull and do what they had to do and the side effects of such a brutal surgery. At last count, he had four brain surgeries to try and eliminate or slow down his aggressive cancer. Kevin viewed cancer like playing Ohio State or Notre Dame. His will to win and beat cancer was incredible, and that’s probably an understatement and doesn’t do it justice.   

The Obvious: Battling cancer is excruciatingly physically and mentally painful for the patient and the family of the patient.

The Not So Obvious: Kevin married his USC college sweetheart, Patty, and he spoke to me in glowing terms on how she was by his side through the worst – thick and thin. “Kev” would regale me with inside stories of USC aftergame football parties, especially one against Notre Dame where he met up with the Irish that he and his teammates had beaten just hours earlier. He made a deal with the Irish players at the party. If they could beat a certain team in a bowl game, Kevin’s team would beat Ohio State, and they would both prosper in the 1974 post-season rankings.

Kevin Bruce, the ultimate Trojan linebacker

The Obvious: They say that opposites attract.

The Not So Obvious: The beauty of my relationship with Kevin was that while we had a whole checklist of agreements, we were complete opposites in terms of politics and religion. He was a complete man of faith in his Catholicism and was very conservative in his political approach. I was nearly the complete opposite. The beautiful thing was that our friendship went way above those two usually destructive topics. My dad once told me to never to get into a conversation regarding religion and politics. He never met Kevin Bruce. He never forced his beliefs on me, but he was totally devoted to his.

One time when Kevin had flown out to L.A. for some work, he called me and asked if I wanted to meet him at his hotel by the ocean in Santa Monica. The whole night we talked religion and very little football. He told me he had no fear of dying because he knew where he was going. God had a masterplan for him, and he had achieved it. He was surprised but delighted I knew so much about the Catholic religion and the New Testament, and I was surprised he knew so much about the Old Testament. I mean to tell you; he could almost quote the entire Old and New Testament by chapter and verse. I told him my former wife was Catholic, and I had to go through some “marriage religious training” before we could get married since I was obviously not Catholic. Our religious conversation turned to politics and how he told me how conservative he was, and I think he admired me because I was his alter ego. The point regarding Kevin is that as strong has his beliefs were, he never let it get in the way of our strong friendship. By this time, we had grown to be like brothers from another mother.

The Obvious: If you knew Kevin, he would call you “brother” a number of times as a sign of endearment.

The Not So Obvious: I would say there was two levels of “endearment” when Kevin would use the term “brother” in having a conversation. When he called me “brother”, it went to another level of friendship. Kevin was a people person both as a former USC football captain of leadership and in the business world, where he was totally successful in turning companies around from bankruptcy to profit. Like football, he was very good at it; yet he could be as tough as nails if needed. He could take a bull by the horns and make it happen through logic, reason, and perseverance. Like football, his business acumen was top shelf.  

In our many soulmate conversations, I told Kevin I was always a loner so to speak and that I didn’t have a lot of friends that I would consider much of an “inner circle.” Surprisingly, he said that although he knew a lot of people and was generally in leadership positions, there were very few people he considered true friends and I was one of the lucky few. In our later conversations, we both said that our friendship – although not a lifetime blood brotherhood- evolved into each other’s inner circle of trust and admiration.  I was honored for him to tell me his inner feelings, and I think he felt the same. I am positively sure there were other friendships he had that resembled ours. I know that his relationship with WeAreSC columnist Chris Arledge was a very strong bond because he told me as such and explained his reasons. In the end, Chris, who lives in the Dallas area, went to visit him shortly before the end, and I was grateful that he did that. If you get a chance to view Chris’s “Musings with Arledge Solo” video tribute to Kevin, I highly encourage you to do so. You can see the pain in Chris’s eyes over the loss of our friend.    

The Obvious: When somebody is fighting cancer, not everybody knows about it because it is so personal and sensitive.  

The Not So Obvious: When our beloved WeAreSC columnist Steve Bisheff passed rather suddenly from colon cancer not all that long ago, I didn’t tell Kevin about it because of his situation and let him read about Steve’s passing on our site. Kevin later told another of his personal friends, Dennis Kushner, that he did want to know about such things. Kevin liked Steve and wanted the sad information. Kevin had resigned himself to his terminal fate and was not fearing the death. I know he thought of “Bish”, who covered him as an L.A. columnist, as a WeAreSC teammate. Everything Kevin seemed to project was that he was a team builder and leader and thus treated everything he was involved in as a team. It was quite extraordinary. 

Kevin Bruce (#50) had a big fumble recovery in the third quarter against the Irish in 1974.

The Obvious: When he wasn’t writing Defensively Speaking for WeAreSC, Kevin was a highly valued panel member on our video/podcast show “Inside the Trojans Huddle.”

The Not So Obvious: All the members of our panel to at some level knew that Kevin was very sick. Yet, Kevin would push himself to do the “Huddle” despite the effects of chemotherapy, which attacked his vocal cords and left him extremely hoarse. While he was beloved my many of our viewers, there were some that left some very nasty comments on the YouTube message boards regarding his voice quality. If some of those viewers didn’t like his opinions on telling like it is about USC football and his consistent rants regarding the constant mismanagement of the USC program, his voice issues just increased the volume of vitriol. It was painful to read those comments knowing what I knew what Kevin was going through.

I realize some of the viewers didn’t know what was going on, but it was still very hurtful to read the comments, nonetheless. Kevin, as you’d expect, didn’t care what others thought when it came to his opinions on USC football and other matters because he said, “I know more than they’ll ever know about football and USC.” And you know what, it wasn’t bragging because he could back it up and then some. It should be noted, Kev did it on the air with class and dignity and rarely came unglued.    

The Obvious: As with many terminal cancer patients, there is never the hopeful happy ending.

The Not So Obvious: Having fought the disease for so long, Kevin probably knew as much as the doctors when came to final outcomes. After that fourth brain surgery, he called me and said this was the worst procedure yet. He felt like a freight train was running through his head. He felt disoriented, sometimes confused, and nauseous to the point of vomiting. He told me and his inner circle that there would be no more surgeries after the last one, he couldn’t take it. Old No. 50 also learned the cancer had spread throughout his body, but he still managed to remain positive as you would surmise. He was now in spring overtime with his cancer, and he knew the end was near when he entered hospice a few weeks ago.

Back in late December, WeAreSC CEO Bruce Bagni was in Dallas to attend the Cotton Bowl. Bruce told me he went to visit Kevin at his home, and Kevin – despite his limitations – was the Kevin we all had dinner with some years ago at the Trojans team hotel in Grapevine, Texas, before the Trojans and Clay Helton got brutalized against Alabama to the 2016 season opener. At that dinner, I might add, my longtime girlfriend, Sharon, a former charge nurse at the famed City of Hope in Duarte, California, was so impressed by Kevin, especially when she knew the form of cancer he was fighting. She knew how courageous he had to be and what good shape he seemed to be in at the time. He was so full of life and vigor. However, in the following years, the struggle with cancer grew more challenging, and in the end, Sharon was shaken when I told her about Kevin on Wednesday.  

The Obvious: Some people just seem indestructible no matter what the odds.

The Not So Obvious: It seemed like some many times Kevin was near the end, but he managed to do a great escape. I guess many of us held hope this time was just another episode because he was so looking forward to the USC season 2023 season, and he was really tuned in by what he hoped would be an improved defense. The last time I heard from Kev was about two weeks ago, and I asked him how he was doing, wanting to hopefully switch to a long conversation about the USC defense and his thoughts on the season. Even though he was no longer able to participate on “Inside the Trojan’s Huddle”, he still wanted me to send him the weekly show script to stay abreast with what the topics we were discussing to keep his mind active and away away from his condition.

One of Kevin Bruce’s final appearances on “Inside the Trojans’ Huddle.”

Opening my last conversation with him, leave it to Kevin to give me this response when asked how he was handing in there. He said, “Other than the cancer that’s eating up my brain, I don’t have a worry in the world.” We then preceded to talk USC football, and he told me no matter how many points Caleb Williams and the USC offense can score in 2023, if the defense continues to be a broken dike, a rush game disaster, and be a scoring sieve, we won’t win the Pac-12. Of course, Kevin ended our conversation on a positive note and would have expected no less. Today was just another day.

The Obvious: And finally, on Tuesday morning, I received a phone call that Kevin had gone into a coma and that the end was finally near.

The Not So Obvious: My friendship with Kevin and his journey will stay with me for the rest of my days. True friends don’t come along very often, and like Steve Bisheff before, there is yet another large hole in my heart. I will never again get a Kevin in-game text regarding the Trojans. I will never again hear that phone ring and his voice saying, “I had to call you because I needed my USC football fix and I know we think alike.” Kevin seemed to always start a Trojans rant by saying, “Gee wiz, have a clue! Oh, and by the way, our defense isn’t very good. I don’t want to imagine what (Marc) Goux would have done at the next practice.”

No, fall football won’t be the same. In fact, USC football will never be the same because Kevin Bruce will always, for me, remind me of what a cardinal and gold national championship player should look like, be like, perform like, and be the epitome of a role model of greatness. Oh, and by the way, in four seasons at USC, his teams went 38-7-3. For me, Kevin will live in my heart, but I will again go to YouTube and watch him play against Notre Dame in “The Comeback”, the dominations over UCLA, and the holy wars against Ohio State in the Rose Bowl (1973,74, 75). No. 50 will still be alive in those video memories. I will relieve those moments and others as told to me as one who experienced them and made them all come to life.

Fight On, El Capitan!

Fight On, No. 50!!

Fight On, Kev, my brother, to heavenly victory!!!!

The post O/NSO: Remembering Kevin Bruce edition appeared first on On3.

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