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Remembering Those With Retired Jerseys: Memphis Tigers WR Isaac Bruce

Isaac Bruce is the best wide receiver to ever play for the Tigers. He transcended adversity.

Isaac Bruce catches a pass in Super Bowl XXXIV
Isaac Bruce catches a pass in Super Bowl XXXIV
Lutz Bongarts/Getty Images

Part four of our series on the personalities behind the Memphis Tigers' retired jerseys continues today. Previous articles featured Dave Casinelli, Bill Crumby, and Charles Greenhill.


Isaac Bruce is the best wide receiver to ever play at Memphis State University. Here are some facts supporting this:

  • A junior college transfer from Santa Monica College of California, Bruce joined the Tigers in 1992. He started all eleven games, scoring 5 touchdowns and gaining over 500 receiving yards as the second pass option behind the also-pretty-great Russell Copeland.
  • As the primary spiral-nabber on the 1993 squad, Bruce caught 74 passes (a single-season record at Memphis) for 1,054 yards (another single-season record) and 10 touchdowns.
  • His production in his two years at Memphis State ranks 8th and 9th all-time in overall receptions and receiving yards, respectively.
  • His post-collegiate career was good.
  • In 2003, after becoming the Los Angeles/St. Louis Rams' all-time receiving leader, his #83 jersey was retired at The University of Memphis.

From an aesthetic perspective, Isaac Bruce passes muster as well. At Memphis State, he was explosive and fun to watch, comprising half of an exciting offensive tandem with star quarterback Steve Matthews. The 1993 season saw the Tigers go 3-0 against SEC teams, and post a consecutive winning record for the first time in 15 years. Bruce's prolific offensive ability was a huge part of this.

Mere months after Bruce's second-round selection in the 1994 NFL draft, the school decided to change its name to forever protect his Memphis State records(citation needed).

Isaac Bruce is the GOAT of Memphis receivers. On this, we can tolerate no dissent.

So, why do we look back on those seasons with such frustration?

The Elephant in the Room

Talk to pre-DeAngelo era Tiger football fans about the early 90s Tiger teams, and you'll hear a lot about the excellence of Matthews and Bruce and Copeland and running back Larry Porter. They'll mention the tough defense. They'll mention beating Arkansas and Ole Miss in consecutive years.

You will certainly hear the following statements as well, likely coupled with a dismissive eye roll or shrug:

"Player revolt."

"'Ground' Chuck Stobart."

"6-5, 6-5, 6-5."

When Bruce arrived in Memphis to start the 1992, the team was fresh off a 5-6 1991 campaign, headlined by a monster win over Southern Cal. The team and the city expected a special 1992 campaign: the great season they'd been waiting for since the seventies.

Instead, the Tigers started the 1992 season by losing their first three games by a combined seven points and the mood soured quickly. People felt that head coach Chuck Stobart's run-first philosophy didn't take full advantage of the Tigers' potent offensive weapons.

The refrain around the fan base took on a familiar negative tone:

"Same old Tigers."

Adversity and Transcendence

In the midst of this mood, Bruce excelled. The 1993 season saw great wins and baffling losses, but his performance remained consistently excellent. He worked hard, played with enthusiasm and style, and carried himself with dignity off the field.

As his receptions and yards mounted, he began drawing the attention of NFL scouts. The final game of the season was a rare nationally-televised event against the Miami Hurricanes. As Sally Jenkins reported for Sports Illustrated:

Bruce, of course, wanted to make the most of the exposure, but in the first half he got blindsided and bit partway through his tongue. He took three stitches at the half but did not miss a snap, finishing the game with two touchdown receptions.

Whether severed tongue or fractured season, Bruce reacted to difficult circumstances with poise and determination, succeeding in spite of it all.

Adversity and transcendence preceded the four Pro Bowls, The Greatest Show on Turf, and the Super-Bowl winning touchdown.

Isaac Bruce is a perfect example for Memphis and its football program, for his retired jersey testifies that tough circumstances can be overcome.