Bruce anchors the defense Navy: 'Rambunctious' linebacker plays with old-fashioned passion.

August 17, 1996|By Alan Goldstein | Alan Goldstein,SUN STAFF

Navy linebacker Clint Bruce is one of the true throwbacks.

"He'd be just as happy playing in a parking lot in a foot of mud before a handful of people," said Navy linebacker coach Tommy Raye. "He just loves to hit people and plays with a passion you used to see in a Dick Butkus or Ray Nitschke."

Bruce, a senior co-captain from Garland, Texas, was the soul of ** the defense last year, leading the team in tackles (117) and earning second team All-Independent honors.

Along with graduated Andy Person and Fernando Harris, Bruce was primarily responsible for Navy's defense jumping from 87th to 17th in the national rankings.

"Bruce thrives on being front and center," said Navy coach Charlie Weatherbie. "I think of a leader as a person who can pull a chain instead of getting behind it. You can almost hear him say, 'Follow me boys!' after he makes a good stick."

"I guess I was always rambunctious," Bruce said with a lopsided grin. "I was such a wild kid, full of life. Every summer, my mother would send me to a Bible school -- Catholic, Baptist or Jewish -- it didn't matter. Just to get me out of the house."

Playing football helped burn off the excess energy, and Bruce won all-district honors playing linebacker for South Garland High.

Almost all of the major Texas colleges, plus UCLA, came courting, but Bruce had set his sights on the Naval Academy.

"For as long as I can remember, I was interested in war games," he said. "And my ultimate dream was to become a Navy SEAL."

But Bruce's eyesight could not meet the rigorous standards for SEAL candidates. And he had to reshape his thinking.

"When I graduate, I'm going to apply for the Marines. Then I can still play in the sand and blow things up," he said with a laugh.

But for at least another autumn, Bruce will confine his combative nature to the football field.

"Clint has a playful nature, and he's fun to coach," said Raye. "But he's not the team clown. He plays hard every second he's out there.

"When I first came here last season, he had a reputation of playing out of control. But I never saw that. He didn't come close to picking up a penalty all year.

"This spring, he worked extra hard on improving his pass coverage. That will take his game to the next level."

One of the keys for Navy's defense this season will be finding a replacement for Harris.

"With his exceptional speed, Fernando was a perfect complement to Bruce, who would blitz and stuff the run," said Raye. "Fernando would roam all over the place, making spectacular plays."

But Bruce, 6 feet and 238 pounds, has high expectations for his new mates at linebacker -- juniors Jason Coffey and Travis Cooley. "They're both aggressive and as crazy as I am," Bruce said.

After playing his first two years under taciturn George Chaump, Bruce has felt invigorated by Weatherbie's enthusiasm.

"His coaching style is so infectious," said Bruce. "His positive attitude rubs off on everybody. But I've also learned from him spiritually. It's not just football. He really cares about us."

The Mids showed definite improvement in finishing 5-6 last fall, but it still marked a third straight losing season for Bruce.

And after Army marched 99 yards for the winning touchdown in the closing minutes to beat Navy, 14-13, in the season finale, Bruce cried openly as he walked off the field.

"I'm very emotional, and I hate losing at anything. I felt I had a lot to do with us getting beat," he said. "We didn't stop them when we had to, and I had several chances to make a big play."

Raye remembers things differently. "Clint played one of his best games against Army," he said. "It was typical how he shouldered the blame."

Now Bruce talks only winning.

"This senior season means everything to me," he said. "We want to make history, and leave the academy with its best football record in 13 years."

Pub Date: 8/17/96

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