By Bob Hertzel
Times West Virginian
Too often we view the game of football from the outside in, watch the players play the game and judge the results without ever realizing what it was that got them to that point. The game, you see, is the easy part, the enjoyable part.
So let us today take a ride inside the mind of one player, a young player named Isaiah Bruce, a linebacker with a chance to win a West Virginia University starting job in his redshirt freshman year.
Think of what is going on within his mind, the thoughts and the dreams — yes, dreams, real ones — as he learns a new defense and is caught in the incredibly complicated emotional state that forces someone who is looking for personal accomplishments yet must do it in a team setting.
Bruce is a 6-foot-1, 226-pound linebacker out of Providence High in Jacksonville, Fla., caught up in a position battle with Shaq Petteway, a 6-foot, 200-pound linebacker out of Steubenville, Ohio.
“I think I’m pretty good,” Bruce admitted without coaxing, “and if I’m fighting for a position with Shaq, the defense can only be good. Competing for a job is good. The competition being so hard, it makes the defense that much better.”
But there is an inherent situation that grows out of competition on a team. Each of the two players wants to start. They are teammates, must pull for each other, yet deep down there somewhere is this little evil voice telling them that they wouldn’t mind if their competitor had a bad play or two.
Or does it work that way?
“We’re always pushing each other,” Bruce said. “You want everyone to play, but you want your playing time, too. Everyone wants to start.”
Starting being the ultimate goal, a confirmation of your belief in yourself and a reward for the hard work you put in, magnifies each situation on each football team into a daily test of will and skill.
You become judgmental of your play, maybe even beyond the point the coach is judgmental.
“In the moment, you made a good play, you are feeling good about yourself, but you can’t live on what I just did because coaches are not looking at what you just did. They are looking at what you can do the next play,” Bruce said.
So when you make a good play you are momentarily thrilled, but must put it behind you.
And a bad play, miss a tackle, blitz through the wrong hole, be in the wrong coverage — there is so much that can and often will go wrong — and there’s nowhere to hide, not on the field at the moment or in the film room.
“A bad play stays in your head a lot more,” Bruce said, noting that it is human nature to remember the mistakes far longer than the good plays.
Sometimes it reaches the point where you take it home with you, take it to bed with you.
You even dream about practice and football.
“I definitely do think a lot about it, especially in my dreams,” Bruce said. “I think about what I need to do in this situation or that because coach
constantly talks about going over it in your mind before the play or meetings. Then when you get on the field it’s just reaction.”
“Not really,” Bruce said. “They are usually good dreams. I’m getting into my gap, doing what I’m supposed to do and making plays.”
All of this occurs because the journey to reach a starting job in big-time college football, to be realistic in having NFL hopes and aspirations, is a never-ending challenge. Each kid who comes to a major college with a football scholarship has been a high school standout, some even national stars, but he soon finds he is starting at the bottom ... and rightfully so.
But wouldn’t it be so much better to shake it off, as a player probably will as he gets older and more established, less involved in fighting for a job and more secure in his future. Then maybe there will be time when it isn’t always first and foremost in the mind, awake or asleep.
“I redshirted my first year, and at first it was really hard for me. Since I was little I started, I played and contributed all the time,” Bruce said. “When I found out I was going to be redshirted, it was a big blow to me because I didn’t expect it.”
Let us understand that redshirting is a difficult time as you never play a game, which takes away that weekly goal a player uses to drive himself through practices. Because you don’t play, coaches doesn’t have time to coach you other than to push you on the scout team, learning opponents’ plays and tendencies.
You are something of a leper, and it takes a while to understand there is a reason for a redshirt season, and it isn’t because you are not a quality player.
“At first, these people were big ... and fast,” Bruce admitted. “It was a big transition from high school to college. Sitting out that year definitely helped me in the long run.
“Over time I realized it was a lot better for me,” Bruce concluded. “I got bigger. I got faster. I know the defense now. It got easier for me to play at this level.”
And now he could find himself in position to be a four-year starter, or at least a big-time contributor throughout his career.
Email Bob Hertzel at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow on Twitter @bhertzel.