49ers already missing ‘Old Reverend Bruce’

One day it may look like a swindle. The 49ers traded a potential Hall of Fame wide receiver to a division rival and got absolutely nothing in return. But this was no ordinary deal. San Francisco traded Isaac Bruce to the Rams so that he could officially finish his career with the team that made him famous.

The Rams will hold a press conference Wednesday to honor a man who played 16 NFL seasons and caught 1,024 passes (fifth in league history) for 15,208 yards (second) and 91 touchdowns (ninth). In two seasons with the 49ers, Bruce had 82 receptions for 1,099 yards and seven scores.

He clearly had lost a step last year, and his retirement has been a foregone conclusion. Tight end Tony Curtis had already claimed his No. 88 jersey. But the 49ers are quick to admit they will miss Bruce’s practice-field wisdom.

“If you can’t learn from Old Reverend Bruce, you’re not paying attention to football,” second-year wide receiver Dominique Zeigler said. “You learn a lot from just paying attention to him. He didn’t have to tell you too much.”

Bruce could be a clam around the media, and wasn’t exactly Mr. Yappy among his teammates. But to hear them tell it, he was always accessible to younger players, and frequently took the time to hand out tips regarding specific routes or opposing defensive backs.

“My locker has been beside Bruce since I got in here, so it’s like he was always talking to me,” said Josh Morgan, a third-year player. “I mean always, constantly. So it’s like I always had him in my head. Even in the game, like I’d hear him say stuff to me. It’s like a REWIND button. I’m a real visual person, so I like see the moment happen. So I’d do something where, ‘OK, Isaac told me this, and I’m a do it like this, so this might help me get out better.’ “

It certainly wasn’t just the younger receivers who appreciated Bruce during his two seasons in San Francisco.

Here’s what coach Mike Singletary had to say about the news of today’s trade: “I just remember him being the ultimate professional. What a classy human being. He is a great guy, well respected. His credibility preceded him before getting here. I just think everything he did while he was here – the professionalism, the work ethic, the candor — everything about him was what drew all of our receivers to him. … I’m excited about the whole transaction that’s taken place. He’s going to retire a Ram and that’s what he deserves.”

And here’s a quarterback Alex Smith: “He was a truly unique person. I’ve never played with anybody like him and that’s the truth. … I think Isaac’s personality, his work ethic, his approach to the game, his approach to life – I think his approach to everything he did. It wasn’t just football. It wasn’t just that he was a perfectionist with football. I think everything he did, he was a perfectionist about. … He was someone that I constantly found myself watching, trying to take mental notes. I’m sure I’ll be telling my kids one day, I got the chance to play with Isaac Bruce.”

If it was Bruce’s perfectionism that stood out most to Smith, it was the veteran’s competitive fire that impressed Zeigler.

“He’s not the biggest guy, and me being in that same situation, I just like how he competed, against press (coverage), against off (coverage),” Zeigler said. “When he had to go in and crack somebody like a linebacker, no matter who it is, he was playing ‘em like he was gonna get the job done.”

The focus will now return to Bruce and the Rams, a combination that played in two Super Bowls in a three-year stretch and broke numerous offensive records with Kurt Warner at quarterback. But Morgan, who claims he asked Bruce “like 80 questions a day” when the two were together, doesn’t believe his former teammate will abandon the 49ers.

“I got his phone number, and I know he’s still gonna be watching us, making sure we’re doing him right, making sure we’re doing what he told us to do,” Morgan said.