It was more than five years after he trudged off the Superdome field a loser in Super Bowl XXXVI when it all changed for Isaac Bruce.
“I had no suspicions prior to Spygate,” Bruce tells The Post. “I realized that these players are on scholarship just like I’m on scholarship. They’ve done everything, they’ve sacrificed a lot to be playing in this game, and to be in the National Football League. We’re the greatest athletes on the planet, in my opinion, and I had no reason to think that someone had filmed our walkthrough, or filmed us. There was no reason to think that. That’s probably the last thing you would think of as a competitor playing at the highest level. I would have thought that that would have never happened in a million years. The league just wouldn’t allow it.”
The league, of course, was in the dark on Feb. 3, 2002. Spygate turned a chilling light on inside Bruce’s head
“I wasn’t shocked that that happened, but it was more, ‘Ahhhh, OK,’ ” Bruce said. “So it kind of brought me to the point where I was saying, ‘OK, that could have been the reason why this guy was here, and I would run into this guy, and he would run my route for me.’ It answered questions for me.”
The questions were: How could Bill Belichick’s 14-point underdogs turn The Greatest Show on Turf Rams into The Greatest No-Show on Turf? A pair of Hall of Famers, Kurt Warner and Marshall Faulk, and almost certainly a third one voted in on Saturday in Bruce, the prolific wide receiver. A 14-2 record, 503 points scored …
“I’ve never watched that game,” Bruce said. “I played in it, so I can pretty much tell you what happened and what was going on.
“What I want to do is just kind of put you in a mindset of who we were as a team, who we were as an offense. All year long, we were running free. And what I mean by running free is that we’d beat our man at the line of scrimmage, we’d be running wide open down the field, because myself, Torry Holt, we were a tough matchup around the league. And I think some people say to counter that, what you want to do is get up on us and press us, and be physical with us. What other NFL team wouldn’t do that, especially guys in our division at that time?
“We’re talking about a league at that time where being physical was promoted. You could take a headshot at us, and those same headshots that you could take, they’d put ’em on the Jumbotron in the visiting stadiums and promote them. We didn’t have anything about the concussion syndrome that we have now. That wasn’t in existence. But we had faced that type of coverage, that type of defense, numerous times.”
Not this time. Bruce references cornerback Terrell Buckley, picked up by the Patriots only weeks earlier.
“He was on the street, looking for a job,” Bruce said. “In the Super Bowl, he was running routes for us. How would he know to be here at this spot, two weeks ahead of time, where no one had figured out a way to stop us? No one. No one. We were used to running up and down the field fancy free.
“Physical for the New England Patriots in that game wasn’t hitting Tory and myself, that wasn’t the physicality part of it. I think their physicality part was grabbing and holding. If the ref’s not calling it, he’s not calling it. So that was another issue in that game.”
The Boston Herald would retract a story charging that the Patriots videotaped the Rams walkthrough the day before the game.
“I think there’s a line of credibility that comes with being one of the top news producers in America,” Bruce said. “So for them and their editors and their people to allow the story to come out like that, there had to be some truth to it.”
Asked if he believes the walkthrough was taped, Bruce says: “Something that was unfair happened. It just had to. I believe in great coaches, I believe in great schemes. I also believe in our ability to put points on the board in what we were doing in 2001.”
Faulk has insisted the Patriots cheated.
“They taped our practice. That was wrong,” he said two years ago.
Warner too has had his suspicions.
“There’s a sliver of a doubt,” he said in 2015.
The 20-17 victory was the start of the Patriots’ dynasty.
“I feel like, ‘Hell we coulda gave the Patriots our playbook, we still were a better football team,’ ” linebacker London Fletcher told The Post. “It was just a situation where we didn’t play our best football. I don’t know if it’s true or not true, whatever the case may be, but I do know we didn’t play our best football. If we play that team 10 times, we should have beaten them 10 times, or 9 out of 10 times, and that was the one time they won, and that was the only game that mattered.”
Defensive end Grant Wistrom agreed.
“Regardless of what they knew about us,” he told The Post, “we were a better team at that point, and if we’d just played as well as we could have played, we would have won. It’s like blaming the officials for blowing a call and losing the game, there’s 100 other snaps for a football game, but you’re gonna pick one to fixate on. We had opportunities to win the game regardless of what they did.”
Asked if he thinks the Patriots’ first Super Bowl win was tainted, Wistrom said: “It might be, but I’m not mad about it. If we were dumb enough to put things out in public in an insecure environment that could impact the game, then that’s stupid on our part and shame on us.”
Bruce wishes more details would have come out.
“We’re in our element,” he said. “We’re in a dome, we’re on turf, AstroTurf, we were 14-point favorites. … I was shocked that Spygate never ran across my television as far as what actual proof, or fruits of an investigation. … I guess TMZ weren’t doing their job at the time.”
The Patriots are 2.5-point favorites over the Rams in Super Bowl LIII.
“You probably have everything stacked against you this time the way we had it against them in 2001,” Bruce said.
As he steps toward Canton, Isaac Bruce said he likes his old team’s chances.
“There will be a little bit of vindication,” Bruce said. “I won’t be doing jumping jacks when we win, but I’ll just wink and smile a little.”