Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Grambling greats: Bruce Eugene

One wild ride
December 18, 2005
It was all there: The SWAC titles. The knee injury. National awards. A weight problem. The I-AA records. Then ... that hurricane.

By Nick Deriso
GRAMBLING — New Orleans native Bruce Eugene found himself drowning in sorrows.
Then his ambitions learned to swim.

Attempting a comeback from the harrowing knee injury that stole his 2004 season might have been hard enough. But the senior Grambling State quarterback also saw his neighborhood inundated by Hurricane Katrina just before this year's opener. All he could do was throw touchdowns. He said it helped ease his mind.

So, he threw 56 — slipping past a mind-boggling Division I-AA career touchdown record that had stood for 20 seasons.

Bruce Eugene lost everything, then won every league contest, his first Bayou Classic and the Southwestern Athletic Conference championship.

"After everything that happened with the injury and the hurricane," Eugene said, softly, "this one feels a little more meaningful."

What it means for his NFL future, however, remains unclear.

Bruce Eugene was shooting baskets, not nailing fly patterns, when Melvin Spears first saw him play.

The current Grambling State coach, then an assistant to Doug Williams, would have a hard time convincing anyone that this was the quarterback of the future.

Especially Williams, the quarterback of Grambling's storied past.

Still, Spears said: "The first day I saw Bruce, we connected right away."

Spears pulled the New Orleans native to the side, and they began talking football. The kid knew his stuff. He had an intuitive knowledge of offensive schemes, and he was familiar with the other prep players that Grambling was pursuing out of his hometown.

"We talked about football, and he tested my knowledge of the game," said Eugene. "Me and coach, we hit it off."

Spears got some film, a rainy game that Walter L. Cohen High actually lost. Still, Eugene threw for 400 yards and six touchdowns.

"He was real, real rough," Spears admits. "But he had a big gun. I told Doug, 'This is our guy. He might be a short, fat kid right now. But I'm telling you, he will go down as the best of all time.' Doug thought I was losing my mind. But he had all the intangibles."

Spears didn't promise Eugene's mother a full ride, only that her son would graduate. That was good enough for Zina.

Spears would be his protector through all of this, the father he'd never known. Eugene often credits Spears' consistent support with turning a rough-edged kid from a 10th Ward project into an on-field coach who called many of the plays that propelled Grambling to a title in 2005.

"When I first thought about playing college ball, I never envisioned myself having this much success," Eugene said. "Coach Spears envisioned it, and that's why I don't question him when he tells me something. He knew from day one."

It's difficult to know what Williams' stern, bluntly practical style of coaching might have done to better prepare Eugene for a leap into the pros. Their relationship was tempestuous over Williams' time at the helm in Grambling, which ended just after the 2003 season.

Eugene, even if he never conquered his weight problem, only seemed to learn how to have fun on the field once Williams returned to the NFL as a personnel executive with Tampa Bay.

Eugene said Katrina changed him ways that no coach ever could, anyway.

"The football field became something to enjoy," Eugene said. "For a couple of hours, I was not thinking about the hurricanes and the tragedies it had caused. I had joy."

Eugene never really knew his father, a man also named Bruce who is incarcerated. His mother worked to support the family as a parking-control officer in New Orleans.

Zina's oldest son, always a big kid, was nevertheless athletic. Like his younger brother Zory and sister ZainDymeka, he played basketball. But a talent at throwing the football also drew sniffs from Texas Southern, Southern, Mississippi State, Southern Miss and Arkansas.

Eugene always said he felt drawn to Grambling, where some other family members had gone.

The chance to play for a former Super Bowl MVP played a role, too.

First, Eugene would have to sit out a year with a pre-existing injury. Then, he'd have to grow up some. Eugene admits that he came in with a chip on his shoulder, playing it aloof when he wasn't picking fights.

"I had my guard up," said Eugene. "I was overprotective of myself. Over time, that was part of the growth process. We all became good friends. My relationship with (his teammates) helped when I had problems getting along with Coach Williams."

Williams was bad cop to Spears' good cop, the coach who rode Eugene about footwork, follow through and his fits of inconsistency.

"The project was still in Bruce," Spears said. "We just had to polish him a little bit. He understands now that he has leadership skills, and he can make guys better. We kept pulling him in and out just to teach him certain things about responsibility. I think it worked."
Eugene was still on the bench in 2001, only inserted whenever regular starter Randy Hymes struggled — a tough situation that might have broken someone with less moxie.

"When Bruce first came, he was in the 235 range, and it was hard to imagine that he could throw the football like he did and be able to move around," Williams said.

In fact, it wasn't until 2002 — three years after Eugene arrived in Grambling — that he was given the reins.

"He needed to understand the significance of a good opportunity," Spears said. "You can't afford to squander it. Bruce had to grow to the point of being a leader here."

Eugene, who led I-AA in total offense in 2002 and 2003, won a SWAC title in '02 — and was a pass or two away from playing for another one a year later.

He was starting to settle into the position, starting to realize that there was more to football than the deep ball, starting to find his footing as a team leader.

Then Eugene blew out his knee on a third-quarter scramble in the 2004 opener.

"He was dejected," said Spears. "The first couple of conversations we had I told him: 'You've got believe in God. These things happen for a reason. You've got to come back in and work every day to get back.' "

Unable to play, fearful that his football career was over, Eugene was clearly reeling. He ballooned up to more than 300 pounds.

He had nearly finished school, when the NCAA issued a belated medical exemption — granting Eugene another year of eligibility at Grambling. Spears quickly scheduled a trip to participate in a weight program at Duke University, where Eugene steadied himself with a 1,800 calorie-a-day off-season diet.

If Eugene had a shot at the NFL, the message from scouts was clear.

"He needs to dedicate himself in the weight room and tighten his body up," said Kevin Beck of FFToolbox, a Web site devoted to pro scouting. "If this player were to work hard in the weight room and lose the pounds needed, he might have the chance to quarterback at the next level."

Eugene got down to 255, hoping to push himself to 235.

That was where Eugene stood as Katrina washed over his hometown, then trickled down into every part of his life. Family members — Zina, Zory, ZainDymeka and an adopted 7-year-old cousin, Danion Green — raced to Lincoln Parish to stay with him, turning Eugene's rented house into its own microcosm of everything happening in New Orleans. There was sadness, but also inspiration.

"I felt like that changed my season," said a suddenly solemn Eugene. "It made me look at life from a different point of view. I realized that the next day was not promised."

Watching Eugene perform against Southern at Reliant Stadium in Houston, ESPN's Lee Corso marveled at the quarterback's raw talent.

"He's got a shotgun for an arm and great quickness," said Corso, who'd just finished broadcasting the College GameDay preview show. "They (NFL scouts) might have an issue saying that he's not tall enough or throws from the sidearm. But, I think he's a heckuva player."'s D.J. Boyer pegs Eugene as the No. 4 small school prospect at quarterback in the 2006 NFL Draft. Consensus Draft Services lists Eugene as its No. 1 sleeper at the position.

Others aren't so sure.

"He really does not look the part of a big-time NFL prospect," said Matt Bitonti of "It would be difficult to project Bruce as a likely draft pick, but considering his tremendous production during his career and this season, in particular, he must be given serious consideration as a priority free agent, at the least."

Williams said NFL clubs are evaluating Eugene, but was cautious about predicting where his former quarterback would land.

"We've all got to be realistic," Williams said. "When we look at last year's draft, there were only three first-round picks (among quarterbacks). The rest went late. You can't get caught up in where you go, as much as the opportunity."

Eugene admits a sliver of doubt, in his quietest moments. After all, Grambling has only had one signal-caller drafted over the last 20 seasons — and that was 11th-rounder Clemente Gordon in 1990, back when the NFL still held an 11th round.

"To be here at Grambling," Eugene said, "with all the tradition we have — and to have followed people like Doug Williams and 'Shack' Harris, and all the other great quarterbacks we have had, it's still very special to me."

His undergraduate major fits into the dynamic that Eugene created for himself on the field this season. If he can't catch on with the pros, Eugene says that he would like to coach young people.

Like a jazz funeral, Eugene walked into the conference championship slowly and sadly — he'd just found out his paternal grandmother was in the hospital with a collapsed lung — but he burst out of it ready to swing and joyfully sway.

Eugene's six touchdown passes had sealed GSU's 11th win, equaling the most in school history. Grambling took home a fourth SWAC title in six seasons.

His last career touchdown, on his final throw of the game, also meant Eugene ended his career with 140 TD passes — breaking the I-AA record of 139 by Willie "Satellite" Totten at Mississippi Valley State.

Questions about New Orleans, about his flooded and ransacked home, remained during the post-game interviews. Katrina was a storm that still hadn't passed.

"I hadn't really been thinking about it too much. After all, everybody was safe," Eugene said. "All I have been thinking of mainly is what's next. The next pass. The next game. The NFL. Getting in better shape for the draft."

In fact, at each successive stop on Grambling's schedule, all but one of them a win, the hurricane drew as much attention from media and fans as anything he did on the field.

Eugene remained upbeat, even as the images of a lost city and all of its lost history danced inside his head. In the end, this was somehow his best season ever.

Eugene attempted 110 passes before being intercepted against Mississippi Valley. He finished 2005 with just six picks on 456 tries — a career-topping passer efficiency ratio.

In all, Eugene threw for 4,360 yards in 2005, on his way to a best-in-the-nation mark for total offense of 367 yards per game. In 10 games, he tossed four or more touchdown passes.

Even so, Eugene — a member of the trio of finalists for the Walter Payton Award as a sophomore and junior — would fall to fourth in the voting this year.

He was named offensive player of the year by the SWAC and received first-team honors on the I-AA All America squad from the American Football Coaches Association. But the Associated Press put Eugene on its second team, while The Sports Network had him slipping all the way to the third squad.

Some blamed an emphasis on numbers, a perhaps unseemly desire to break records, for the snubs. Eugene's final TD pass came late in the fourth quarter as Grambling led Alabama A&M by 33 points.

"Certainly Bruce benefits from attaining those records, but so does the conference," countered Spears. "That increases the notoriety of our league. Grambling is internationally known, and that helps marketing the entire conference."

While Eugene's passing numbers are staggering, the figure on the scales might ultimately decide what lies ahead.

"As he's gotten older, one of the things that he let get away from him was his weight," Williams said. "It took some of his mobility. That's what he's got to work on."

Eugene has heeded that advice. He will catch a flight for Scottsdale, Ariz., today to work with NFL quarterback Donovan McNabb in a training program that focuses both on conditioning and nutrition.

"My knee is fine," Eugene said. "My weight is the main thing."

He said he found a kindred spirit in McNabb, how often eats his way out of playing shape in the off-season.

"He told me not to trip," Eugene said, chuckling. "His mom cooks for him, too."

After a year where so much was taken away, Eugene finds a different kind of solace in what he's leaving behind at Grambling.

He finished his senior year as the school's record holder in passing touchdowns, completions and yards — both single season and career. He earned two rings, and almost 15,000 yards of total offense, in three seasons as a regular starter. He's the active career leader in all of Division I-AA for touchdowns, yards and yards per game.

"Nobody," said Spears, "can take that away from Bruce."

g g g

Eugene’s future is all up to him

I was named Louisiana Sports Writers Association columnist of the year in 2003 in recognition of a series of pieces, including this one from late in Doug Williams' final season as coach at Grambling. ...

By Nick Deriso
GRAMBLING— The thing with Grambling State quarterback Bruce Eugene is not what he has done, but what more he could still accomplish.

This is a player who has, as of Saturday, done the unthinkable in two years of starting: Broken the GSU career passing record of Doug Williams — an astounding 8,411-yard mark which had stood since 1978.

That came on an 8-yard pass to redshirt freshman Tim Abney with 2 minutes left in the first half of this needlessly exciting 33-17 victory against winless Savannah State.

But Eugene is also a player who spent time in two different quarters on the bench because of inconsistency, watching like the rest of us while backup Gary Cooper got the snot beat out of him.

After one sack, Cooper was left with the truly awful prospect of third-and-32. He was 0-for-2, with one interception — made just as Savannah State had scored 14 consecutive points to bring the game within 16 points.

But the late surge from SSU, alas, came too late. Grambling State won — what’s new? — even though it clearly didn’t take the game seriously.

So we are left with this conundrum: Eugene leads all passers in this game, even breaks a signature yardage record set by his coach. Yet his coach is, well, he’s at a loss for words.

“I’m not into the yardage,” Williams says, after a time, “so much as the opportunities that he did not take advantage of.”

First team All-American. Walter Payton Award finalist. Street and Smith’s Division I-AA player of the year.

Eugene’s potential outstrips even those thundering achievements. He could, you see, be better still.

Is asking for something more actually nothing more than being selfish? I don’t think so.

“Sometimes, he doesn’t play as well as you would like — but he still wins and still puts up great numbers,” Williams argues. “Sometimes, the worst of Bruce is better than the best of others.”

Yes, the junior signal-caller uses a rocket-launcher arm to make eye-popping throws into coverage. But he also relies on that arm to cover mechanical deficiencies. He thinks it can do things that it sometimes can not do.

“The critical thing is to get him into better shape,” says GSU offensive coordinator Melvin Spears. “But we’ve still got a lot of little mechanical things to work on.”

He doesn’t survey the defensive backs before deciding where to throw. If you hit him in the mouth, he plays tentatively.

Listed at 245, coaches won’t speculate on how much Eugene actually weighs. But, suffice it to say, he’s a player who looks slow because he’s too heavy.

“Every scout that comes in here,” Eugene admits, “says the same thing: ‘He’s got a strong arm, but he’s got to lose weight.’ I got myself this way — and I can’t blame anybody. I’ll have to get the weight off myself, too.”

Yet he remains a player whose bad decisions on the field are only magnified a few moments later when he performs with intelligence and polish.

The coaches have talked a good bit about the ups and downs of this GSU team over the course of this 2003 season, a problem personified in Bruce Eugene.

Williams’ sideline presence can best be described as teetering between elation and deflation. He will say nononononononononono — only to blurt out YES! when Eugene finishes a raggedy play with a flash of quarterbacking brilliance.

“Bruce is like your own kid — where you see him do some things that make you smile, then you almost want to get the belt for him,” Williams says, and chuckles.

The team has habitually fallen behind early in games, only to mount dizzying comebacks — though that script was played out in reverse against SSU. Eugene has always been the catalyst — stirred, it seems, only when times got desperate and short.

“A lot of times, Bruce gets lackadaisical. There will always be great expectations, I think, because of his great potential,” Spears says. “Once he gets to that maturity level — once he realizes that he’s the turnkey, the guy who makes this ship go — he will eventually come around. Our expectations are so much higher than his, and that comes from being immature.”

Inserted perhaps a season too early in his sophomore year of eligibility, Eugene seemed born to continue Grambling State’s gaudy run, leading the Tigers to a third straight SWAC championship. But he’s always struggled with leading this team, with taking the reins.

“This year, I found myself just being one of the guys,” Eugene says, “instead of being The Guy. Then when I tried to step up and be a leader, they wouldn’t give me the respect — because I was playing around with them a couple of days ago. Lately, I can honestly say I’ve progressed. But it’s been hard.”

Williams, the fiery taskmaster, has been a blessing for Eugene — but, perhaps, sometimes a curse.

There is no better teacher for Eugene. But great players also tend to have greater expectations of their students — and that’s obviously the case here.

“I might be a little tougher on Bruce than most people would be,” Williams admits.

“He’s going to get on me, “Eugene says. “If he doesn’t, then something is wrong with him. We’d have to get him checked out. But he’s been great.”

Still, Eugene clearly doesn’t always respond well to criticism, sometimes seeming to collapse on his worry.

During those times, Spears works as the buffer — often coming down from the coaches’ box above the stands to mediate with Eugene and Williams, to negotiate, to rebuild bridges before they are left in cinders.

“He’s helped me a lot,” Eugene says of Spears. “Any free time I have, I’m in his office watching film.”

Through it all, these three have built a powerful bond.

Look for Eugene at the end of the game and you will find him between Spears and Williams — “even after I have chewed his butt out,” Williams says.

He was there again, even as GSU went scoreless against Savannah State in the fourth quarter on Saturday. Still, Grambling State had already put up enough points to win — primarily on the strength of two brilliant scoring drives by Eugene on either side of that time spent riding the pine.

Moments like that underscore Spears’ thoughts on Eugene, whatever his flaws: “He’s the best quarterback, not only in the SWAC, but (Division) I-AA at this point,” Spears says. “Others might be more athletic, but when you talk about being a true quarterback, he’s the best guy. Bruce Eugene could easily be up for the Heisman, with the right supporting cast.”

This is, in fact, a player with a chance to join James Harris, Steve McNair and Williams as SWAC quarterbacks who were drafted into their true position in the NFL.

“Sometimes we want more for him,” Williams says, “because we know it’s there to get. He might not be giving everything that we want, but he’s giving us enough to put us in a position to be champions again. That’s all you can ask for.”

But what is Bruce Eugene asking of himself?

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