Nose touching the chain link fence, Bruce McKee fondly remembers as a youth watching Wilmington High School football along Clinton Street.
“I was poor and sports was my way to find heroes,” said Bruce, who later would become one of those heroes to many a young boy. At the time, though, it was McKee who found his idols.
“Jackie Watson, Noel Van Pelt, the Martin twins, Big Daddy Wilson, Bucky Scott … I grew up loving those guys,” he said. “A lot of times I had to sneak out (of the house) to watch football. My big brother always made sure I got to go.”
Robert McKee Sr. was not a sports fan.
“He was a farm boy, Gurneyville Road farm,” Bruce said of his father.
But Bruce’s big brother, Robert McKee Jr., recognized the talent in his younger sibling. He performed Bruce’s chores so Bruce could play sports.
“He said Bruce you’re good at sports,” Bruce recalled. “I don’t want you to do drugs or alcohol. I want you to make our family proud.”
McKee’s first love was football.
“I was made for the game of football,” Bruce said from his hospital bed in a Bellbrook nursing home. He’s been battling the aftereffects of a stroke for more than 18 months.
“I loved hitting people. I loved being rough and tough,” said Bruce.
Bruce’s athletic career was overlapped by Watson and Gary Williams, a pair of Clinton County Sports Hall of Famers. Bruce said he and Gary Williams were the Batman and Robin of WHS at the time.
While he played city rec football, Bruce honed his physical self by working with Courtney Carr, who married Bruce’s sister Sharon.
“He would take me out in the hottest days of the summer,” Bruce said. “He’d say I’m going to work you hard. I’m not going to be easy on you.
“I’d run those steps (at Alumni Field) thousands of times and he’d say ‘Give me a little more’ or ‘That’s not good enough,’ Bruce recalled with a smile, seemingly ready to get back out there and do it all again.
Bruce capped a stellar high school career with a 210-yard, 4-touchdown performance against Teays Valley. He then went to Phoenix Junior College, a move that he hoped would better his grades and allow him to eventually play again with Williams.
In Arizona, Bruce was voted captain of the football team, a squad that eventually was ranked No. 5 in the country and won a national championship. Being made captain was an honor that overwhelmed Bruce.
“I cried,” he said. “I called my momma and said ‘They want me to be their leader.’ Nothing like 150 men wanting you to be their leader. That was very touching to my heart.”
While Bruce never played again with Williams, he was able to make the University of Louisville roster for two years and played with Frank Minniefield, Eddie Johnson and Nathan Poole, all future NFL players.
While those WHS football players he watched through the chain link fence were bigger than life in his eyes, Bruce says he’s he had one true hero throughout his life.
“My momma was my hero,” he said. “She was a very religious woman. She brought us up to respect everybody. We knew we couldn’t go through life showing disrespect. Respect is how you get ahead in life.”
Reach Mark Huber at 937-556-5765, via email firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @wnjsports