John Bruhin, helmet in hand, was among the last to step on the practice field Thursday afternoon at One Buc Place. After three days away from professional football, the third-year offensive guard for the Tampa Bay Bucs moved slowly through his paces, reacquainting himself with the feel of the Florida sun.
But for Bruhin, there's little time to waste. Preparation is at a premium. By the time the first-place Chicago Bears roll into town Sunday afternoon, Bruhin could be back in the Bucs starting lineup for the first time since last season.
"I've just got to do a little more catching up," Bruhin said. "But at this point in the season, it's like Coach Perkins always says, it's 99 percent mental anyway. I just have to get my mind right and prepare myself."
In the past week, Bruhin's heart and mind had to prepare for the worst. On Tuesday, he helped bury his father, John Dennis Bruhin. Mr. Bruhin, 47, died last Friday in Tampa from complications involving ongoing liver problems.
After his father's death, Bruhin traveled with the team to San Diego, played briefly in the Bucs'blowout loss, then flew on to his hometown of Knoxville, Tenn., for the funeral.
"It's been really tough, especially last week when my dad was
real critical," said Bruhin, his voice wavering slightly. "I had my mind going a lot of different places. I was concerned about my job here, but my dad, my family, came first last week. I tried to be over there as much as I could, and I was with him. He died in my arms and I was right there with him. So I guess that's what he would have wanted me to do."
For Bruhin, focusing on football again might help in the healing process. A forgotten man on the Bucs offensive line this season, Bruhin might be thrust to the forefront against the Bears.
"That's the most important thing right now after my dad's death: just being here and doing what I have to do to help us win," he said. "My job is to be ready."
In 1989, Bruhin started at right guard for seven games before injuring his knee in a midseason loss at Washington. This preseason, rookie Ian Beckles, the Bucs' fifth-round pick, won the right guard position, forcing Bruhin to the bench.
Beckles' play has been solid, but the Bucs' trouble spot has been left guard. Starter Tom McHale hurt a knee in Week 3, and backup Scott Dill suffered a back injury three weeks later. A third-stringer five weeks ago, second-year man Carl Bax has started the past three games, with mixed reviews.
Unhappy with segments of his pass protection and run-blocking, Bucs coach Ray Perkins earlier this week said Bruhin would "play a lot, if not start" against Chicago. Perkins is believed to be considering several possibilities, but one would include shifting Beckles to left guard and installing Bruhin into his familiar right guard role.
After a frustrating stint as a reserve, Bruhin's chance comes at a most opportune time.
"The biggest thing with me playing this week, it would really give me a chance to get my confidence back as a player," Bruhin said. "If I get called on, which I'm not sure I will or not, I think it'd be good for me. If you sit out and haven't played much, you wonder about your own ability a little bit. That's why I'd like to get in there and knock some people around and feel like a professional football player again."
With the Bucs (4-4) in the midst of a two-game slide, Bruhin and his fellow linemen will be feeling the pressure this week, Chicago-induced or otherwise.
"He's understood his role and he's handled it as well as you can handle something like that," Bucs offensive line coach John Bobo said of Bruhin. "We'll see (this week) how much it means to him. We'll see how bad he wants his opportunity. Based on what I know about him, and as long as I've been around him, I'd say it means a lot to him.
"All I know is, if a guy can come back and play after going through the personal trauma of something like that, he exhibits a lot of mental toughness. He and his dad were very, very close. It's just very tough. It's just a tough thing you've got to go through. I think he's handled it as well as he could."
Win or lose against the Bears, Bruhin already has learned from a loss. His father's death has turned his attention away from the past and toward today.
"It's made me be a little more aware of (things)," he said. "How valuable each day of life is. To really try to do my best. To do things to the best of my ability and get the most out of everything."
Notes: The Bucs injury report got a little longer Thursday. Running back Gary Anderson pulled a muscle on his left side, near his back, and did not practice. Anderson is not listed on Thursday's injury report. Nose tackle Curt Jarvis (neck) has been downgraded to out. It will be the second game in four weeks that Jarvis has missed. Receiver Bruce Hill (bruised ribs) remains questionable, and receiver Danny Peebles bruised his leg and missed part of the workout.