TAMPA — He wore a black-and-white checkered dress shirt, a dark USF cap with a rigid brim, and a wide smile at his signing ceremony inside the Robinson High School media center three Februaries ago.
Those taunts and teases in the middle school playground had long since regressed from caustic wounds to psychological scabs. Bruce Hector, the sensitive one, had evolved into the coveted one.
The bullied was a Bull.
"He epitomized what a great high school player should be," former Robinson coach Mike DePue said.
On Saturday, at last, the defensive tackle showed what type of college player he can be.
On the third play from scrimmage, Hector muscled his way into the Florida A&M backfield and sacked quarterback Carson Royal for his first collegiate tackle. By game's end, he had five more tackles, including another sack.
Two days later, he was named to the American Athletic Conference's weekly honor roll.
"I could've told you guys (about Hector) from the get-go," said middle linebacker Auggie Sanchez, the only Bull to finish with more tackles (10) Saturday. "He's a guy who works his tail off … and for him to do that (Saturday), it wasn't surprising."
Maybe not to those who have seen only this incarnation of Monica Lockett's boy, the one whose football chops sprouted at Gulf High before blossoming at Robinson. The only Hector known by current peers and position coaches is the 6-foot-2, 295-pound redshirt sophomore with the imposing leverage, barreled chest and torque in his hips.
"He has all the key factors, he has it," defensive end Eric Lee said. "(Defensive line) coach (Eric) Mathies sees it, we see it. So it's one of those things where you see players evolve and become what you expect them to be at this certain time right now."
Problem is, their profile of Hector doesn't include the "before" photos.
An only child raised by a single mom, Hector says he struggled with his weight while growing up in South Tampa. His first love was basketball, but he gave the Tampa Bay Youth Football League a try at Lockett's encouragement. "I think I made weight like two times in three years," he said.
Similarly, his flag football career as a Monroe Middle School sixth-grader had all the brevity of a Ronda Rousey fight.
The bullying started around the same time, Lockett said. Hector chuckles at the recollections, insisting the pubescent jabs at his girth were no worse than what was being dished out at other peers.
"That was just kids being kids on the playground and stuff," he said. "And I guess I was just the sensitive one of the group."
Lockett, reflecting on that period through a maternal prism, called it "a parent's nightmare" that prompted meetings with an assistant principal.
"Bruce was never a trouble kid," Lockett said. "It was like I told him, sometimes trouble comes to you."
She enrolled him in karate, to help boost his character and confidence, then opted for a change of scenery altogether. When Hector was an eighth-grader, he and Lockett moved to New Port Richey, where Hector played basketball and spent the football season as a backup.
Among the new kids he befriended was the son of Gulf football coach Jay Fulmer.
"In middle school he was quite a bit heavier than all the kids on that basketball team, but he ran up and down that floor as good as anybody they had," said Fulmer, now coach at Ridgewood. "So I knew he was very, very athletic for his size. … I just remember thinking if this kid hits a growth spurt, as athletic as he is, he's going to be very successful."
Hector credits Fulmer and his staff with being the first to recognize his football potential. By his freshman year, he found himself the target of name-calling again.
This time, it made him beam instead of brood. Two-way lineman Leon Orr, then a Gulf senior who ultimately signed with the University of Florida, was "Earthquake." Hector was "Lowquake."
"It was just how everybody believed in me there like, 'If you keep working hard, you can be a very good player,' and stuff like that," Hector said. "When they did that, I started working hard and am here now."
To expose her son to more stern prep competition and improve his scholarship chances, Lockett moved back to South Tampa before Hector's junior year. As a Robinson senior, he earned Class 5A first-team all-state honors, collecting 55 tackles and lining up at left guard for a unit that averaged more than 200 rushing yards.
The Knights lost to Tallahassee Godby in the state semifinals the same evening USF hired Willie Taggart as its new coach.
Two months later, Hector signed with the Bulls. The ensuing two years were spent building muscle mass and moxie, and learning the nuances of his craft.
Saturday was full circle. On his most prominent playground yet, Hector shot gaps, chased, pursued and punished.
Mostly, he harassed.
"Bruce has been waiting for his time to get out there and play and for him to play the way he did, that was big," Taggart said. "I think that's going to help his confidence so much."
Contact Joey Knight at [email protected]. Follow @TBTimes_Bulls.