David Bruton, ND class of 2009, couldn’t disguise himself for long. As a substitute teacher last spring during the NFL lockout, the Denver Broncos free safety tried to keep his football career a secret. A bunch of second-graders found him out.
His hometown of Miamisburg, Ohio, where former coaches and friends persuaded him to spend some of his idle time teaching, probably wasn’t the best place to lay low. One of Bruton’s high school coaches has triplets who were in his class one day. They told on him. Suddenly, the studious looking Clark Kent, wearing a tie and eyeglasses, became Superman. “It spread like wildfire,” he said.
Soon enough, he came to appreciate the bargaining power it provided. Excited as they were to have a professional football player in their midst, Bruton’s status alone could not extend the second-grade attention span. “They are interested in everything, any which way— colors, books, questions galore,” he said. “I was just trying to keep them calm for a good minute.” By the end of the day, he accomplished that with a signature-for-good-behavior quid pro quo. “The elementary kids,” Bruton said, “all I had to do was bribe them with autographs to calm them down.”
High school kids were less impressed — or at least more inclined to treat any sub, regardless of day job, as a target for manipulation. Bruton, who began his third NFL season Monday night against the Oakland Raiders, is not so far removed from high school that he has forgotten that. “We always had those kids who knew how to trick the sub, get them to do less work,” he said, “so I had to be prepared to actually lay down the law.”
Law, he could handle. And, honestly, a 6-foot-2, 217-pound professional defensive back probably has fewer tricks played on him than a typical sub. The angles that messed with Bruton’s head were all geometric. He learned a lot in his return to the classroom, including “why I didn’t want to pursue math, be a mathematician or anything.” When confronted with a subject he had long since discarded in favor of political science and sociology, Bruton consulted a high-tech answer key. “I pulled out the iPad.”
The experience did add a variable to his future that he hadn’t considered before. Long interested in pursuing family law or social work after his football career, Bruton now thinks he might want to teach. “I had fun with it,” he said. “And you want a job that’s rewarding — and in this case it is.”
Not that he plans an early football retirement. During a summer conversation he said he hoped that the lockout would end so he wouldn’t be fielding early-morning phone calls again this fall. Now Bruton’s back to being a substitute free safety, second-string to Rahim Moore on Denver’s depth chart (the same position, incidentally, that teammate Brady Quinn ’07 occupies behind the Broncos’ starting quarterback Kyle Orton).
Bruton has made his biggest impact defending kickoff and punt returns with 21 tackles over the past two years — Denver’s second-highest total — and two fumble recoveries. Special teams probably provide the closest football parallel to substitute teaching. They’re both thankless jobs that nobody notices until you mess them up. Unless you happen to be a hometown hero haunting the halls of your old schools. Then, as Bruton discovered, there’s nowhere to hide.
Jason Kelly, a former sports columnist for the South Bend Tribune, is an associate editor of the University of Chicago Magazine. His most recent book is Shelby’s Folly: Jack Dempsey, Doc Kearns, and the Shakedown of a Montana Boomtown. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.