"I hope Bru dies."
That's what one man said when Horace McCoy Jr. answered the phone. Others found him on LinkedIn to threaten death to his son.
Shelby McCoy remembers being stopped at the supermarket. The dentist. High school games. Remembers receiving a Twitter direct message saying the NFL would never touch a headcase like her son and that she had raised a failure.
Alexa McCoy heard it at parties at her college. What the hell is your brother doing? Why would he ever do that?
In the aftermath of Bru McCoy's transfer from USC to Texas and then back to USC, all in the span of six months back in early 2019, he was called every name you can imagine. And no matter how much the 5-star receiver tried to not read the comments, he couldn't escape them. They found him. Hounded him. The internet was not some abstract place, something that shut off once he closed his laptop.
Bru McCoy is a clown.
Bru McCoy is weak as hell.
Bru McCoy is running from competition.
Bru McCoy won't pan out.
Bru McCoy is a pussy.
Bru McCoy should lose his eligibility for being such a flake.
Bru McCoy is an entitled cancer.
The more the name was sullied, the more the person didn't seem real. Strangers on social media forgot he was a human being. A teenager. Somebody's son. Somebody's brother. Somebody who had worked his entire life to play college football. He was just a body to them. A body that didn't go where they wanted it to.
"People dehumanized me," says Bru, now back at USC and planning to play for the Trojans as a redshirt freshman whenever college football resumes. "It's no excuse, but I was 18. I'm only 19 now. I don't think anyone at 18 really has it all figured out." He's chastised himself for his choice. He's contemplated how rushed he felt at the time, how calm he feels now. How confused he felt then, how motivated he feels now. Time, distance, perspective, made him feel like two different people.
"Arrogant 18-year-old me thought, 'I'll just go to Texas. SC didn't do me right.' It was arrogant of me," he says. "I made a rash mistake."
At the time he didn't want to talk about what happened. Made it a point not to. He didn't feel he needed to explain himself. To the media. To strangers. To 45-year-old men on Twitter he'd never met in states he'd never visited. To teenagers firing off insults about him late into the night on Instagram. He didn't owe anyone his pain, his story. He was still trying to figure it out.
"I didn't really have a sense of self-identity," he says.
So he didn't talk about it, remembering something his grandfather, Horace McCoy Sr., told him often, starting back when he was in ninth grade. Players were trying to rattle him then, get inside his head. "You have to be the quiet in the storm," Horace Sr. told him.
"There can be a whole storm raging around you. Your team is losing. Everyone is upset with you. But you have to be quiet. Quietness will get you to where you want to be."
'Quietness?' Bru thought, trying to make sense of the word.
"Getting upset doesn't get you to where you want to be," Horace Sr. continued. "When chaos is raging around you, that's when it's time to get quiet, to listen and to think."
"Just be the quiet in the storm," he said, smiling. "Quiet in the storm."
Every day, Bru bikes miles and miles up the steep hills of Palos Verdes, in Los Angeles County, where he lives with his family. Recently he completed a trip around the peninsula, about 22 miles, his calves burning, his back aching.
It's all he can control right now, during the COVID-19 pandemic, unsure if there will be a season.
When he bikes, alone with his thoughts and the hills, he realizes he has gained something this past year so much more valuable than any game or accolade: He knows who he is now.
He trusts himself. He forgives himself. And he yearns to compete, to prove to those people who don't trust him and haven't forgiven him that he is still the player he was. That he is not a was. That he still, indeed, is—a 6'3", 220-pound two-way player who thrives off physicality, approaching every play with a defensive mindset.
He's already explained himself to two programs, to his family, to his friends. One of the hardest parts was facing himself. That self you can't avoid, can't lie to, when your head hits the pillow at night. 'Am I OK with who I am?' he'd ask himself. 'With the choices I've made? Am I the man I hope to be?'
"I have something to prove to myself," Bru says. "That it wasn't all for nothing. All this misery, the back-and-forth. That what I put myself through wasn't for nothing."
This past year, he's had to look through himself. See who he is without football. Without people fawning over him, as they did in high school, when he starred for powerhouse Mater Dei. What do I want out of my life? Am I happy?
He likes to read books, like the one currently on his nightstand next to his bed: The Mindful Athlete by George Mumford. The book talks about being present. Not worrying about the future. After reading, he closes his eyes, takes a deep breath, and a voice pops into his head.
Be the quiet in the storm.
As a child, Bru used to cuddle a USC football that his dad gave to him, squeezing it tightly underneath his covers. He wanted to be Reggie Bush, so he wore No. 5 his entire career. He'd watch Bush highlights before his Pop Warner games.
USC meant everything to him. Horace, who played football at Northern Illinois, coached him, and little Bru would ask for more and more drills.
He was ultracompetitive, just like his parents, especially Shelby, a 5'6" All-American volleyball player at Northern Illinois whose coach sometimes had to tell her to dial it back when she approached fun practice drills like they were matches. Bru was the same way. When Alexa was learning to ride a bike at age five, a three-year-old Bru asked for one too—needing to be better at riding than her. As soon as he got on, he zoomed off. Another time, riding a motorized four-wheel bike, he zoomed off so quickly that he banged straight into the house. "He had no fear," Horace says.
Once, as a 10-year-old, Bru was so ticked off that everyone in Palos Verdes called this kid on an opposing team "Touchdown Tommy" that he vowed to not let him score when they faced off. The boy didn't even get a yard. On the ride home, Horace looked back in the rearview mirror and caught Bru smiling wide: "Bet you won't call him Touchdown Tommy anymore."
When he was 12, Bru's team made it to the Pop Warner national championship. Right before the championship game, he went into the center of the huddle, looked every teammate in the eye and yelled: "Big-time players make big-time plays. Let's go!"
He had the size, the speed. "He was in eighth grade, and he was a Division I player to me," says Darryl Lance Johnson, who has coached dozens of Division I players in his 40-year career and coached Bru throughout his childhood.
Bru often played through pain. He shattered his ankle in sixth grade, and when Alexa ran out to the P.E. yard to see if he was OK, he kept assuring her everything was fine, even though his bone was sticking out. He played four games at Mater Dei with a broken hand. He broke his collarbone twice, rushing into the bathroom to cry the second time so no one would see. He feared his career was over.
He has always been tough. That's why his family calls him "Bruiser"—Bru for short (his real name is Horace III). As a baby, he was just a bruiser, bouncing around, learning to flip out of his crib at eight months. He walked by nine months, not needing to crawl. At three years old, he leapt up on stage at a local Hard Rock Cafe and started dancing.
He thought attending Mater Dei, instead of going to neighborhood Palos Verdes High School, was the best option to achieve his college football dreams. Shelby woke him up every day at 5 a.m., making him egg-and-cheese burritos or bacon-and-egg bagel sandwiches, and he'd be out of the door by 5:45 a.m., in time to lift weights in Orange County by 7 a.m. He'd attend class and practice for the rest of the day, having double responsibilities as a two-way player, not coming home until 9 at night. Sometimes he struggled to keep his eyes open while they drove home on the 405 because he was so exhausted.
Many assumed his life was easy. He was a 5-star, 247Sports' No. 9 overall player in the 2019 class. Nick Saban was FaceTiming him at school. But he felt distanced, different. Wasn't sure who really wanted to be his friend, for him; not for how much money he could make one day. And he had to play incredible every game, because everyone wanted to be The Guy Who Stopped Bru McCoy.
Bruce Rollinson, Mater Dei's coach, would notice how Bru straightened his arms when he'd make a mistake, could see the frustration rising in him. He'd have to tell him to relax. "I used to joke with him: 'Bru, are you this intense when you go to the bathroom?'" Rollinson says. Bru was always on his way somewhere. He took eight classes his senior year, all during the season (students regularly take six). "It was a huge load," says Arthur Aragon, his counselor at Mater Dei. "He literally had no life. Just football and academics."
Signing to USC was one of the best days of his life. But finding out, the day after he enrolled in classes, that Trojan offensive coordinator Kliff Kingsbury was leaving to coach the Arizona Cardinals, was jarring. Suddenly everything felt thrown off track.
"I felt betrayed," Bru says.
Bru remembers asking Kingsbury numerous times at his home during the recruiting process if he was going to go to the NFL. The answer was always no. Kingsbury wasn't lying, technically; the offer wasn't made to him yet, but Bru couldn't shake feeling betrayed. "This was completely my fault, but I think that when I got to SC, I started taking things more personal than I should have," he says.
He says he felt very hurried to get to school, feeling, at the time, that USC intentionally rushed him to get to campus and begin his first class so that his eligibility clock would start—so that if he left, he would be classified as a transfer. That made him feel more betrayed.
Everything was moving so fast. One minute he was playing in the All-American Bowl. The next he was taking his physical on campus. He never got a break. Time to process. Then the strength staff left. Then there was speculation that coach Clay Helton could be fired.
It felt like everything was crumbling around him. He attended a family wedding, feeling confused as ever. "I was just sitting there, thinking, this string of events is just too eerie, [like it's] screaming: 'Get out! Get away!'" Even more eerie, he remembers the Texas staff asking him throughout the initial recruiting process, back when he was in high school: "What are you going to do when Kliff leaves? Look where you'd be if he leaves."
"I have to act. I have to do something," he thought. He wasn't sure if his judgment was clouded—if he had chosen this place just because it was steeped in childhood nostalgia. "Maybe this isn't the right place for me?"
He told his parents at the wedding he wanted to go to Texas. They were stunned. "I've never steered you wrong in my life," Bru remembers his dad telling him. "I'm not going to tell you what you're doing is right, because it's not. But I promise you I'll support you regardless."
Bru went with his gut, entering the transfer portal in late January 2019, but things didn't feel normal when he arrived at Texas. Something was just off. He performed well on the field during spring practice, made friends and really liked the coaching staff. But he felt sad inside. Just down.
"I thoroughly enjoyed my time there," he says. "It was literally nothing to do with anything with Texas. Honestly, the thing that was wrong with Texas was that it wasn't USC.
"Hindsight is always 20/20. Had I known the things I know now, truthfully I would have never left USC and went to Texas. I just found myself finding value in the wrong things when I was making my decision."
He had put so much emphasis on one coach's departure. A coach he had never even been coached by. A coach he had pretty much a couple-week relationship with. A coach who had come to his games and had dinner with his family a few times but who, for the most part, didn't really know him. "I put so much into him leaving, for what? Or the strength staff leaving? OK, there's still a weight room."
He takes a breath. "Hindsight is always 20/20," he repeats, but he knows he can't go back. "I should have never cared. I don't fault [Kingsbury] one bit. I would have done the same thing, truthfully. That's a lot of money."
He had a choice: grit his teeth, push through it, just stay at Texas, and look back on his life and say although he went to Texas, he wanted to be at USC the whole time—or leave. He didn't think it was fair to Texas to stay there.
Like any 18-year-old, he couldn't have come to these realizations until he experienced them. Until he had put himself into a different environment, like so many other students who attend a school and change their mind and transfer.
But he wasn't other students. He was an athlete. He was a highly sought-after recruit who had been in the national spotlight since he was 14, never allowed to falter. He had been loved, then hated. The shift was sharp, swift but unsurprising. He had done something few young athletes do: chased his own happiness.
When Bru told his parents he wanted to go back to USC, he was sure of his decision. No matter how ridiculous it sounded. He felt that what he needed to do was more important than the potential backlash he knew he would receive.
His family didn't understand at first. Not until he explained why to them. They supported him, stepped aside. In late May 2019, Bru called USC and Texas, and handled it all himself. It was one of the hardest things he'd ever done. And, watching, Horace realized something about his son: "He isn't a boy anymore. He was a young man, and he was making adult decisions."
That's the hard part of growing up: realizing that your failures, your successes, your decisions and your second guesses, are yours. But Bru's were not just his. He had to learn and rethink and recalculate and mess up and grow in front of hundreds and thousands of people. People who thought that just because he could catch a football and might one day make millions doing so, they had a right to condemn him.
"I felt like the weight of the world was on my shoulders," Bru says. "Everybody has an opinion, and there was no being right."
No matter how much the family tried not to talk about football, it was there. Always there. Some people were understanding—kind, even. They knew how young he was, how much he tried to follow his gut. But others were not as understanding. And his parents couldn't defend him from the vitriol. Couldn't stop the comments, the posts.
It bothered all of them that people said he ran from competition—not only because Bru was arguably the best receiver at Texas, but also because he was leaving for USC, a place known for producing top-tier receivers. Comments that he was indecisive—a flippant kid with no respect for his word, though college coaches come and go as they please, making millions as they do—burned him too.
"For me to return to USC was probably one of the most difficult and decisive decisions I have made in my entire life—and probably the best one," he says. "I wasn't running from adversity. I put adversity in front of myself and ran right into it by double transferring."
Those criticizing him didn't know him. That he was more than his transfers, his skills on the field. He wants to go into real estate after his career is over. He's passionate about social justice, world issues and travel. He researches random topics and often pulls over when he sees a homeless person to give them money.
His family knew his character, and he would rely on them more. No matter what anyone said about him outside their home, he was supported when he was inside those walls. There was Alexa, who loved being the water girl at his Pop Warner games—handing out Gatorade bottles to all the players—and would cry when he lost. There was Ava, his younger sister, who battled him one-on-one on the basketball court, as he guarded her hard. There were aunts, uncles and his grandfathers, Horace Sr. and Tom Snyder, the latter of whom had to force little Bru inside to eat when all he wanted to do at age eight was dunk on a 4-foot rim ("He was always looking for his next challenge," Snyder says).
And there were his parents, who told him: "We love you. We don't care how many touchdowns you score. If you drop a pass, catch a pass, it doesn't matter. We're here for you, and football doesn't affect our relationship or our love."
That meant the world to Bru: to be loved, to be seen. He never really wanted fame. He used to feel uncomfortable in high school when his friends would shout "All-American!" when he'd walk by. His dad had to tell him to post his offers on social media. Bru thought it was silly, bragging about 35 offers when there were hardworking kids who had none. The day his dad told him he was a 5-star, he just replied, "So?" He didn't hold a press conference on signing day. He just signed the papers in his school's library and then called Helton and told him how proud he was to be a Trojan.
Bru thought of all the moments his mom would drag him out of his bed at sunrise, how she'd watch the sun come up; or how his dad would respond, "Because I told you so!" when Bru would ask why he had to do one more drill. They were the reason he was able to keep going.
"This is going to sound corny," Bru says, thinking of the moment he felt the most joy, "but it was when my parents told me they were proud of me, back in high school." No matter what anyone said about him as an offensive player, as a defensive player, he was still their son.
Going back to USC, in the summer of 2019, Bru had to confront his former teammates. It was incredibly awkward. Some were very welcoming, happy he had returned, he says, and others were not. They felt he had turned his back on them. "I can't blame them either way," he says.
His coaches were welcoming. They saw his competitiveness. "He's always trying to dominate," says Keary Colbert, wide receivers coach. "Bru has only one speed," says Graham Harrell, offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach. "He only knows to go as hard as he can possibly go at all times."
But then something shook him. Again.
Bru had arrived at USC in good shape but began to feel beyond drained after every workout. Then he began sweating uncontrollably. After one workout, a trainer took his temperature. He had a 101-degree fever. The next couple of days: 102, 101, 101.
He didn't understand what was happening. At first, he was diagnosed with strep throat, but the fevers grew inconsistent. Then he started losing weight and couldn't sleep much. He would sweat so profusely in his sleep that he'd have to flip over his mattress each day.
He'd wake up at 6 a.m., walk to the training facility to get his temperature taken, find it was still over 100, walk back to his apartment and try to sleep on his stiff leather couch, sweating the rest of the day. "This went on for months," Bru says. "I thought I was going to die."
He was tested for lymphoma, autoimmune diseases. He had an enormous amount of blood drawn. He had heart scans, brain scans. He was in the hospital for three days, having to get IVs because he sweated so much he would begin to cramp. He didn't want to tell anyone about it. "I was embarrassed, honestly," Bru says. "I was increasingly reclusive."
Who could understand after all he had overcome, he was faced with this? And it was frustrating, not being able to answer when people asked him: What's wrong with you? He was sad. Truly sad. He just wanted to play, to shut everyone up about the transfers. But his body wouldn't allow him.
His antibodies were very high, which meant his body was fighting something. A doctor suggested it may have been a virus that was no longer present but still couldn't determine what he had. And, to make matters worse, he was missing football. "I was miserable," Bru says.
He didn't have enough physical strength to stand on the sideline for games, which was interpreted by some as his not being a team player. Another knock on his character. He had to quiet the noise in his head, try to accept his journey by practicing mindfulness. Be here, in the now. "I had to kind of come to terms with myself," he says. "'Why am I living life in such a hurry?'"
In October 2019, his illness finally began to subside. His fever finally went down. He slowed down, taking a redshirt and looking forward to a return for the 2020 season. He was ready to play again.
"I think Bru found his joy again," says Helton, who felt like he saw Bru finally take a breath. "I told him: 'Bru, I don't care if you ever play a snap again. I just want you to be happy.' And I think he found that joy of playing the game, being around the guys and finding himself."
A few weeks ago, Shelby found an old highlight tape of Bru reposted on Instagram. Then she did what she tries not to do: scrolled down to the comments. She found that her son had responded to a negative comment that read: "Bru is a nobody. He's a has-been. He's never going to be anything." She was furious, running up the stairs into his room.
"Bru! We talked about this, not answering people."
Bru handed her his phone. He was on FaceTime. "Hey, Mom, meet Mike, the guy who was making those comments.
"Uh…hi…" she said. "What in the hell?" she thought. Bru finished the call and explained to his mom that he DM'd the guy after reading his negative comment.
"How old are you?" Bru asked the guy.
"I'm 19," Bru said. "Do you play Call of Duty?"
"Me too. Do you want to play?"
"Seriously? Is this really Bru?"
"Yeah, here's my number. Call me."
The kid called with his two friends. "No way! We're on the phone with Bru McCoy! We're playing Call of Duty!"
"Mom," Bru said. "Haters are really just haters on social media, but they're really fans that don't want to say they're fans. You just gotta make it personal."
She smiled. After all that people have said about her son, he still believes people can be good. Genuinely good.
They've all come to realize something: The people who comment are just people too.
In a lot of ways, Bru feels like he felt during freshman year of high school, when he didn't know what would happen, taking a leap of faith to attend Mater Dei. His stomach would rumble with excitement, with nerves, heading down the 405 each morning.
"I remember being this hungry," he says. "It's a familiar situation: I gotta prove myself." He feels happy. Genuinely happy. Content with who he is but not yet where he wants to be. So he bikes. More hills, more miles. More mindfulness. "I'm in a position where I really get to write the rest of my story."
When asked now to think of what he'd write, to try to define himself after all he's learned, he grows quiet. Really quiet. Quiet in the middle of the storm.
Mirin Fader is a staff writer for B/R Mag. She's written for the Orange County Register, espnW.com, SI.com and Slam. Her work has been honored by the Associated Press Sports Editors, the U.S. Basketball Writers Association, the Football Writers Association of America, the Los Angeles Press Club and the Best American Sports Writing series. Follow her on Twitter: @MirinFader.