ORONO — Bruce Johnson is the iron man of the University of Maine football team. But the senior center showed a softer side this week when addressing his younger teammates.

It revolved around a piece of steel, and Johnson’s desire for the Black Bears to reclaim it.

Maine finishes its season at 1 p.m. Saturday at rival New Hampshire. The Brice-Cowell Musket is on the line.

And Johnson had to show his teammates video clips of the old weapon, because none of them have actually laid eyes on it. The Wildcats (6-4, 4-3 Colonial Athletic Association) have won the previous five meetings against the Black Bears (3-7, 3-4).

“I told them just to give me all they’ve got,” Johnson said of that Tuesday morning pep talk. “It was kind of an emotional moment for me, talking to the guys, letting them know what the game is all about, but I think they kind of got the point. It’s all about emotion this week.”

Johnson and his fellow fifth-year seniors remember seeing the musket – given to the winner of the game that will be contested for a 104th time Saturday – hanging in the locker room while they sat out as freshmen. That was the last of it. They can all recite their record against the Wildcats – 0-5, including a home playoff loss in 2013.

“They’re the only team we have never beaten,” senior linebacker Randy Samuels said. “We beat the (James Madisons), we beat the Richmonds, we beat the William and Marys, but we never beat UNH down the street.

“I’m just trying to bring the musket back to Orono. That’s my only concern right now.”

It is all that Maine has to play for Saturday. A three-game losing streak has stripped the Black Bears of any postseason hopes. The Wildcats have revived theirs by winning their last three games.

Johnson has his own streak going.

The native of Rochester, New York, has taken every snap at center the last three seasons. He hasn’t even missed a practice. He will be making his 36th start, most on the team.

“I kind of pride myself on that, just trying not to get hurt, staying up on my feet,” Johnson said. “I always tell myself I don’t have a choice. They put me in there because they think I’m the best man to get the job done. So even at my worst, I’m probably better than the next guy.”

Johnson has been the rock on an underachieving offense the last two years. Surrounded by sophomores on the offensive line, with injuries forcing players into and out of the lineup, he has helped the unit make a remarkable transformation.

Last fall, Black Bears quarterbacks were sacked 40 times as the team broke in a pair of freshman offensive tackles. Going into Saturday’s game, that number has been reduced to 14.

Coach Jack Cosgrove gives the credit for that primarily to Johnson, who is responsible for calling out protection schemes at the line of scrimmage.

“The center in this game has become hugely important,” Cosgrove said. “I remember ‘Skinny Bruce’ when he got here, and is he going to be big enough? He’s taken care of that in the weight room with his dedication and commitment there, and now he’s as good a player as I think there is in the league on that offensive line.”

Said New Hampshire Coach Sean McDonnell: “I love watching that kid.”

Johnson has grown to be a shade under 6-foot-3 and 295 muscular pounds. He was named a preseason all-American, and NFL scouts are taking notice. He has been so reliable that Maine hasn’t really needed a backup center for three years, although guard Daniel Burrows technically fills that role and is expected to inherit Johnson’s starting spot.

Leadership has come naturally to Johnson, who started hanging out with the team’s seniors the day he arrived on campus in 2011. He recalled having teammates ask him during his sophomore year if he were graduating. He still had two years remaining, he would point out.

Those two years have come and gone, with only eight wins to show for them – and more frustration at the hands of New Hampshire.

“It’s not about football,” Johnson said of the leadup to his final game. “There’s more heart and pride that goes into this game rather than scheme and technique. It’s about who wants it more, really.

“I just want my senior class to have a legacy of, we won a musket against UNH. It hasn’t been done in a long time. It’s our turn to do it this year.”


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.