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Tackling Life 

by Howie Stalwick & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & M & lt;/span & kristo Bruce has every reason to be bitter. Angry. Resentful.

Or so he has heard. To tell you the truth, Bruce is having so damn much fun smiling and joking and laughing his way through life, he hasn't had time to focus on all that negative stuff.

Bruce, the human streak who lines up at defensive end for the Washington State Cougars, grew up in dire poverty with a father nowhere to be found. As an added bonus, the three-bedroom, one-bathroom home he shared with his mother, four sisters, three brothers and a niece was regularly flooded by Renton's May Creek.

"We had holes in the windows," Bruce recalls matter-of-factly. "Our floors were like plywood. It was real bad.

"My grandpa helped put stilts on the house to raise it, but in the winter, when it would flood real bad, we had a little boat from our front doorstep to the road.

"It was real bad," he repeats. "But we prayed every day. My senior year [at Issaquah's Liberty High School], they finally figured out it was the county building [nearby homes] that was causing all the flooding, so they bought us a five-bedroom house with a big backyard for all my brothers and sisters to play in. It was a blessing."

Bruce's rare combination of spirit, determination and talent has certainly been a blessing to the Cougars. He leads NCAA Division I-A with 10 quarterback sacks, and he's fifth in tackles for losses with 11.

"He's a great kid who works really hard," WSU coach Bill Doba says.

"I love the kid," defensive coordinator Robb Akey says. "He's improved a ton since he first got here."

Never was that improvement more apparent than last month at Stanford, when Bruce set a school record with five sacks in a 36-10 victory.

"I could have had six," Bruce says with his omnipresent smile, "but I think fatigue laid me on the ground. I gave it all I had."

"What a day by him," Akey says. "That was an awesome performance. It's like hitting five home runs in a game."

Mkristo -- pronounced em-KRIS-toe, a Swahili word meaning "Christian" -- was athletic enough to play quarterback and outside linebacker in high school. The senior now packs 249 well-chiseled pounds on a 6-foot-7 frame. But he once pictured himself playing quarterback in college. "I used to in high school," Bruce says, "but I was never too big on being hit. I would rather hit somebody than be hit. If I thought anyone was coming in, I just took off!"

Bruce's quarterbacking days were all but over as soon as Akey spotted him at a WSU summer football camp. "He was standing on the sidelines," Akey recalls, "and I asked him, 'Have you ever played defensive end?' He said, 'No.' So he went out there, and he was running all over the place."

"I was very blessed to come here," Bruce says. "WSU is where I wanted to go since I was a little kid when I used to play for the 5 Star Cougars."

Bruce, who says he "always wanted a dad real bad," has had limited contact with his father since they met after "he saw my name in the newspaper" when Bruce was in high school. (Bruce's mother and father divorced when he was 1.)

Bruce emphasizes, however, that he was raised solely by his mother, Jullianne, a caretaker for special-needs people like her autistic daughter. "That's my super mama," he says. "I love my mama."

Bruce became a father himself when fianc & eacute;e and longtime girlfriend Evelyn Taylor gave birth to Mkristo Jr. in May. That resulted in Bruce and teammate Chris Jordan living apart for the first time since they arrived at WSU in 2002.

"It was a very sad breakup," Bruce deadpans, "but we're still good friends."

Bruce thinks of Jordan as family, which is high praise indeed coming from Bruce.

"My family is so fun," says Bruce, a Special Olympics volunteer. "We can make the dullest thing a party.

"If you think I'm hyper, you ought to see my mom! It's a constant party in my house. Everyone is bouncing off the walls! We have fun all the time."

Even when 10 people in your old house had to use the same bathroom, Mkristo?

"You just learned how to turn your head."

The Washington State Cougars (4-2 overall, 2-1 Pacific-10 Conference) take on 10th-ranked California (5-1, 3-0) in WSU's homecoming game on Saturday, Oct. 14, at 2 pm at Martin Stadium. Visit or call (800) GO-COUGS.

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