When Sports Illustrated named Connor Bruce its High School Athlete of the Month last April, it could easily have been assumed that the national magazine was simply recognizing the exceptional athletic ability the Blackhawk teen brought to every baseball game he caught for the Monte Vista Mustangs.
But the first baseball player to receive the honor was also being acknowledged for the substantial heart he brings to those around him, a heart every bit as big as his talent behind home plate.
Since his seventh-grade year at Danville's Diablo Vista Middle School, Bruce has found a variety of ways to become involved in supporting special needs youth in his community. From working in the classrooms as a teacher's assistant to serving as president of the Monte Vista Special Olympics club, Bruce has worked to break down the barriers that keep children with special needs separated from the rest of the community.
"The kids are warm, nice and easy to hang around with," said Bruce, now a freshman at North Carolina State University after graduating from Monte Vista last spring. "If you show them love, they just open up."
Bruce's mother Kim pointed out her son's extra efforts have gone a long way to making the lines of communication easier for the kids, opting to take three years of American sign language to fulfill his high school language requirement.
Bruce said that was an easy choice. "My middle school teacher used ASL to communicate with the kids," he said, adding he planned to continue to develop his signing skills with a course at a community college this summer.
Of special significance to Bruce is his involvement with the Little League Challenger Program, which was founded in 1989 as a way to allow boys and girls with physical and developmental challenges to enjoy the benefits of baseball.
Introduced to the program by his grandfather during his freshman year of high school, Bruce spent Sunday afternoons throughout his Monte Vista career coaching two-inning games with some of his favorite people.
"I played baseball my whole life," he said. "It was great to see how much the kids loved being out there."
Though Bruce left baseball behind when he headed to college in Raleigh, N.C., this past fall, he has continued his involvement with the Special Olympics, becoming an active member of the school's Special Olympics Club. The group recently spent Halloween afternoon hosting a field trip to a local corn maze for a group of Special Olympic families from China.
"We showed them the full American experience," Bruce said. "We took them all through the maze and gave them fried food and cheeseburgers. They loved the funnel cakes, but didn't like the deep-fried Oreo's."
As a public and interpersonal communications major, Bruce has yet to decide what career path he will follow after graduation, though he is certain his work with special needs youth will continue.
Reflecting on the attention brought by the Sports Illustrated award, Bruce described the experience as crazy, with radio show interviews and lots of media attention. Having filled the application out on a whim one evening, Bruce never thought he would win -- then he got a call a few months later.
"When they said they had chosen me, I couldn't believe it," he said. "The best part is that it opened doors to let so many people know about the Special Olympics and the Challenger Program."
* Connor Bruce's father Jeff also played catcher for Monte Vista High coach Bill Piona.
* Bruce and his mother, Kim, enjoy a good adrenaline rush, having sky-dived and bungee-jumped together. Base-jumping is next on their list.
* He said he was honored to have former San Francisco Giants pitcher Bill Laskey present the SI Athlete of the Month Award to him in April.
* Bruce is a fan of both the A's and the Giants.
* He was named 2016 All-EBAL first-team catcher.
* Away at college in North Carolina, Bruce could not attend the Tri-Valley Heroes ceremony in Pleasanton last month, so Kim Bruce accepted the Rising Star award on her son's behalf.