A macho man with a soft heart in Natchitoches: PART 4

By Nico Van Thyn

James Lindwind Bruning grew up in the village of Clarence, where he was known as “Sonny” and grew tall and slim. He was a talented athlete — especially in baseball, and good enough in football at Natchitoches High in about 1950 to earn a scholarship to LSU.
But when LSU wanted him to redshirt as a freshman, after about a week he went home to Natchitoches — and to Northwestern State. He lettered as an end in 1952, but messed around in school and ended up in the U.S. Army and a stint mostly served in Germany.
He came home, back to Northwestern, and Bettye — engaged to someone else — soon was his wife. He lettered for the Demons in 1955-56-57, and his field goal to beat McNeese State 23-20 in 1957 helped coach Jack Clayton’s first NSC team share a conference championship.

The next year, with the Bruning family growing, Jim joined the coaching staff at Natchitoches High. He was there to stay.

In 1958 and ’59, the Red Devils were district champs, with a 10-0 regular season in ’59 but a state semifinals loss. In 1960, a 9-1 record wasn’t enough to make the playoffs (only the district champ qualified then).

Then came a decline, and Melder stepped out of coaching after the 1965 season. Bruning took over the program, and the first year was rough — a 2-8 record.
But he was building discipline, and a stable, loyal coaching staff, and what followed was six playoff years in succession — records of 9-2, 9-3-1, 14-0, 9-3, 8-3, 10-2.

His last five seasons of coaching were so-so. Still, he got out — into a decade of work for an oil distributor in town — with an 80-50-3 record over a dozen seasons … and a legacy.

His kids and his players know: Coach Bruning kept up with everyone.

“The main thing I remember,” said Wright, “is he’d get on your case in a heartbreak; he got on everyone. But he was a really genuine great guy. His bark was a lot worse than his bite. He really loved the kids through the years. He’s been like a second father to all of us.”
Same from Jim Knecht: “He’s a guy who was almost like a father. He’s kept up with all of us; showed true interest in our lives. He really cares, and that makes a difference.”

Wright is an attorney in Natchitoches and was first assistant district attorney in Natchitoches Parish. Knecht has been a family medicine doctor for 30-plus years in Natchitoches, and a team physician for Northwestern State and Natchitoches-Central’s football teams for decades.

“He really cared about his players; he would do anything to help them in their lives,” added Harryette.

“What we remember is he always had such a gruff exterior,” said Dennis, for 35 years a litigation attorney in Baton Rouge and now living in San Antonio. “He would bark at you, but you know there’d be a smile right behind that.”

What the players also knew was that their coach’s concern covered more than football.
“If we were playing hooky from school,” recalled Dennis, “he’d come out in town and find us. He’d watch out for us.”

“I remember him many nights calling parents to check on the players, make sure they were home,” recalled Janyce. “Same on the weekends. And if they weren’t home, he went into town to find them.”

Wright, who often has treated the coach to meals in recent years said Jim’s memory ” is better than mine. He remembers games, and people. You go in and he recognizes you immediately.”

He credits Bruning’s influence for helping pave a smooth transition in the rough period during the integration of schools in Natchitoches.
To be continued…Read PART 5 Sept. 30

Nico Van Thyn was a sports writer/editor for more than 45 years, including stints in his hometown with The Shreveport Times and Shreveport Journal. He finished his career with a decade at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. He is retired, living in Fort Worth with his wife Bea. They have two children and four grandchildren.