After Losing Vision In One Eye, Khaneil Bruce Keeps His Focus On Football

Download Audio
Khaneil Bruce with his mother. Bruce, who's blind in his left eye, plays wide receiver for the University of New Haven. (Courtesy of Khaneil Bruce)
Khaneil Bruce with his mother. Bruce, who's blind in his left eye, plays wide receiver for the University of New Haven. (Courtesy of Khaneil Bruce)

On Oct. 18, 2014, Khaneil Bruce and his teammates on the Nassau Community College football team beat Dean College, 38-0.

The next day Khaneil planned to relax.

"You know, it was a normal Sunday," Khaneil recalls. "Talked to my dad on the phone. And then he said something like, 'Ah, make sure you be careful.' I’m like, 'What do you mean, "be careful?"’ He was like, 'Just be careful.' You know, my dad really never says anything like that."

After the conversation, Khaneil played video games. Then he got in a car with some friends to visit his teammates' house.

He walked inside. Suddenly there was a pop. Khaneil felt pressure on his left eye and ran back to the car.

"When I looked in the mirror, I just seen, like, blood coming down from my eye and from my face."

"When I looked in the mirror, I just seen, like, blood coming down from my eye and from my face," he says. "I’m, like, 'Oh my God.' And then my friends, they came back in the car. They’re like, 'Yo, what’s going on? What’s wrong with you?' And I looked at them, and I seen their facial expression, like, 'Oh, man, this is serious.' So all I said to them was, 'Yo, you guys think I’m going to be able to play football again?'"

Khaneil had been shot in the eye by someone taking indoor target practice with a BB gun.

And he wanted to know: would he ever play football again? To understand what happened next — and why the sport was so important to Khaneil — we have to back up a bit.

Early Dreams Of Playing Wide Receiver

Khaneil Bruce's journey to that day begins in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where he grew up with his three siblings. It wasn’t always easy.

Khaneil says his mom sometimes skipped meals so that her children had enough to eat. When Khaneil was 7 or 8, she got laid off from her job. Khaneil went to live with his dad until she could get back on her feet.

He remembers watching the NFL on TV with his dad and uncle. He especially liked watching two players: Troy Brown from the hometown New England Patriots and all-pro Randy Moss. Both played wide receiver.

"Randy Moss brought a lot of excitement to the game. He just made everything look so easy," Khaneil recalls. "And then Troy Brown just played with so much passion. I just wanted to be just like those guys."

When Khaneil got to high school and joined the football team, he knew what position he wanted to play. And by his senior year, he was pretty good at it.

"I made the All-State team. I was an All-Scholastic for football," Khaneil says. "I was thinking I was really going to make it big, you know what I mean? Big school, my dream — I wanted to play for Oregon. I loved Oregon. That’s where I wanted to go."

The powerhouse Oregon Ducks never reached out — but other Div. I schools did. Khaneil heard from Boston College. His high school coach was in touch with the Oregon State Beavers.

"It's not Oregon, but it's Oregon State, you know what I mean? That's huge," Khaneil says. "That's really huge, especially for my family, to be the first to go off to college and go play football for Oregon State. Be an Oregon State Beaver. That would be beautiful. So it was just mind-blowing to me."

But Khaneil didn't score high enough on the SATs to be eligible for a Div. I scholarship. He had to go another route: he enrolled at Nassau Community College on Long Island. The plan was to spend two years there, and then move on to a big-time program.

At first everything seemed to follow the plan. Khaneil caught nine passes in Nassau's first six games — all victories.

'Am I Still Gonna Be Able To Play?'

Then came Oct. 19 — the day Khaneil Bruce was accidentally shot through his left eyeball.

His friends drove him to the hospital. He was rushed into emergency surgery.

Next thing he knew he was awake in a hospital bed, surrounded by family, friends and coaches.

At first, he didn't know how bad it was.

"I just felt a lot of pressure on the left side of my face," Khaneil says. "They put me in this room to look through a magnifying glass type of thing. To see if I could see. And I couldn't see anything. It was just pitch black. And then that was really it. I was like, 'Wow, this is really happening.'"

That’s when he learned he was blind in his left eye.

"The doctors in New York told me, like, 'Look, you're probably not going to be able to do this, you're not going to be able to do that,'" Khaneil says. "They wanted to take my eye completely out. So my mother was like, 'No, I think we're just gonna go back to Boston and get a second opinion.' That's what we did. We left that night. Ended up going to Massachusetts Eye and Ear, which is one of the best eye doctors in the country, if not the world."

The doctor there couldn't save his vision either — but he offered something the doctors in New York couldn't: hope.

"He talked to me and my mother. He said, 'Look, I never seen anything really like this.' Basically he was saying that my retina was detached, and it was a lot of damage done," Khaneil says. "I just kept thinking, like, 'Am I gonna still be able to play?' And I asked him, and he was like, 'Well, right now we don't know.'"

That was better than a "no."

"Did you believe that you would play again?" I ask.

"Yeah. For me, it was like, I had to believe it for myself," Khaneil says. "'Cause if I didn't believe myself, then nobody else woulda believed it for me. I was basically saying to myself, 'This is what God wants for me to go through to reach to the top.' And if this is what I have to do, then I'll do it. I'm willing to do it."

Learning The Game — All Over Again

But he had a long way to go. At first, Khaneil struggled with the most basic things.

"It was so hard for me to even put things on the table. Like I tried to put a cup of juice or water on the table and I completely missed the table and then I just dropped the whole cup," he says. "And then water or juice would spill everywhere, and I'm like, 'Oh, man, I didn't even notice.' So I had to get my depth perception back."

Of all the positions to play, wide receiver would seem like the hardest for a guy with vision in only one eye -- catching a football while running downfield is already hard enough with vision in both eyes.

But after a couple months and a third surgery, doctors cleared Khaneil for activity.

"Start from square one, basically. Basically learn how to walk all over again. Trying to run. I did a lot of tennis ball drills. A lot of catching drills," Khaneil says.

"They put me in this room to look through a like magnifying glass type of thing. To see if I could see. And I couldn't see anything. It was just pitch black. And then that was really it. I was like, 'Wow, this is really happening.'"

Khaneil went back to Nassau in January — and he re-joined the team for spring practice.

He’s not quite sure how he was able to do it, but Khaneil could catch passes.

Back At It

When his sophomore season began, he was ready to play.

In the second game, Nassau took on Navy Prep. Khaneil lined up against a single defender on the left side of the field — that way he could look over his right shoulder with his good eye for an oncoming ball.

"And I remember my quarterback just looked at me and just shook his head, and I already knew what time it was," Khaneil says. "My favorite route is to run a fade ball, which is literally run straight. So I gave him a little move off the line, ran the fade ball, he threw it up ,and I caught it. I scored and just looked up and thanked God."

It was Khaneil’s first college touchdown. Not the first since his injury — his very first college touchdown. He added one more before the game was over.

Khaneil finished the season with 32 catches for 447 yards and four touchdowns — second most on his team.

But those big-time Div. I programs?

"By the time the end of the season came, I didn’t have really any offers or talk to any D-I schools," Khaneil says. "It was really frustrating, because I knew what I was capable of doing."

But in December came some good news. Div. II University of New Haven was looking to add a wide receiver.

They asked Khaneil to take a visit. He met with New Haven’s head coach.

"When I was talking to him, he asked me how did the vision affect me? And I said it didn’t affect me at all. I still was the same person I was before," Khaneil recalls. "So I definitely didn’t try to make an excuse and try to make them feel bad for me. I just wanted them to want me as a football player."

They did. New Haven offered Khaneil a scholarship.

"It was amazing. I remember telling my mother, and she was just so proud of me for not giving up on my dreams," he says. "Despite what happened to me, I still didn’t give up."

Life Today

Two years have passed since the accident. Khaneil never found out who shot him.

"And I actually don’t want to know. 'Cause I don’t know what I would’ve done — if it would’ve been good or bad," he says, laughing.

Now a junior, Khaneil’s majoring in business management. His mom? About a year ago, she got a call out of the blue from Mass Eye and Ear — the same hospital that treated Khaneil after the accident. They offered her a job. Now she’s working at the hospital as a receptionist.

As for football, Khaneil just finished his first season with New Haven — and he doesn’t think it’ll be the final stop in his football career.

"I think I have way more to accomplish. I know I have a lot left in me," he says. "I do wanna still pursue my dreams to play in the NFL. It is a bit harder to make it from Div. 2, but I know I can do it, as long as I put the work in. I know I can do it."

It’s a long shot. But Khaneil Bruce is certain about something else: If it wasn’t for his mom, he wouldn’t have made it this far.

"Without her I really don't know what I would be doing," he says. "She really helped me get through that hard time. Because she told me that this was just a part of my story. I was gonna be telling my story one day and here I am, telling my story to you."

This segment aired on November 19, 2016.


Headshot of Martin Kessler

Martin Kessler Producer, Only A Game
Martin Kessler is a producer at Only A Game.



More from Only A Game

Listen Live