A fond farewell to a friend

ESPN Boston High Schools lost a tremendous friend and colleague with the passing of Bruce Lerch earlier this week.

Lerch, 42, was an original contributor to this site, who wrote stories and shot video, in addition to his work at the Boston Herald and BostonLax.net. Bruce was known the region over for his passion and commitment to covering high school athletics, in particular in football, hockey and lacrosse.

We thought it appropriate to take this space to share our remembrances of Bruce, not as co-workers or competitors, but as we knew him best -- as a friend:

Scott Barboza, ESPN Boston High Schools editor

“Listen to this one, I guarantee you’ll like this.”

That’s what I’d usually say to Bruce. I’d always try to bend his ear in my quixotic quest to get him to listen to any band that had formed past 1986. But he always remained steadfast to his musical canon: Metal, metal and more metal.

Bruce was unabashedly stubborn. When his mind was set on something, it would take an act of God for him to come off of his stance. It was brutal to argue with him when he took the contrarian view.

But that was Bruce; it was also part of what made him great.

I first met Bruce – you guessed it – at a lacrosse game. We had a ton in common, including both having graduated from Emerson’s journalism program – he as a graduate student. It wasn’t long before we were friends.

Bruce’s rapport with the people he covered was second to none. It wasn’t because he was trying to grab the next scoop, it was because he truly cared. People weren’t sources, they were friends. As any of the players, coaches and administrators that came in contact with Bruce can attest, his coverage went far beyond box scores. The reason why Bruce is so respected is because of the way he treated the subjects he covered and the people he worked with – as family.

Bruce was a notorious night owl, as most of us are in this line of work, and there wasn’t an hour of the day he couldn’t be reached by phone. (Well, maybe between the hours of 6 and 8 a.m., his usual bedtime.) Whether it was to debate the No. 1 girls’ hockey team in the state, the greatest season of “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia”, or personal travails, Bruce was always there, in fact, for hours at a time.

So with that, when it came time that Bruce revealed that he wasn’t feeling well and through his cancer diagnosis, myself and those who knew Bruce best were happy to have the chance to step up to bat for our friend. He met the challenge head-on, to the point that none of his friends believed there would be any other result than Bruce coming out on top. A tremendous catcher at his alma mater of Mount St. Charles, of Woonsocket, R.I., Bruce approached his treatment as any athlete would – with a can-do attitude.

That’s why today is heartbreaking to me and for those who knew Bruce best. Heck, you didn’t even have to know Bruce that well to become enamored with his spirit.

To know Bruce, all you really need to consider is how he came into the world of journalism. He went back to school to become a writer. He loved the job and the experience of meeting new people. He threw himself into the stories he covered, and he was damn good at it, too.

Bruce had his goal to be back for the hockey tournament, and lacrosse season beyond that, after his treatment concluded. We knew how much it pained him to be away from Gillette Stadium this weekend for the football state championships. It was bizarre not having him there. But that was the plan, and we knew Bruce would be just as stubborn in his fight against cancer as anything else.

Life around the fields and the rinks will be less vibrant now. There won’t be the back-and-forth fodder on the sideline with Bruce, no bear hugs, no late night catchups on the last season of “Game of Thrones”, no more head-banging sessions in the parking lot after a game to Ratt.

Heaven just got itself one heck of an air drummer though.

Brendan C. Hall, ESPN Boston High Schools editor

My last real heart-to-heart, knock-down-drag-out time spent with Bruce Lerch came two weeks ago – and it’s always a knock-down-drag-out with Bruce, because he has the heart of a lion and an opinion about everything under the sun.

Bruce had just begun treatment for his recent testicular cancer diagnosis, and I remember him walking gingerly from our ESPNBoston office inside Gillette Stadium to a restaurant up the massive stairs at Patriot Place. It’s never a quick bite to eat when you take Bruce out to lunch, and this was the setting for our annual All-State meeting with my colleagues and close friends Scott Barboza and Andy Smith.

I don’t know how, but I think we managed to finish this one in under three hours. All-State meetings with Bruce are always a 10-round heavyweight fight, and this was no different. As usual, he was barking at me in his trademark over-animated prose, that I need to get over my infatuation with Central Mass (I’m originally from Westminster), or gaudy statistics against weak competition. As usual, he had something to say about my off-beat tastes in music (I’ve been to exactly one Dave Matthews show in my life, yet somehow Bruce had concluded over years of friendship that this was my favorite band – and like a lot of his sentiments, there was no budging him off this pillar).

This brought a canyon’s length of a smile across my face.

“I missed this side of you that we’ve all come to love so dearly,” I said with a chuckle.

In between belly laughs, Bruce reached across the table for one of his bear hugs he was famous for.

It was as if cancer was simply a speed bump in his pathos. Bruce didn’t give two damns how much pain he was in.

On Sunday night, there were hundreds of us across all walks of life that felt we didn’t just lose a happy-go-lucky friend with a heart of gold. We lost a brother. We lost someone who challenged our intellect, someone who challenged us to be better in our daily lives, someone for whom pouring your soul into it was the only speed he knew, no matter how mundane the task.

I am a better person in my life for having known Bruce over the last decade through my travels, first with the Boston Globe and now ESPN. I am more professional with people. I am more diligent in my work ethic. But more importantly, I am a better husband to my beloved wife. Bruce taught me to have a heart, to value life, and to never forget the friendships you’ve forged along the way.

Bruce was an unforgettable spirit in about a thousand different ways. When him and I were together, it was like the high school sports version of Crossfire. We disagreed on a lot of stuff, and we were both spiritedly stubborn in our convictions. We squabbled a lot, in a lot of venues – bars, restaurants, sidelines, cars, school hallways – and it made for great theatre when other friends were around.

Life spent with Bruce was awesome. I enjoyed every minute I spent with him, yapping about everything under the sun, sometimes literally until the sun came up. I’m sure with more time, we could have figured out the Sphinx riddle, or how to bring Democracy to Cuba or something. Conversations with him were as wide-ranging as the High Sierras.

Bruce will never admit this, and he’d probably curse me for even saying it out loud. But the man was a giant in the Massachusetts high school sports landscape. He pecked away at this niche long before everyone else, and he rode this wave like Secretariat. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the explosive ascent of lacrosse in this state has run parallel with Bruce’s career trajectory. He has left a lasting legacy on an entire generation.

Nobody loved lacrosse like Bruce. There are countless folks from across all levels of the lacrosse world, from high schools all the way to the pros, pouring their hearts out this week on social media and other platforms with countless stories underscoring Bruce’s character, his wisdom, and his incredible sense of humor. Bruce truly got it – in this business, it’s about the relationships. You will not find one bad word to be said from anyone.

Like a lot of people who knew Bruce well this week, my heart is in my knees, and my mind is in a jumbled mess. And yet, I can only smile and laugh at all the good times, because that’s all there was with Bruce. Happiest guy on earth.

I think I speak for everyone when I say we loved you dearly, Bruce. Thank you for everything. It was always an honor and a pleasure. You will be sorely missed.

Andy Smith, ESPN Boston correspondent

Three weeks ago, I sat across a table from Bruce Lerch as he vehemently argued for the inclusion or exclusion of high school football players from the ESPN Boston all-state team. He had walked up to the restaurant table gingerly, in obvious pain from the fact-finding surgery he had days before, but in that hour-plus that we sat together, his cancer was an afterthought. The only thing that mattered to him to him in those moments was getting that team right and recognizing those who truly deserved it. We shook hands and parted ways that day after our work was done. It was the last time I saw him.

If I could describe Bruce in one word, it would be passionate. In a business often predicated on competition and a me first attitude, he cared so much about everything beside himself. He often stayed awake until early morning hours editing video packages for the Boston Herald website because it was his way of sharing the beauty and purity of high school sports. He went out of his way to let other reporters know how much he liked their stories, gave them advice, and helped them catch up if they missed a play in a game. He direct messaged high school athletes on Twitter to let them know what a joy it was to cover their career and wish them best of luck in the future. Most importantly, he did all of it away from the public eye. He never wanted attention, he just wanted to do his job well. To him, the games and the athletes mattered most. He showed up every day with a smile, positive attitude, and a desire to shine the light on someone else.

I’ll miss Bruce and his eccentricities. He loved deeply and unapologetically. If you caught him on the right day, he could talk to you about professional wrestling, 80’s metal, comedy, poker, or sports. If you were around him long enough, you learned how to stoke the fire and bring out the opinionated fervor that lived in him.

He had an infectious persona that drew others to him. No matter the time of year, he always greeted you with a smile and a pat on the back. He lifted up everyone around him. That is what I’ll miss most about Bruce Lerch. Massachusetts high school sports won’t be the same without him.

Rest easy, Bruce. I’ll see you when I see you.

Greg Story, ESPN Boston videographer

Bruce Lerch was about as genuine of a person as I think I’ve ever met. One bear hug pregame, which he gave out a lot, told you just how real of a person he was.

A lot has been made in the past few days about his passion for his work and dedication to the teams he covered. As it should have been, there’s no denying that. What people outside of the media circle should also know is he also cared deeply about the people he worked with. Whether you wrote for the Herald, or a direct competitor, you were a friend first to Bruce, and he wanted you to succeed. He was honest. If he liked your work, he was never too shy to offer a complement. If he didn't, he also let you know and he did everything he could to help you fix that. You could always count on him to be in your corner.

The void left by Bruce’s passing will be felt for years to come. I don’t know how not seeing him as I show up to whatever field or rink will ever feel normal. But I feel lucky that my life was impacted by him enough that I get to say that. I’m really going to miss you Bruce.