© 2024 WVIK
Listen at 90.3 FM and 98.3 FM in the Quad Cities, 95.9 FM in Dubuque, or on the WVIK app!
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Former Redbird basketball player Taylor Bruninga in tune with his new creative outlet

Taylor Bruninga poses with a guitar in a corn field, wearing a hat
Former Illinois State basketball player Taylor Bruninga is writing and performing music here in corn country.

First, Taylor Bruninga’s promising Illinois State basketball career ended prematurely because of a foot injury. Next, his time as a pitcher for Southern Illinois Edwardsville’s baseball team was hindered by an injured back.

The back was hurt when a car traveling 55 mph slammed into the rear of Bruninga’s vehicle as he was waiting to turn into the SIUE baseball complex. Nearly two years later, he still has “issues” with the back.

It’s enough to make a guy scream. Instead, Bruninga has begun to sing.

He grew up in Mapleton listening to music, exposed to rock and roll by his father, Brent, and to country by his mother, Kindra. Now, at 24, he is drawing upon both as an aspiring singer/songwriter.

Taylor Bruninga holds a guitar in front of a drum set.
Former Illinois State basketball player Taylor Bruninga is a self-taught guitarist after growing up playing the drums (in background) in the basement of his parents' home in Mapleton.

The 6-foot-8 Bruninga has been performing this summer at small Central Illinois venues – festivals, bars, etc. He sings and plays the guitar, a self-taught skill within the past two years.

“It’s mainly country,” he said of his playlist. “I’ll throw a couple of rock and roll songs in there. The music I’ve been working on writing is kind of a mesh of both. It’s country with some lead electric guitar, which I always liked.”

Thank Dad for that. Among Brent Bruninga’s favorites are Van Halen and AC/DC, groups with blaring lead guitars. His son soaked that in, as well as the likes of Alan Jackson, Toby Keith and Waylon Jennings from Mom’s country influence.

Bruninga (pronounced BREW-ni-guh) began writing songs in the past year, saying he’s written roughly 15. His first “gig” was in December when he was home for Christmas break from SIUE. Following the spring semester, he “hit the ground running” in June with performing.

“I enjoy entertaining people,” he said. “It’s cool to play covers and stuff, but I really enjoy playing my own stuff and seeing how people react to it.

“There have been a couple of times where people have come up to me afterward and been like, ‘Man, your original song really kind of hit me. I really liked it.’ That’s the main reason I keep doing it because I think that’s pretty awesome when somebody says that to you.”

Facing injuries as a student-athlete

For years, Bruninga received positive feedback from his athletic career. He was an all-state selection as a forward in basketball and a pitcher in baseball at Illini Bluffs High School. After averaging 33 points and 11 rebounds per game as a senior, he accepted a basketball scholarship to Illinois State.

He had a productive freshman season, averaging 17.4 minutes, 4.9 points and 2.4 rebounds on a veteran team. A stress fracture in his left foot, suffered near the end of summer workouts, forced him to sit out the next season.

Bruninga attempted to come back for the 2019-20 season, but the foot limited him to 15 games. He gave up basketball and completed his degree in agribusiness the following year.

Bruninga was athletic, smart and his jump shot was a work of art, a Rembrandt. The foot simply couldn’t take the pounding of a long basketball season, even after screws were inserted.

“Obviously, I wish it would have gone a lot differently,” he said. “But I met a lot of awesome people. I enjoyed my time there. The injuries kind of changed my perspective on things and gave me a lot as far as mental toughness goes.”

Taylor Bruninga performs with a guitar, singing into a mic, in front of a bar or restaurant
Taylor Bruninga performs this summer in Bartonville. The former ISU basketball player hopes to carve out a career in music.

Bruninga’s foot allowed him to play baseball. After pitching for the Normal CornBelters in the summer of 2021, he signed with SIUE as a graduate student. A promising start was derailed by the car accident. Bruninga returned this past season for his final year, but the back continued to impact his performance.

The good news?

“Knock on wood, I really don’t think there’s anything serious that can come about as far as injuries (playing music),” Bruninga said. “Hopefully, I’m good on that end.”

Bruninga studied physical education and coaching at SIUE and is an assistant golf coach at Illini Bluffs. He helped out with summer workouts for the Illini Bluffs basketball team as well.

Other odd jobs include mowing, painting, trimming and cleaning out/preparing houses for his mother, who is a Realtor.

The bulk of his time is devoted to music. He understands making a career of it is “a long road,” that in addition to talent, one must “know people and make connections.”

That’s OK.

“I enjoy doing it, and I love working at stuff,” Bruninga said. “In sports, I’ve loved grinding and trying to perfect something. I wouldn’t say (music) is filling a void for that, but it’s the same aspect I guess. I love writing music, love playing it, and honestly I hope to break through to that next level.”

A friend's perspective

Most of Bruninga’s Illinois State teammates would not have known he loved music. One who did was Matt Chastain, the former LeRoy High School star who roomed with Bruninga.

Chastain quickly learned of Bruninga’s musical passion and knowledge.

“We spent a lot of time watching old concerts and listening to music and he seemed to know the names of every singer, drummer, guitar player, you name it, from every classic rock band,” Chastain said.

There also was this: Bruninga grew up playing drums in the basement of his home. During his time at ISU, he bought an electronic drum set for the apartment.

“He played it constantly,” Chastain said. “It didn’t seem to take him long to get pretty good at it.”

That in mind, Chastain was not surprised Bruninga later taught himself the guitar, aided by YouTube tutorials. Chastain lives and works in Florida, but Bruninga sends him videos of songs he has written and/or performed.

Asked to critique what he’s heard, Chastain said, “He’s already gotten better, I’ll say that. I’m not trying to be mean, but he’s gotten better in a short time with the guitar and the voice. It’s exciting.”

Bruninga looks the part. His blonde hair, which was cropped conservatively at ISU, is shoulder length. It flows from beneath a “Whiskey Best Hat Company” cap.

His appearance gives off a young Alan Jackson vibe – he’s been told he is “a doppelganger almost" for the country music legend – but Bruninga is quick to add, “I’m nowhere near that level yet.”

For now, he’s happy to be strumming and singing.

“I have some fun songs, but one song I wrote is about my whole college situation … being gone and not getting to do what I wanted to do as far as playing,” Bruninga said. “I have some songs from the heart and also some singalong-type songs.

“I’ve learned quickly that sometimes you have a pretty good size crowd and sometimes it’s small, almost like a private little group. It’s the same as in sports … when it’s a good crowd you kind of feed off the energy. That’s a pretty awesome feeling, you know?”

Veteran Bloomington-Normal journalist joined WGLT as a correspondent in 2023. You can reach Randy at rkindred58@gmail.com.