Sept. 16, 2009
by Jeremy Cothran
For the past 30 years, Washington has modeled itself as one of the preeminent institutions for producing the nation's best tight ends. Several names that resonate deeply with Husky fans dot its illustrious list. But none sticks out more than that of Mark Bruener.
An All-America career on Montlake (1991-94) for Bruener included a National Championship his freshman season, bookended with the historic win at Miami as a senior, which snapped the Hurricanes' 58-game home winning streak. Bruener would then go on to enjoy a 14-year professional career in the NFL with the Pittsburgh Steelers and Houston Texans, which included numerous accolades and a Super Bowl appearance. During that time, the Aberdeen, Wash., native fashioned himself into one of the best blocking tight ends in the history of the game.
It's those accomplishments that led Washington to select Bruener as their Husky Legend for the game against USC.
Bruener, for one, couldn't be more excited to be back among the fold with his fellow Husky alums. Retired from the NFL, Bruener recently moved back to his home state, settling his family on the Eastside in Woodinville. Now he takes his kids to soccer games and stays abreast of issues concerning the NFL Players Association, an organization Bruener was a big part of during his playing career. Bruener also took a familiar path of most alums of UW upon graduation - he purchased season tickets and became a Tyee Club donor.
"One thing I told myself is that once I got back to Washington," Bruener said, "I was going to get involved."
As a tight end, Bruener had the rare combination of physical talents to match his meticulous work ethic. And it was almost impossible to be a tight end at Washington without the willingness to adopt a blue-collar approach to the position. UW tight ends consider themselves an elite group, almost like a fraternity within a fraternity, and underclassmen are quickly indoctrinated into the culture upon arrival.
Bruener took the lead from Aaron Pierce, who would later play seven seasons in the NFL with the New York Giants and Baltimore Ravens. Towards the dawn of the 1991 season, Bruener's freshman year, Pierce pulled him aside and gave a speech he'll never forget.
"He basically taught me how to prepare for games," Bruener said. "Here I am, a freshman, and Pierce tells me `you might get to be a starter.' He was an older guy, telling me to take advantage of the opportunity."
Bruener instilled the same mantra into his protégé, Ernie Conwell, another Husky who went onto to a long career in the NFL and earned a Super Bowl ring with the St. Louis Rams. To this day the two remain close, as both are involved in the NFLPA. When the organization had its meetings in Hawaii, Conwell and Bruener would make it a working vacation together with their families.
What Conwell remembers most about their time at UW was a smidgen of Bruener's differing personas between friend and competitor. In the locker room, Bruener was one of the most congenial guys on the squad. But once he stepped onto the field ...
"He'd be talking to one of our defensive ends or linebackers about some movie or album that had just come out," Conwell said, "but as soon as we had that helmet strapped on, Mark was looking to put you on your back. It was nothing personal. Mark was determined to always be great at everything he did."
Bruener laughed when he heard of Conwell's remarks. Yes, he was a mean, physical player. But he always prided himself on being a clean player, and said he was the first to pick a player up after pancake blocking him into the turf.
Bruener's physical nature is what set him apart in the NFL as well. But the tight end was also a master technician at blocking, able to fire his hands under a defender and seal him off from the play. Conwell noted it also helped that Bruener was bear strong, with an unusual amount of grip/forearm strength.
"Once he got those hands under you," Conwell said, "you weren't going anywhere."
Those familiar with the Steelers teams of the late 90s remember visions of Bruener helping to clear paths for running back Jerome Bettis in Pittsburgh's power-running schemes.
The Steelers offensive schemes limited Bruener's reputation in terms of pass catching. In his four years at UW, Bruener caught 90 passes for 1,012 yards and four touchdowns, including one in the 1992 Rose Bowl that helped break the game open against Michigan. The Steelers ended up drafting him in the first round in 1995, and he spent nine years playing in the Steel City.
Bruener figured he could have had success in a more wide-open scheme in the NFL, but blocking is what suited him best. He honed his technique under the tutelage of former tight end's coach Rick Mallory (who is now coaching offensive lines at the University of Memphis) as well as Mike Mularkey (currently the offensive coordinator for the Atlanta Falcons), who was then his position coach in Pittsburgh. Conwell noted that Bruener might have been one of the few tight ends of his time that could block a defensive end one-on-one.
"I had to have great technique. I was a 250-pound tight end and was being asked to block defensive ends who were 280-290," Bruener said. "In order to neutralize them, you have to have really sound technique. I really concentrated on that."
As far as this current crop of Huskies, Bruener saw a lot of similarities to his time on Montlake. Against LSU, he noticed athletes playing hard to the whistle, finishing tackles and feeding off a frenzied crowd. Nostalgia began to set in.
"Coach Sark is accomplishing one of the hardest jobs in football," Bruener said. "There were great players here. But he's given them confidence when they didn't have any. I can't stress how hard that is to do."