By Monica Lee
The early 1990s were no doubt one of the greatest times to be a Husky football fan. UW competed in three consecutive Rose Bowls and won the 1991 national championship.
Record-setting receiver Mario Bailey struck the famous Heisman Trophy pose in the end zone of the 1992 Rose Bowl. Steve Emtman, who went on to become the number-one overall pick in the 1992 National Football League draft, was a ball carrier’s worst nightmare. And College Football Hall of Fame coach Don James produced the seasons that made him “The Dawgfather.”
However, the man behind many of the bigtime plays during the early parts of that decade, the trigger for the run of Pac-10 championships, was left-handed quarterback Mark Brunell.
Although he played a smaller role during the national-championship season because of a major knee injury, he served as an inspirational leader – with impressive credentials to boot – during the best stretch of season in Huskies’ history.
Brunell, a southern California native, signed out of high school with the Huskies in 1988. After redshirting his freshman season and holding a backup quarterback position the next year, he became James’ starter in 1990 as a sophomore.
That season marked the arrival of the Huskies and Brunell as a national power.
“We were well-coached. We had good players that worked very hard, and that was really it,” Brunell said of the team’s winning formula.
“We had really good chemistry. The guys worked well together. It was just perfect.”
The Huskies lost just twice – at Colorado by six points and at UCLA by three. They ended the 1990 season with a 46-34 Rose Bowl victory over Big Ten champion, Iowa, breaking the previous record of 79 for most total points scored in a Rose Bowl. Brunell was named Rose Bowl MVP after accounting for four touchdowns -- two rushing and two passing. He finished the season with 16 touchdown passes, 10th most in UW history, and his 472 rushing yards in 1990 is still fourth-most by any Huskies quarterback in a single season.
The Huskies were expected to have an even more successful season in 1991, with Brunell leading the way. But in spring practice, Emtman and Donald Jones sandwiched him during a drill. Brunell sustained a knee injury that would leave him on the sideline for the first half of his junior season.
“Mark Brunell getting hurt, that got me really worried,” James said when reflecting on his 1991 national-championship team.
Replaced by the brash-but-effective Billy Joe Hobert, Brunell returned to action in fourth-ranked Washington’s 56-3 romp over Kansas State on Sept. 28, many months earlier than expected. Upon entering the field, the former Rose Bowl MVP received a standing ovation from the 71,638 fans at Husky Stadium.
Although Brunell saw limited playing time for the remainder of the ’91 season and parts of his senior year, he threw a touchdown pass to Bailey in the 1992 Rose Bowl victory that clinched a share of UW’s second national championship. He threw for two touchdowns in the 1993 Rose Bowl as a senior in a re-match against Michigan.
Following his Husky career the quarterback was drafted in the fifth round in 1993 by the Green Bay Packers. That started his remarkable and resilient, 19-year journey in the NFL.
He earned a Super Bowl ring with the New Orleans Saints in 2009, but it was with the Jacksonville Jaguar from 1995 – 2003 that Brunell made his mark on the league. He was chosen three times for Pro Bowl (1996, ‘97, and ‘99) and was named Pro Bowl MVP for the 1996 season.
Brunell retired from the NFL in 2011, playing his last season with the New York Jets.
But, over all the years in the pro ranks, he never forgot about his alma mater. He still hasn’t.
“I would look on the (NFL) rosters to see if there’s anybody from Washington there and I would make a point to say hi to the guys,” he said of his many game days in the pros.
“We (Brunell and his family) are Huskies for life.”
Brunell even met his wife, Stacy, on campus. She ran track and cross-country for the Huskies.
“We actually met at the leg extension machine in the weight room. Very romantic,” he added, dryly.
“I stay connected (to the Husky Football program) as much as I can. My wife’s family lives out there so we get up there as often as we can. The hard part is that we live all the way in Florida, so it’s hard to obviously visit and watch a game -- let alone get one on TV.”
The former Husky quarterback is a fan of the direction the current football program is heading.
“I think they are very fortunate to have Coach (Steve) Sarkisian there. He’s a good man, he’s a good teacher, he’s a good coach,” he said. “He’s just a really good guy to represent the school.”
Brunell lives in Jacksonville, Fla., with Stacy. They have four children: daughter Caitlin, 21; and sons Jacob, 18, John, 14, and Luke, 11. This month, Brunell has been the color analyst for the Jaguars’ 2013 preseason games as well as co-host of the radio show Jaguars Thursday on WOKV Radio in Jacksonville.
He is also head coach of the football team at Episcopal School of Jacksonville, which his two youngest sons attend.
Brunell couldn’t be happier to be making his return to Seattle tonight as the Husky Legend for the grand opening of the new Husky Stadium.
“I can’t wait to see [the new stadium],” he said. “I’ve seen pictures and I imagine I’m just going to get blown away when I get there. Once a Dawg, always a Dawg.”