School's out for Bruener

A long journey is finally coming to an end. Sixteen years, 18 NFL touchdown receptions and two pro teams later, Mark Bruener has finished his college education.

Bruener will be receiving his degree in economics from the University of Washington in the mail at the end of May nearly two decades after strolling onto campus as a freshman in 1991.

"It kind of came from just believing that you should always finish what you start," the soon-to-be graduate said. "I"ve been very fortunate to play this game as long as I have, but to be so close and not finish, to me, was just not smart, you haven't accomplished your goal."

While Bruener played four seasons for the Huskies, he never redshirted and with a grueling football schedule, he never managed to complete his course requirements before leaving the Seattle area.

"After (my senior) season, I really focused on the draft and the NFL and I put less emphasis on my academics," Bruener said.

That decision paid off in one sense. Bruener was selected in the first round of the 1995 draft by the Pittsburgh Steelers, spending his first nine NFL seasons in Western Pennsylvania before signing with Houston in 2004 as a free agent.

However even moving to the opposite coast didn't keep him from his academics. He enrolled at the University of Pittsburgh, took some classes, and transferred those credits back to Washington. And then he went a step further.

Following two different seasons with the Steelers, Bruener flew back to Washington to take classes on campus, continuing to pursue his degree.

"It's interesting when you go back to school at a different point in your life and your sitting there with juniors and seniors who are 21, 22 years old," Bruener says. "They would be talking about what party they would be going to this weekend or Friday night and here I am worried about whether or not I had to bring diapers home for my babies."

Things were going well except for one snag. Bruener began his education pursing a degree in building construction. That plan had to change once he was drafted by the Steelers.

Like many majors, building construction at Washington requires classes to be taken in sequential order. One of the classes Bruener needed to take to continue in building construction was only offered in the fall semester, obviously not an option for an NFL player. Bruner quickly found a solution.

He changed paths and switched to economics.

"A lot of my prerequisites were business type courses so I thought that was the most feasible way for me to get my degree," Bruener said.

As he continued in economics, Bruener inched closer to his degree.

"Then all I had left was two foreign language classes and I put it on the back burner."

It might have stayed there too if it wasn't for a call Bruener got from the league office a few years ago.

"There was a very nice lady that worked for the NFL by the name of Stephanie Thorburn that called me and said, 'Do you realize how close you are to completing your degree?'"

Bruener's response?

"I said, 'I think I'm pretty close, but I don't know the exact specifics' and then she said, 'Mark you only have to take two classes.' She said for me to look into that and really encouraged me to do that."

So Bruener did look into it and discovered he needed just two foreign language classes to complete his degree. Through the University of Washington extension program, Bruener enrolled in Spanish II following the 2005 season and finished his requirement this offseason by taking Spanish III.

"I took advantage of the NFL's tuition reimbursement program and I'll be honest with you it was a pretty exhilarating feeling to know that you know that you're finally completed with it and that I'll be getting my degree here in a few weeks," Bruener said.

And taking on-line classes was not as easy as some may think. Even after 16 years, Washington did not just hand a degree to Bruener.

"It was quite extensive," says Bruener. "A lot of hours were spent each week. You had a video assignment (a Spanish soap opera) that you were required to watch, I had to submit assignments using voicemail, then I would fly back to the West Coast for mid-term and final exams."

And with a family of four at home, it wasn't always easy for Dad to finish his homework.

{QUOTE} "There were times when I was trying to submit my voicemail to my instructor and my kids would come in and ask me something so I would have to stop and then call back later," Bruener said. "They didn't realize I was on the phone, but most of the time I waited for them to go to bed to call the professor's voice mail."

Those late nights are over now and although it took him longer than expected, Bruener has his degree.

"I called my coach at Washington who recruited me, he still coaches there, and I told him that the high school kid he recruited 16 years ago finally had his degree," Bruener said. "It was a rewarding experience because now when I tell my children that I want you to get your degree they can't just say, 'Well, I'm just going to play football like you daddy.'

"I've been blessed and I hope my children want to pursue athletics, but odds are, they are not going to be professional athletes. I want them to have a good education."

Bruener is approaching his 13th NFL season this fall. He is often regarded as one of the finest blocking tight ends in the league. But he knows he can't play football forever.

"The light at the end of the tunnel is brighter and brighter each day, not year, each day," a smiling Bruener said.

With his degree in economics in hand, Bruener hopes to pursue a career in commercial real estate when his playing days are over.

"I'm an investor in a lot of commercial real estate projects, but more of a passive, silent investor, so I want to take on a more active role," says Bruener.

And while he doesn't plan to walk across the stage with the rest of the Class of 2007 at the end of May, he doesn't seem to be completely opposed to it either. However, like it has been so many times before, Bruener's job is standing in the way of his academic life.

"I can't (walk) because we'll be in the middle of coaching sessions (OTA's)," Bruener said. "I don't know, I think (Coach Kubiak) would let me walk if I wanted to, but to me I fulfilled what I wanted to do already."


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