NFL Player-Turned-Scout Finds Strength in Christ

Former Steelers tight end uses faith to balance family and football.

Mark Bruener, then of the Houston Texans, looks on the field during a 2004 game against the San Diego Chargers.
Mark Bruener, then of the Houston Texans, looks on the field during a 2004 game against the San Diego Chargers. (photo: Ronald Martinez/Getty Images Sport/Getty Images)

While college football fans have been cheering for their respective teams at bowl games around the country, Mark Bruener has been on the lookout for the right players. And he certainly knows what to watch for.

Bruener has done nearly everything that can be done in the game of football. He was part of a National Championship team at the University of Washington in 1991 and was later a first-round draft pick for the Pittsburgh Steelers. In a league where the average playing career lasts three-and-a-half years, Bruener’s spanned 14, and included four AFC Central Division titles and a trip to the Super Bowl.

While Bruener maintains an enthusiasm for football today as a scout for the Steelers, he has long known the importance of faith and family as well. The intrepid yet mild-mannered Aberdeen, Wash., native is happily married with five children, ages thirteen years to four months. Attending Mass and eating dinner together as a family are not considered nice extras, but treasured necessities in the Bruener household.

Mark Bruener took time out of his busy schedule to talk with Register correspondent Trent Beattie in early December about his faith, family, and football.

What are your top football memories?

I have many fond football memories, starting with flag football as a youngster, then progressing to contact football in the seventh grade. Football continued to be an integral part of my life through high school.

My first year in college at the University of Washington we went 12-0 and won a National Championship. Coming in and being a part of that as a 19-year-old was awesome. It was great to be under the direction of one of the best coaches ever in Don James. I respect him a great deal, and, in fact, we’re still in contact with each other today.

I also remember my first game with the Pittsburgh Steelers in 1995 against the Detroit Lions. That whole rookie season in the pros was memorable, and at the end of it, we played in the Super Bowl. We didn’t win, but it was still quite an experience to get there.

Probably what stands out most from the different teams, though, was the camaraderie in the locker rooms and the friendships formed there. Similar to Coach James, there are a good number of teammates I’m still in contact with years after having played with them.

In your current work as a scout, what do you look for in players?

There are the standard items of height, weight and speed. However, there are intangibles you just can’t measure, such as the heart of the player. As a scout you’re not looking so much for what the player is doing now, but you try to predict how he’ll play in the future. Simply because someone plays well in his senior year in college doesn’t mean that will transfer into the pros. Then there are examples of players who were fairly good in college but definitely not rated among the best who turn out to be outstanding in the pros.

Scouting is a challenge, but it’s a rewarding challenge. The busiest part of the year for me is in the fall, with the regular season games, and then later, in December, we start all the bowl games. It’s great to still be actively involved in football.

What do you say to those who think a violent sport like football is incompatible with Catholicism?

Football is definitely a tough, violent sport, but faith helps to keep the player balanced as far as the rest of his life. If there’s just football without faith, that physical aggression can carry over into other areas of life, or even on the field in ways that aren’t within the rules. With faith, however, you receive the focus and discipline necessary to keep the aggression on the field in the right way and to treat people more delicately off the field.

When off the field in Pittsburgh, you went to area high schools with Father David Bonnar. What was the purpose of those visits?

Father Dave was actually a former high-school classmate of one of my teammates at the time, Jim Sweeney. Father Dave would offer Mass for the team every Saturday night before games, which was a great help to us. When he asked me to go with him to high schools, I was more than willing to lend my assistance.

I would speak to the students about my faith and how it guided me in all that I do, and then I would ask the boys to consider the priesthood as a real option in life. Priests don’t come from factories, but from real families, and what they have to offer the Church is irreplaceable. It’s easy to take what priests do for granted, but their work is really the continuation of the life of Jesus Christ, the central purpose of which is our own sanctification. That’s definitely something worth promoting, so I was very happy to do that at quite a few schools in the Pittsburgh area.

Catholic family life is something that’s near to your heart as well.

Yes, stable family life is essential to the wellbeing of the Church and society as a whole. My parents have been married for 45 years, and they have provided me and my   siblings with an example of how a family should function.

I can remember as a child going to church at St. Mary in Aberdeen as a family and eating dinner as a family as well. Those are two things my wife and I insist on with our children today. You don’t realize as a child the importance of all the things your parents do for you, but as you get older, you do realize that more and more, especially when you have children of your own. There’s a saying that the older you get, the more intelligent your parents become.

That was true when I was away from home for the first time in college, and then even more so in the pros. I already knew some people upon arriving at the UW in Seattle in 1991, and it wasn’t as far away from my hometown as Pittsburgh. Both of those times, however, I had the opportunity to personally implement the faith that had been passed on to me and to see that it really does carry over quite effectively in the “real world.”

Today, I thank my parents for giving me a strong grounding in the Catholic faith and the resulting stability of family life. I aspire to give those same things to my children. I want to be a good example for my boys as to how a husband should treat his wife and to my girls as to what kind of husband a woman should look for. That’s a tall order, but the Lord gives us the grace to do it if we ask him.

Do you have a favorite Bible verse that expresses that belief?

Philippians 4:13 is a verse that has been instrumental in my life. Throughout my career I would repeat it to myself before, during and after games, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” That verse served as a “halo” to protect me from serious injury in a long NFL career. 

It also protected my family when I was away from home. I wanted them to be secure in my absence, which was made possible by the grace coming from Christ, which is sufficient for all things. Philippians 4:13 expresses an inspiring, powerful reality that all Christians should remember and put to use.

It’s easy to get distracted by the vain attempt to measure up to other people’s opinions.  This can be particularly true with pro sports, where you work in a fishbowl: Everything you do is analyzed and commented upon. However, if you remember who your Savior is, what is required of you by him, and the grace He gives you to do those things, then everything is certain to turn out fine. That’s what Philippians 4:3 is all about.

Do you have a favorite devotion?

The Rosary is something that has been instrumental to our family. Growing up, I knew my grandmother prayed the Rosary regularly, but it didn’t really hit me how dedicated she was until her death around the third year of my pro career. It was then that I saw how her rosary beads had actually been flattened out from so much usage.

I also hadn’t known until then that she would pray the Rosary during my high school, college and pro games. That’s probably another reason why I had such a long career that was free of serious injury. Asking anyone to pray for you is a beneficial thing, but asking the Mother of Christ to do so, as we do in the Rosary, is the ultimate in intercessory prayer. She has a maternal concern for us that we can only begin to imagine now, but will only understand completely in heaven.

We buried my grandmother with her worn-out rosary, but today I have my own, which I intend to wear out as well.

Register correspondent Trent Beattie writes from Seattle.