Sure, Mark Brunell’s career at the University of Washington hadn’t gone the way he’d planned after a knee injury suffered in the spring before his junior season wiped out most of that year and saw Billy Joe Hobert emerge as the Huskies’ starter while he recovered.
And yeah, he knew there were questions among NFL scouts about his size (6 feet 1, 206 pounds) and his style of play — he ran for almost as many touchdowns (19) as he threw for at UW (23).
Still, he thought he’d done well at the NFL combine and answered every question about his health, and he was a former Rose Bowl MVP (in 1991 when UW beat Iowa 46-34).
As the 1993 draft approached, he figured to be taken somewhere in the first four rounds.
So he decided to invite a bunch of friends, family and UW teammates over for a draft party to watch the first day (the draft that year was eight rounds, with the first four Saturday, the next four Sunday).
Dozens gathered at the home of the parents of Brunell’s wife Stacy (they’d gotten married the year before and remain married today) up on the Sammamish plateau.
“I at least thought I was going to be a first-day guy,” Brunell said. “I was told fourth (round) at the latest, maybe three. There were some teams that were interested, specifically the Cowboys. They were looking for a backup to Troy Aikman.”
Everyone gathered around the TVs as the draft began and Washington State’s Drew Bledsoe was taken first overall by the Patriots and Notre Dame’s Rick Mirer second by the Seahawks.
And then they waited.
And waited some more.
One hundred and twelve picks came and went that day — including his teammate Hobert being drafted 58th overall — without Brunell’s name being called.
“I was that guy who threw a draft party and didn’t get drafted,” Brunell says with a laugh, now able to see the humor. “It was horrible. It was absolutely horrible.”
Few were there when Brunell’s phone finally rang the next morning with the news that the Packers had selected him early in the fifth round at No. 118.
But Brunell says all the agony he endured in that 24 hours proved to be a small price to pay for how the rest of his career unfolded.
“It was actually perfect for me,” he said. “It absolutely was the best possible spot for me.”
With the Packers, Brunell got to work as a backup behind Brett Favre for two years while being coached by Mike Holmgren and Steve Mariucci.
Brunell went to Jacksonville in the 1995 expansion draft. It was a soft landing for a young quarterback, taking over a team that had no immediate expectations.
Defying all odds, Brunell guided the Jags to the AFC Championship Game in his second year there (against Bledsoe and the Patriots, no less) while leading the NFL in passing yards. That jump-started an 18-year NFL career that saw him win a Super Bowl ring (as a backup to Drew Brees with the Saints in 2009) and finish ranked 43rd all-time in passing yards.
To Brunell, his career is proof that what matters isn’t what round you are drafted in “but about where you land, the situation you find yourself in.”
It’s a lesson he finds himself telling young quarterbacks every year these days in his role as an official mentor at the combine.
Brunell this year was one of 14 former players who attended the combine as part of a program the league instituted six years ago. The league says the program is designed to “connect the game’s greats with current NFL players and the next generation of stars.”
Brunell was one of two former QBs assigned to the quarterback class, the other being Chad Pennington. In their roles they followed the quarterbacks taking part in the combine as they attended various official events, there to answer questions and help out in any way they could.
One of the players in Brunell’s group was Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa.
“Talk about a great kid,” Brunell said. “I was so impressed with how he carried himself and how he handled the whole combine.”
The two share some similarities. Like Brunell in 1993, Tagovailoa has some injury questions. Tagovailoa also is left-handed. Much has been made of the fact that no left-hander has thrown a pass in a regular-season NFL game since 2015.
Brunell has no answer to why, pointing out that when he played there were a number of good lefties, including Steve Young and Michael Vick.
Young, in fact, played a role in Brunell getting drafted, as Holmgren had coached Young at BYU and with the 49ers.
“Steve was a 6-1 lefty who could run around a little bit,” Brunell said. “I reminded Holmgren of Steve Young. So that was how I got into the NFL, because of Steve Young.”
Truth was, somebody would have taken a chance on Brunell eventually because of what he’d done in 1990 with the Huskies, when he led UW to a 10-2 record in his first season as a starter.
But then came the knee injury, Hobert’s emergence and UW winning the national title in 1991. Brunell returned in time to throw 44 passes that season, including a late TD to Mario Bailey in the Rose Bowl.
When Hobert was suspended late the next year, Brunell returned to a starter’s role. Still, he threw fewer passes in his UW career (498) than LSU’s Joe Burrow, who is expected to be the No. 1 overall pick Thursday night, did in 2019 (527).
“There weren’t a lot of running quarterbacks in the NFL back then, and I think teams were really adhering to that prototypical 6-3, 220-pound pocket passer Troy Aikman kind of look,” Brunell said. “I certainly didn’t fit the mold. Maybe the knee (affected his stock). But I just think it was really not having a lot of college games that really hurt me.’’
But Brunell — who is the football coach at the Episcopal School of Jacksonville and does some TV work in Jacksonville — can claim to be the most successful pick in NFL history at No. 118, via the Pro Football Reference Career Approximate Value rating.
“The timing,” he says of his career “was perfect.”
Even if draft day was anything but.