Bruener on road to recovery

Dale Lolley takes a look at Mark Bruener's return from a torn rotator cuff.

As the Steelers continued to pile up victories last season, no player in their locker room more tortured by the team's success than tight end Mark Bruener.

Sure, Bruener enjoyed every victory as the Steelers rolled to a 13-3 record during the regular season and then beat Baltimore in the playoffs to advance to the AFC Championship Game.

But it also killed Bruener that he was unable to be out there with his teammates enjoying those victories in a way that only those who are on the field, sweating and bleeding, can truly appreciate.

The Steelers' starting tight end was having a Pro Bowl season when the rugged, 6-foot-4, 262-pounder suffered a torn rotator cuff in a home game against Jacksonville. It happened while Bruener was doing what he does perhaps better than any other tight end: blocking.

Bruener spent the remaining seven regular season games and both postseason contests in a role he was unaccustomed to: standing on the sidelines, healing, cheering, anything to try to dispel the anguish he was going through.

"The biggest motivator for me (during recovery) was the feeling I had that I let my teammates down," said Bruener at the team's mini-camp last month. "I felt I let them down because I wasn't able to complete the journey with them."

It's a strange sentiment to feel that you let others down because of something out of your control. But Bruener is the ultimate team player.

That is what made sitting and watching so difficult. He loves the game, loves being out there with his teammates, loves competing.

"It's funny what people's perspective is," Bruener said. "I had a lot of people tell me, 'Well, at least you're still getting paid.' Nobody on the outside can comprehend how much I love this game. The feeling that you have when you pull together as a team to achieve a goal. You can't imagine. You really can't imagine how empty I felt.

"But the most important thing now is that I'm back, I'm healthy and I'm ready to contribute and help this team win."

The Steelers couldn't be happier.

Before Bruener's injury, Pittsburgh was rolling over opponents, averaging a 181.7 yards rushing per game. After his injury, the running game produced 162.6 yards per game in the final seven regular season games.

Sure, the running game didn't completely fall apart, and backup tight end Jerame Tuman did an admirable job. But opponents didn't have to account for Tuman's blocking the way they do with Bruener.

"In my mind, Mark Bruener is the best blocking tight end in the National Football League," said Steelers head coach Bill Cowher.

Kansas City Chiefs head coach Dick Vermeil agrees.

"I think that Bruener and (St. Louis') Ernie Conwell are probably the two best blocking tight ends in the league," Vermeil said.

And now, the Steelers have that x-factor back in their lineup.

"It's really nice being back practicing," Bruener said. "I've been going through all of the offseason workouts and I've felt better than expected. The more I'm out there, the better I feel."

Perhaps now, Bruener can look forward to that trip to the Pro Bowl at the end of this season. Bruener, however, would prefer a trip to San Diego, the site of this season's Super Bowl.

"As far as the individual accolades, they really don't matter. I think those awards come when the team plays well," Bruener said. "Individuals stick out when you have a group that plays well."

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