Former University of Texas Longhorn football player returns to school to earn social work degree

May 13, 2002

AUSTIN, Texas—It's all about serving others for Mark Berry — firefighter, paramedic, high school mentor and now graduating senior in social work at The University of Texas at Austin.

Mark Berry
Photo: Marsha Miller

Mark Berry

At 33, Berry returned to the university this year and earned his bachelor's degree. Originally a student from 1987-1992, Berry played football for the Texas Longhorns as a four-year starter at defensive back. He was drafted by the Chicago Bears in spring 1992, just months shy of graduation.

"I bounced around for a couple of years in the NFL and then decided to pursue my first love, which was firefighting," said Berry, who has been a Dallas firefighter and paramedic at Station 23 rescue company for the last nine years. "I always planned to go back to school to follow my other love — social work.

"There are a lot of similarities in the two professions because they both have to do with a sense of community, family and helping and protecting others."

Commencement ceremonies at the university are May 18, and Berry plans to be there. His wife and two daughters, ages 3 and 11, will accompany him.

Berry discovered the world of social work as a university sophomore, and realized he had a lot in common with the values and principles of the profession.

"Growing up in a single-parent, low-income household in a low-income neighborhood — social work and social workers always were a big part of my life," he said.

In order to complete his degree, Berry is finishing 240 hours in field placement as a case manager at Skyline High School in Dallas for the Communities-in-School program. Many of the students Berry counsels are from low-income homes and are at risk of dropping out of high school.

"Mark is an outstanding role model for these students," said Mary Mulvaney, who is on the field placement faculty at the university's School of Social Work. "As he encourages them to pursue higher education, Mark shares his own struggles with completing his education."

The Communities-in-School program is so impressed with Berry's work with the teens at Skyline that they are planning to hire him part time after graduation, said Mulvaney, adding that Berry will work there up to 20 hours a week in addition to his firefighting job.

As a child growing up in Dallas, Berry hung out at the local fire station where his uncle worked.

"My uncle was a father figure for me. In fact, all the men at the station were," said Berry. Some of the fire fighters attended Berry's high school football games, let him use their cars for his dates and even occasionally slipped him money for a movie.

"I understood the importance of teamwork from these men long before I began my athletic career," Berry said. "I thank them every day for teaching me integrity, reliability, accountability and leadership."

Mulvaney said she believes Berry will use his social work training every day in his work with the fire department.

"He has outstanding interpersonal communication skills, problem-solving skills and empathy for those in need," she said. "These are all social work skills, and they are definitely useful for him in his role of serving the public in time of great distress."

After the events of Sept. 11, Berry said firefighters all over the country "were finally getting the recognition they so duly deserved.

"We don't ask for thanks," he said. "We've always known we were respected in the community, but to be respected and revered on a national level really brought home why we joined the profession."

Jane Kretzschmar, director of field education at the university's School of Social Work, said she was sure Berry would serve his community well through his social work career.

"I am so pleased that Mark chose to return and finish his degree," Kretzschmar said. "He has been a great student, and I know he will do an outstanding job representing the profession of social work. It will enable him to be respected and looked up to — not only as a firefighter — but as a social worker, too."

For further information contact: Nancy Neff, Office of Public Affairs (512) 471-6504.