Joe Berger talks about life as a Minnesota Viking and Michigan Tech engineering alum—just don’t call him the smartest guy in the locker room.
"There are a lot of smart guys in any locker room," he points out, and the Minnesota Vikings are no exception. You can't be dumb and succeed in a sport where every play is as tightly choreographed as Swan Lake and triggers a release of energy bordering on thermonuclear.
But some smart guys are smarter than others, and back in 2005, when Berger was drafted in the sixth round by the Carolina Panthers, people couldn't help but notice that, along with a mantle-full of Lineman of the Year and All- American honors, he wielded a 3.8 GPA in mechanical engineering from Michigan Tech.
Since then, he's also played for the Miami Dolphins, the Dallas Cowboys, and, starting in 2011, the Vikings. He'll probably be there awhile. In March, the veteran guard signed a $2.155 million deal to play through the 2016 season, according to the Minneapolis Star-Tribune.
What makes Berger so valuable at a time when most football players are a good five years into retirement? For one thing, not that many pro athletes have the intellectual chops to graduate magna cum laude. "Joe doesn't have any trouble understanding a playbook," says Tom Kearly, Michigan Tech's head football coach. "He can play three of the five positions in the offensive line, and that makes him quite valuable."
"He said I could walk on and maybe get some playing time by my senior year."Joe Berger
It almost didn't happen. Berger was a football standout in Newaygo High School (enrollment: 511), but he lacked heft, and college coaches were not beating a path to his door. Nevertheless, he excelled in math and science, so when the time came to leave his hometown in western Michigan, Berger put away thoughts of football and focused on a degree in mechanical engineering. Michigan Tech was the only school he applied to.
His father, however, thought anyone who loved the game as much as his son did shouldn't give it up so easily. "My dad said, ‘You should send a film up and see if you can play,'" Berger says.
It worked. Former head coach Bernie Anderson saw promise in the six-foot-four, 210-pound linebacker. "He said I could walk on and maybe get some playing time by my senior year."
Then Berger began what could modestly be called a growth spurt. Unlimited dining hall food, protein powder, relentless workouts in the weight room—by his final year in the program, the stripling from Newaygo had grown an inch, put on eighty pounds, and morphed into a fearsome presence on Tech's offensive line.
"He was a late bloomer, and he had good genetics," says Kearly, then the team's offensive coordinator. "And he was a tremendous worker; the strength gain he got was huge."
And of course, his brains. It's been a winning combination. "Joe has made himself very marketable," Kearly says.
"If you are not great at any one thing, you better be good at a bunch of things," says Berger, who fills in at center when he's not playing guard or special teams. That versatility allowed him to play in all sixteen of last season's games and step into the starting lineup for the final nine.
Berger has another attribute: he stays out of trouble. Married to his high school sweetheart and father of three kids, the smartest guy in the locker room could also be voted Least Likely to Be Arrested.
"My family raised me to love God and work hard," he says. "I'm so grateful to have parents like that."
Berger began playing football when he was a tot. "Our parents would kick us out of the house, and we'd play outside all day," he remembers. "When I was eight or nine years old, the neighbor boy got to play football before me, and it hurt. Then I started playing myself the next year, in third grade. I've done it ever since, and I've loved every minute of it."
But he's not obsessed. Berger vividly remembers March 18, 2003, when Coach Anderson told his team that budget shortfalls had forced the University to cut the football program.
"It was a tough day," he says. "We were complaining because we had to do morning running, and then we found out we wouldn't be doing our morning running. It was the worst way to find out."
But even as his teammates were scrambling to find a niche in other collegiate programs, Berger stayed put. "I didn't come for football, and I wouldn't leave for football. I'd wanted to be an engineer since I was sixteen, and I was at Michigan Tech to get my degree."
Two weeks later, the University put football back in business, and the team went on to rack up one of its best seasons ever. The Huskies were 9–0 going into the Bash at the Big House against undefeated Grand Valley State. But the game at the University of Michigan stadium did not end well. Not only did Grand Valley win, Berger earned a knee injury that almost torpedoed any chance for a future in the NFL. "The Bash at the Big House isn't a great memory for me," he notes.
But there were lots of good memories of Tech: winning the conference, broomball, sliding down famously steep Agate Street in a grocery cart on skis . . .
"I loved every minute at Michigan Tech, and I've loved every minute in the NFL."Joe Berger
"We took the wheels off—we're engineers, you know—but we didn't think about brakes," Berger explains. "Fortunately, we were able to stop in a snowbank."
It's been a circuitous trip from retrofitting shopping carts to the Minnesota Vikings starting lineup, but for Joe Berger, it's all been good. "I loved every minute at Michigan Tech, and I've loved every minute in the NFL," he says. "Sure it's hard. Perfection is expected, and a lot is at stake. But nothing is better than having a good game."
And when the time comes to put away the football, he plans to fulfill the dreams of that sixteen-year-old boy from Newaygo and turn to a long-deferred career in engineering.
"I'm so thankful to Michigan Tech for the opportunity to do that," he says. "There aren't a lot of NFL players with an engineering degree."
Michigan Technological University is a public research university, home to more than 7,000 students from 54 countries. Founded in 1885, the University offers more than 120 undergraduate and graduate degree programs in science and technology, engineering, forestry, business and economics, health professions, humanities, mathematics, and social sciences. Our campus in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula overlooks the Keweenaw Waterway and is just a few miles from Lake Superior.