Tech Grad Berger Now Making the
Grade in the NFL
Most magna cum laude graduates of Michigan Tech seek jobs in their field of study to begin their career. For 2005 alumnus Joe Berger (pronounced Bur-jur), who earned his bachelor's degree with a 3.8 grade point average in mechanical engineering, this was not the case. His career started on the field-playing in the National Football League.
There are plenty of twists and turns on Berger's road to being a pro football player. Beside the fact that very few NCAA Division II players get a chance at a pro career, Berger's focus on academics and earning his MTU degree nearly derailed his opportunities for a coveted spot on an NFL roster.
"It really is amazing that I am where I am," said the twenty-three-year-old Berger, who is an offensive lineman for the Miami Dolphins. "I never really thought much about playing pro football until about a year before it actually happened."
His story starts in the fall of 1999 in small Newaygo, Michigan (population 1,700), located thirty-five miles north of Grand Rapids. Berger stood six feet, four inches tall and weighed 210 pounds as a senior at Newaygo High School. He started at both linebacker and offensive line for the NHS football squad, and earned all-conference and academic all-state honorable mention honors. "I played offense, defense, and special teams because we had such a small school," said Berger. "I definitely enjoyed playing linebacker the most at the time."
Following the season, with no colleges knocking on his door to offer scholarships, Berger decided to leave football behind and focus on his education.
"I was not recruited anywhere in football," he said. "I chose Michigan Tech solely for the mechanical engineering program."
It wasn't until Berger came for a campus visit with his parents in February of 2000 that he met with head coach Bernie Anderson and made the decision to try and walk on to the football team.
"I don't remember much about that visit," admitted Anderson, who has been the Huskies' coach for nineteen seasons. "But a good recommendation from his high school coach, good grades, and his tall, thin frame convinced us he had a lot of potential with very little risk."
Berger redshirted his first year as a Husky and was listed in the media guide at 6' 5" and 225 pounds. He went on to start three games as a freshman and eight more as a sophomore. "I was impressed with Joe once he got on campus," said Coach Anderson. "He did everything we asked of him and developed into a pretty good player by his sophomore season."
Berger's football career seemingly came to an end again when the University announced it was eliminating its football program for budgetary reasons in March of 2003.
Tech offensive line coach Jeff Duvendeck recollects the days after the program was cut. "I told Joe that if we didn't get our program back here, I could help him find somewhere to transfer where he was sure to play right away. He wasn't going anywhere, though. He wanted to finish his degree."
Berger remembers, "A lot of guys from the team were trying to figure out what they were going to do. My mind was already made up. I went to Tech for one purpose-to get my mechanical engineering degree-and I was too close to finishing to transfer to another school just for football."
Within two weeks of the announcement of the program being cut, Coach Anderson and a group of alumni developed a plan to make MTU football self-funded with private donations. The program was reinstated.
"I'm very thankful to Coach Anderson and the alumni who stepped up to get the program going again. Obviously, I wouldn't be playing pro football without their efforts."
With yet another chance at football, Berger exploded onto the national scene as a junior. He earned All-America honors and was named Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference Offensive Lineman of the Year. His success drew interest from New York Jets scout Gary Smith, who came to Houghton in the spring of 2004 to test Berger. The Huskies' star lineman performed very well in the tryout.
"We've had several NFL scouts come to Michigan Tech over the years," said Anderson. "Mr. Smith was quite impressed with Joe, and that really put him on the NFL map."
Nearly every one of the thirty-two NFL teams sent scouts to watch Berger during his senior campaign. The now 6' 5", 290-pound right tackle was a unanimous pick for All-America and an Academic All-America First Team selection. In addition, he was named GLIAC Offensive Lineman of the Year for the second straight season. The Huskies finished with a 9-2 record, won the GLIAC Championship, and earned their first-ever berth into the NCAA Playoffs.
A serious knee injury in the tenth game of his senior season again threatened Berger's football career, but he wasn't about to be stopped now. He had surgery and six weeks later was named best offensive lineman at the Cactus Bowl, the Division II all-star game.
Berger started to seriously think about a career in the NFL when he was invited to the scouting combine in Indianapolis in February of 2005. He again performed well in front of the scouts. They started telling him he'd have a chance of being drafted, or more likely signed as a free agent.
Six days before Michigan Tech's 2005 commencement, Berger went home to be with his family and watch the NFL draft on television. "I was pretty anxious, wondering if the phone was going to ring, and wondering which of the thirty-two different cities I might be going to."
His anxiety turned to excitement when the Carolina Panthers selected him in the sixth round-the 207th overall pick in the draft. He was one of just four Division II players chosen.
Berger and his wife, Abby (they were married before Joe's senior season), were in Charlotte, North Carolina, days later as he took part in early camp. Berger spent the entire preseason with the Panthers, but was waived when the final roster cuts were made on September 3. He planned to stay in Carolina on the practice squad, but the Miami Dolphins contacted him the next day.
"I got a call that said I needed to be in Miami that night," said Berger. "We only had a couple of hours to pack up our entire apartment and find a place to store everything. We were on a flight by 9 o'clock."
Berger has been on the Dolphin's fifty-three-man roster since that day, trying to quickly soak up a new offensive system. Not only that, he's the backup at center on the Miami depth chart after spending the preseason at guard for Carolina and the last two years of his collegiate career at tackle.
"Pro football seems like an entirely different game because the offenses and defenses are much more complicated and the crowds are a bit bigger than I'm used to playing in front of," said Berger. "Even though I have a lot to learn, the toughest part hasn't been the mental, it's the physical. The guys lining up across the ball are so athletic, especially compared to what I was used to in college."
Berger has been with the team for every game this year both at home and on the road. He has yet to see the field in a regular season game, but is confident things will work out in the end. "My faith in God has been and will continue to be an important part of my life. And I think my experience at Michigan Tech will certainly help. I know the hard work it took to get where I am, and I'm going to apply that experience and hard work to get to where I need to be to make it in the NFL."
When asked if he plans to use that mechanical engineering degree, Berger says, "Hopefully, I won't need it too soon. I have a two-year contract and a chance to prove myself. Who knows what can happen after that."