By Lisa Zimmerman, Player Engagement Insider
Joe Berger’s 13-year NFL career has been as much a surprise to him as anybody else. Currently the Minnesota Vikings right guard, Berger (pronounced BUR-jer) became a walk-on at Division II Michigan Technological University located in the tiny, remote town of Houghton, Michigan after his father suggested he might be a bit bored if he didn’t have an activity outside of his school work. So, Berger, the team captain during his senior year at Newaygo (MI) High School spoke to the coach who accepted him and told him, “Maybe by your senior year we’ll get you some playing time.” Things progressed a little beyond that.
Berger was playing by his sophomore year (at the time at right tackle) and in his junior year became an All-American. Then, in his senior year, he was invited to the NFL Combine all of which provided an intriguing twist for Berger who had been focused on earning his mechanical engineering degree. In fact, in December of his senior year at Michigan Tech, Berger went on numerous job interviews and received a job offer in February just prior to the Combine.
But, Berger realized that while he might be able to go back to a career in engineering, this would be his only shot at the NFL. So, he set his engineering plans aside and put his whole focus into training for the Combine and preparing for the NFL Draft. And it paid off. In 2005, the Carolina Panthers made him their sixth-round pick.
Berger’s career took off slowly. He was released by the Panthers and went on to split his time over the next six years with the Miami Dolphins and Dallas Cowboys before joining the Vikings in 2011 where he has remained as a key member of their offensive line. Until this year, Berger served as the team’s center. In 2017, they drafted Pat Elflein so now with Elflein at center, Berger has switched to right guard where he provides support and mentorship for the rookie.
After 13 years, Berger is happy and content with his new role, as well as with the fact that he may be able to achieve what most players strive for: eventually walking away from the game on their own terms.
“At this point in my career, hopefully I get that opportunity,” Berger said. “For a guy to be able to walk away on his own terms is a privilege not too many guys get to be able to do. I got to watch (former Vikings linebacker) Chad Greenway last year.”
In the early years of building his NFL career, he and his wife, Abby, also began to build their family. They currently have four children ranging in age from 10 to one – two biological and two adopted, and have become very involved as advocates in the adoption community.
“We used Bethany Christian Services, and it’s a great organization,” Berger said “Every adoption has an interesting story. They have social workers there who are skilled and talented. Those agencies, we try to support them.”
Fatherhood was something Berger always looked forward to and now revels in.
“I love coming home,” he said. “Football is stressful so, you see their smiles and talk about their days. To be able to focus on other people is helpful. That selflessness you need as a dad, I think it’s great for you. We built our family one at a time. You think back to the first kid, and how awesome it was but how difficult was. It’s the whole process. It’s great to build a family and to have that love in the house.”
Berger also reflected on how fatherhood changed everything. “It’s a whole new stage. It’s definitely a commitment, be ready for your life to change; it’s awesome. You’re not going to be ready for it ever, but you won’t want to go back. I love being a dad. I can’t imagine not having kids at home.”
However, there are some family moments with a houseful of kids that do require the occasional, creative escape.
“Sometimes the noise-cancelling headphones come into play,” Berger laughed.
As for his post-NFL future, Berger has that engineering degree and he’s already contemplating the different options it may offer him going forward – everything from an entry level job to building his own company. But, for now, it remains all about football. And fatherhood.
Lisa Zimmerman is a long-time NFL writer and reporter. She was the Jets correspondent for CBSSports.com, SportsNet New York’s TheJetsBlog.com and Sirius NFL Radio. She has also written for NFL.com.