Joe Berger: 'This Felt Like Home'

In late spring 2005, Joe Berger walked across the Carolina Panthers practice field and chatted casually with a few fellow rookies.

Among these young, freshly drafted athletes, the topic of conversation quickly turned to, "What would define a 'successful' NFL career?"

Berger, the last of the Panthers 10 draft picks - and third offensive lineman - told his teammates that day that he'd consider it a good run if he made it through training camp and the preseason before returning to engineering where, at the time, "I probably felt I belonged."

And while Berger didn't remain in Carolina long, he also didn't retreat to engineering. Instead, he weathered the ups and downs of an early NFL career.

Berger was claimed by the Dolphins, for whom he played three games in 2005. He spent time with Miami and Dallas in 2006 and contributed for the Cowboys special teams during the 2007 and 2008 seasons.

Vikings offensive line coach Tony Sparano first met Berger in 2007, when he oversaw the Cowboys o-line. Sparano became the Dolphins head coach in 2008, and in his second season in Miami, he brought Berger over as a free agent.

Sparano was impressed by position flexibility from Berger, who played both center and guard, and a combination of toughness and intelligence that made Berger a promising player.

"The other thing about Joe is that he's a very strong, physical player, and I always liked that about him," Sparano told Vikings.com. "He can play on his feet, and he was a tough, physical kid."

It was those qualities that helped Berger succeed long past the window he self-prophesied.

The Michigan native signed with the Vikings in September of 2011, and it was here that Berger found his niche.

"As soon as I got here, this felt like home," Berger said. "There's great people around here, it's a great city, and [it just allowed me] to be able to settle in. All the way from the front office down, it's just felt like home to me."

Berger played in 13 games in his first season in Purple, during which he made starts at center and both guard positions in addition to playing special teams.

He was called on in 2013 to fill in at right guard and left guard, and in 2014 he started the final nine games of the season at right guard. In 2015, he started all 16 games for the first time of his career, this time at center. During 2016, he played primarily center but slid to either guard position when needed.

Reunited in Minnesota in 2016, Sparano said Berger's versatility and ability to roll with the punches were admirable.

"I think Joe is a classic. I see him almost like a throwback player," Sparano said. "His toughness and his intelligence, and the fact that he can play multiple positions, kept him in this league."

During his final NFL season, Berger started all 16 regular-season games in addition to both playoff contests - all at right guard, except for one stand-in at center against the Bears in Week 17.

Berger said the 2017 season was a special one.

"It's a great group - good guys, guys that care about their jobs, who come in and want to get better each day. It's just a fun group to be around," Berger said. "I think one thing I've enjoyed this year is that everybody's taken responsibility for things that go right or wrong on the field, and everybody wants to figure out what they can do to make it better."

Reflecting on his first few years in the pros, Berger pointed to older teammates that he looked up to: former Cowboys center Andre Gurode and guards Leonard Davis and Kyle Kosier.

"I mean, there was a good core, three dudes in there that I looked at," Berger said. "I think being around those guys, they had three Pro Bowlers on the o-line, and they stayed healthy - I just had to sit and watch - but just to appreciate the way that they played the game and learn from them a little bit."

And now, the tides have turned.

Over the years, Berger transitioned from an inexperienced player to the one doling out advice and taking the younger guys under his wing.

When center Pat Elflein, a third-round draft pick in 2017, entered the Vikings offensive line room, he immediately felt comfortable being around Berger.

"Joe was really welcoming right away," Elflein said. "He's an awesome veteran, a leader and a guy who's been so many places and has so much experience, and he's someone who was willing to share those experiences with the younger players."

Added Elflein with a grin: "He's like a big brother to me - almost like a dad, since he's so old."

Rookie tackle Aviante Collins also poked a little fun at Berger, who will turn 36 in May.

"I kind of got that old, fatherly type from him," Collins said. "That was my first impression."

But all jokes aside, Collins emphasized the experience and leadership Berger brought to the position group and to the team as a whole.

Collins said that Berger's willingness to help the younger players demonstrated his character and willingness to sacrifice for the betterment of the team.

"He's been like that since I met him - he's willing to do whatever he can to help this team win, and it really shows," Collins said. "He says, 'Hey, if someone goes down, I'll play there.' I mean, I'm pretty sure he hasn't played tackle in a long time, but he'd go play tackle if he really needed to. I love that about him."

According to Collins, Berger wasn't just a leader in the locker room or on the field but in meetings, as well. Berger's familiarity with Sparano and years of experience on the line made him a strong communicator for the group and helped the younger players feel more at ease asking questions.

Sparano expressed gratitude for an opportunity to work with Berger during his first two seasons coaching Minnesota's offensive line. In fact, Berger being part of the team was an influencing factor in Sparano accepting the position with the Vikings.

"I knew that it would help make the transition a little more seamless for me - Joe's been in a lot of systems but has been with me three times, so he knew the style of coach I was, he knew what I would ask of him and what I would demand of him, and he knew my terminologies," Sparano said. "It's really easy for Joe to see the big picture, and he's very good with the young players.

"I think Joe remembers what it was like - he's never forgotten what it was like to be that young player," Sparano added. "His personality, his nature, is to pay it forward."

Sparano spoke highly of Berger's even-keeled demeanor and the personality he brings to the group.

"He's one that can joke, he's one you can have fun with - Joe knows that football's a hard game, and I believe the guy doesn't take football for granted one day that he's out there," Sparano said. "I think he feels blessed that he's been able to do it as long as he's been able to, and it's nice to see a guy like that do it at [a high level]."

Recalling that day in Carolina when he aimed only to make it through the preseason, Berger chuckled and absent-mindedly scratched at his beard.

"To have 13 years [in the NFL] now, no, I didn't expect that at all," Berger says. "But I've kind of taken the one-year-at-a-time approach, and even one game at a time. And I think at the end of that, it's 13 years to look back on."

Now, on his own terms, Berger has decided it's time to walk away from the football field after more than a decade in the NFL. He's looking forward to spending more time in his Michigan hometown with his wife, Abby, and their four children - whom he jokes are a lot less of a handful than rookie linemen - and hitting the road for a family RV trip this summer.

And who knows - maybe he will become an engineer, after all.

Created By
Lindsey Young

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