Former Notre Dame and NFL defensive end Bertrand Berry was a three-sport standout from Humble, Texas, not exactly the type of city name one would associate with most professional athletes. He was great at every sport he played in high school – a two-time all-district selection in basketball who also set new records in track, but knew that football was his dream. Berry was a four-year letterman in football at Notre Dame, finishing his college career with 187 tackles and 16.5 sacks. In 1997, Berry was selected by the Indianapolis Colts in the third round of the NFL Draft. He was with the Colts from 1997-99, then had a short stint in the Canadian Football League with the Edmonton Eskimos before returning to the NFL with the Denver Broncos and later the Arizona Cardinals. He finished his NFL career with 229 total tackles, 65 sacks, 14 fumble recoveries and 14 forced fumbles, earning a Pro Bowl spot in 2004, the same year he led the NFC in sacks. Berry now lives in Phoenix, Ariz., with his wife, who he met in middle school, and their three children ages 6, 10 and 12.
Q: How did you make the decision to leave Texas and play football at Notre Dame?
A: “My plan was to go to Texas A&M. My mother grew up 20 miles from College Station and I loved their defense, “The Wrecking Crew.” They were dominating their conference. Then in 1993, Texas A&M played Notre Dame in the Cotton Bowl. Texas A&M was undefeated that season and Notre Dame had one loss. Everyone in A&M country was very disappointed that they had to play Notre Dame. They thought they should have been playing for the national title, and then Notre Dame came in and absolutely manhandled them. It really made me stop and think. If I go to A&M, they really don’t have a chance to win a title, but if I go to Notre Dame … plus, I really needed to get away from Texas. I was a momma’s boy and really needed to set out on my own.”
Q: What is your favorite Notre Dame football memory?
A: “When we beat Florida State my freshman year (1993), the “Game of the Century,” everything about that game was memorable. The energy on campus that whole week before, the media hype surrounding the game, watching the students rush the field after the game. It was simply amazing. We had a bye the week before and there were so many people on campus that week. It was tough going to class with all of the news media around. It was like nothing we had ever experienced before. That was the very first ESPN College Game Day. When I think back to that moment, all of the students on the field, watching the clock hit zero, we felt that we were so disrespected going into the game and finally we were going to get the respect we felt we deserved. Winning was great, but we should have beat them by a lot more (the Irish beat the Seminoles 31-24). The score didn’t really represent how good we really were.”
Q: How did you like living in Carroll Hall?
A: “I absolutely loved it. It was the best dorm for me for my personality. I am a low-key guy and it was perfect for me to be able to get away from my teammates after practice. I have great friends that I made during my time spent hanging out in Carroll Hall. I didn’t room with football players, which was great for me. You’re with them all day long, Carroll was my sanctuary. I just wanted to go to my room after practice and chill and relax. Not have to worry about talking football. My time at Carroll was awesome.”
Q: I know you had an All-American career at Notre Dame, but what about Bookstore Basketball?
A: “Playing football at Notre Dame was amazing, don’t get me wrong. But my Bookstore Basketball win is something truly special to me. My team got beat my sophomore year to (all-stater) Owen Smith and his team, and that burned me up all year. I think I wanted to win Bookstore more than a national championship. I got teased so much for losing my sophomore year. The next year when we (Dos Kloskas) won, it was raining cats and dogs. It was a really sloppy game, and the team we played in the finals was a team we had played many times out in the lot. They were an infamous team (Showtime) and they had been together for a couple of years like we had. Beating them was awesome. One of the things that I like most about the whole Bookstore Basketball tournament are the costumes at the beginning. The girls’ teams who came out in high heels. Just awesome. My freshman year I was pretty annoyed with that, but when I saw how much fun they were having, I really grew to enjoy them.”
Q: A lot of athletes at Notre Dame play football and run track and you starred in both sports in high school. Why didn’t you play both at Notre Dame?
A: “I got caught cheating on a paper my freshman year and became academically ineligible to run track. It was the last paper in that particular class, in late December, and I ended up getting an ‘F’ for the entire class (Composition & Literature). I was doing so well in that class. I had knocked all of the tests out of the park, but I just didn’t feel like writing this paper. The paper that I ended up using, I got from a guy who had taken the class three years before, and the professor recognized it right away. After not running track that first year, I just decided it was smart of me to focus on football, and doing well in my classes!”
Q: How do you remember your NFL Draft experience?
A: “I watched the draft at my brother’s house in Texas. It was a very long day. I ended up getting drafted in the third round, a couple of picks before the end of the first day. It was a day filled with anxiety, anger, and frustration. I started the day with this plastic cup in my hand, and my brother had to eventually take the cup from me. I was taking sips from it and there was nothing in it. When my brother took the cup from me, I had this death grip on it. I guess that was a result of me thinking that I was going to be selected much earlier. Kinnon Tatum was drafted the very next pick after me, and that was special for me as well. The fact that the two of us got drafted back-to-back was a special moment, and we’ll always share that. I went to the Indianapolis Colt, and he went to the Carolina Panthers.”
“The funniest thing about being drafted by the Colts was that I didn’t ever think I’d go back to Indiana once I left Notre Dame. Sitting at my brother’s house on draft day I was thinking to myself, ‘It’s been really great Notre Dame, now let’s get out of the snow.’ And then I get drafted by the Colts! Are you kidding me? But then I remembered that my dream of playing in the NFL had just become a reality, and the location didn’t really matter anymore.”
Q: What were the highs and lows of playing in the NFL?
A: “Playing on Sunday was a definite high. It was what got you through the week. There is nothing like running on the field and competing at the top of your profession. For 13 years, there was nothing better for me than putting on that jersey and representing my family and the NFL. I wore ‘Berry’ across the back of an NFL uniform with great pride. It had a lot of hard work behind it and a lot of pitfalls along the way. The business aspect of the NFL was definitely a low. Everyone knows that it is a business. That’s what provides your paycheck every month, but it does take some of the fun out of the game. Sunday was an escape from that business side. Time spent with the guys in the locker room, clowning around, getting to know your teammates, was great. But you also knew that at any moment they could be traded or cut. No notice. No warning. The mental side of that is really tough. But even more challenging than that is losing guys like Junior Seau. It is just not fair to see such wonderful men being taken from us much too early.”
Q: What was the highlight of your NFL career?
A: “Two NFL moments stick out in my mind. The first was being selected to the Pro Bowl in 2004. It is obviously an honor when you are voted in, by your peers, for being the best in your profession. Especially because of the way my career had progressed, and the bumps in the road that I had encountered prior to that year.”
“Secondly, was playing in Super Bowl XLIII. Even though we didn’t win the game, we played our hearts out and it was an awesome experience. I would not trade it for anything. It was incredible to be a part of something as huge as the Super Bowl. We got these impressive looking NFC championship rings. I have no regrets at all. It was one incredible ride to get there, and I will never forget that time of my life.”
Q: Where did life take you after the NFL?
A: “The transition was not difficult for me. Mentally I was ready. Once playing in the NFL became work, it was time for me to go. I really was OK with leaving; 13 years was more than I could have asked for from an NFL career. I was healthy and all in one piece. I did everything I set out to accomplish. I got to play in a Pro Bowl and a Super Bowl. I retired on my terms and I will always be proud of that. The transition for me was seamless. I knew I would survive without the game because I had already proven to myself that I could survive without the game when I was not playing in 2000. Plus, you always want to get out while you have a little something in the tank.”
“Last year I did some work with a local TV show here in Phoenix, and that was a blast for me, but it was just a little segment here and there, a web-based show. I enjoyed it, but it really was not what I wanted to do moving forward. Following that, I got the opportunity to get my own radio show which truly was a blessing. I get to talk sports on a daily basis without having to tear my body up. It has challenged me to get out of my comfort zone because I talk about all sports, not just football. It keeps me involved in the sporting world, but at the same time it holds my interest. I have the chance to grow my relationships with other sports. With our hockey team’s success this year, I really have learned about the game of hockey. I see sports in general from a completely different point of view now, from a fan’s perspective. I have enjoyed the transformation.”
Q: Can you tell me more about the Bertrand Berry Foundation?
A: “My foundation was started in 2005 primarily in honor of my wife, who is a survivor of childhood cancer (leukemia). We wanted to give back to something that gave her a chance at life. I have always been community oriented and have always given back when I was able.”
“The fans are the ones who put their money up to come watch the games. Even at Notre Dame, I thought football was entertainment as much as it was a competition. You have to be able to play to the fans. But I also feel a responsibility to give back to the fans, as well as the community at large. I have always been quick to jump on opportunities to go speak to elementary school and high-school kids. I wanted my foundation to not only give back to something that gave my wife a future, but also to help kids. I have a soft spot for kids. Nothing burns me up faster than someone taking advantage of a child.”
(Berry’s foundation supports the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society, Childhelp.org and Big Brothers Big Sisters of Central Arizona). “It’s all about helping out young kids. They are a group that cannot help themselves. We have also added a scholarship in my mother’s name. She was a teacher for 30 years and when I went to Notre Dame she made me promise to get my degree. I am most proud of my Notre Dame degree. It is one of my most prized possessions.”
Q: What is your favorite Lou Holtz memory?
A: “When we played Stanford my sophomore year, we put a pretty good beating on them. Bill Walsh was head coach for Stanford and Steve Stenstrom was their quarterback. I got to know him pretty well that day, and he spent a lot of time on his back. At the end of that day a couple of the guys on Stanford’s offensive line had just about had enough of me. They were giving me the business after one of my big plays and I got frustrated and dished it back. They were shoving me back and forth like a pinball when I hit one of the guys in the face. Of course, the ref saw me and I got thrown out of the game. When I got to the sideline, Coach Holtz was waiting for me. In his signature move, he grabbed me by the face mask and shook it. (He) told me, ‘Don’t ever do that again,’ and then patted me on the head. Had I had a bad game that day, he probably would have said more, but because I had a good game he just left it at that. I got a lot of phone calls that day because it was on national TV.”
“Coach Holtz was definitely a disciplinarian. I appreciated that because I wanted to be great at football and I knew that I needed that type of coach. My time at Notre Dame was filled with good memories of Coach Holtz. Being from Texas, I was used to tough coaches.”
“What I loved most were his pregame speeches. They were some of the best I’ve ever heard. I wish I had recorded the FSU pregame speech. After that one, I think we could have beaten any pro team. He masterfully played on our emotions. They never had a chance to beat us that day. I hope someone has a recording of that.”
Q: What do think of the current ND program?
A: “I think that they are underachieving and I am not sure why. They have facilities that are second to none. That is not the reason. They don’t seem to be recruiting the same way that they did in the past. They used to be able to go anywhere in the country and get people to come to ND. That is just not happening any more. There are so many dominant conferences, right in people’s back yards, they don’t
have to go away to a school like Notre Dame to win a national championship.”
“Notre Dame is cold, the classes are hard, it’s in the middle of nowhere. Until they start winning, it’s difficult to get the top players to come to South Bend to play football. But without them, how do you start winning? Everyone is on national TV every week now. Close games came down to discipline. Somehow they have to bring that discipline back.”
I’d like to give a big thank you to Bertrand Berry for spending some time with me and talking Notre Dame football. Next time I talk to tight end, Irv Smith.