HOUGHTON - Joe Berger will have to keep waiting to start his mechanical engineering career.
The 2005 Michigan Tech graduate is now gearing up to start his ninth season in the National Football League. Earlier this month, the Minnesota Vikings signed the 30-year-old Berger, now a back-up offensive lineman, to a one-year deal worth $880,000 in base salary with a $65,000 signing bonus.
"I've had a great career and I have a lot to be thankful for," Berger said in a Daily Mining Gazette interview. "When I left Michigan Tech I hoped to experience a training camp or two and then get back to being an engineer. The opportunity to be in the NFL for nine years a definitely a blessing."
It's been an unlikely journey for Berger at both the pro and college level. He wasn't even actively recruited out of high school, and the 6-foot-4, 210-pound Newaygo High School (Newaygo, Mich.) grad only came to Houghton to pursue an engineering degree. His father convinced him to try walking on with the Huskies, then coached by Bernie Anderson.
He redshirted in 2000, started three games in 2001, started eight games in 2002 and the football program nearly folded in 2003 due to budgetary reasons. Berger never thought about going somewhere else, choosing to stay at Tech to complete his degree. When alumni stepped up to save the football program, Berger took full advantage.
Former Miami Dolphins defensive tackle (1991-95) and current Tech assistant football coach Chuck Klingbeil worked to develop the 6-foot-5 Berger into a 290-pound lineman. Berger burst on the scene his junior year, earning All-American and GLIAC Offensive Lineman of the Year honors. He garnered plenty of attention from pro scouts and solidified that interest by duplicating his junior year accolades, while also being named the best offensive lineman at the Cactus Bowl, a Division II all-star game.
The Carolina Panthers picked Berger in the sixth round of the 2005 draft, 207th overall - just the third Huskies football player ever drafted - but he was waived in the last round of preseason cuts. The Dolphins picked him up just a day later, though, where he hung on for two years and played in three games before being waived.
The Dallas Cowboys claimed him off waivers in 2006, but he was inactive that entire season and only played in four total games the following two years.
In 2009 he re-signed with Miami as an unrestricted free agent and finally found his niche. His versatility in multiple O-line positions and his emergence at center paved the way for him to beat out Jake Grove for the starting center spot. He played in 31 of 32 games the next two years, starting 20 of them.
"My career was at a point where I either needed to play or I was probably going to be done," Berger said. "Miami gave me that chance and that is what has allowed me to continue. Starting regularly is rewarding but it certainly comes with a lot more soreness and more pressure."
It was an impressive run in Miami that came to an abrupt end when the Dolphins somewhat surprisingly cut him on Sept. 5, 2011, just before his seventh season.
"Waiting until Week 1 made it a little more difficult for the family, but that is part of the business. I've had to learn that it isn't personal," Berger said.
Just a week after leaving Miami, though, Minnesota signed Berger to a two-year, $1.9 million deal. That fall he played in 13 games, starting seven of them. Last year he appeared in 16 games, but all in a back-up role. On March 12, the first day of free agency, the Vikings finalized the new one-year deal with the 315-pound lineman.
"I'm excited to be back with the Vikings," said Berger, who has played in 67 games, starting 27 in his eight years. "It's been great to play for coach (Leslie) Frazier. This is the first place I've been that the majority of the coaches played in the NFL as well. I appreciate the different perspective this brings to the coaching style. We have really enjoyed getting back up north; it feels a little more like home."
Berger, his wife Abby and three kids, still call Newaygo, a downstate town of less than 2,000 people, home during the offseason, while renting in Minnesota.
"The moving has been a little complicated and stressful at times," said Berger, who still wears No. 61 like he did in college. "We have a place in Michigan close to our extended family and we have always tried to stick together as a family. I think those two things make it a lot easier. I love being up north and having the seasons.
"It was nice in March to be able to head south (to Carolina, Miami and Dallas) - that would've been especially nice this year - but I love the cooler climate."
Growing up in lower Michigan Berger and his family put most of their football allegiance with the University of Michigan and "never watched much NFL." He has plenty of friends and family back home, though, who are die-hard Detroit Lions fans, which makes for some "fun conversations."
Berger, who last visited Houghton last summer, is currently in Newaygo training at the local gym before reporting to the Vikings offseason program in April. He and his family still live in a small home, but someday he wants to build a new home in Newaygo and possibly buy a small business there where he can start getting involved in the engineering process and use his degree, which he finished with a 3.8 GPA.
"I think we live fairly conservative," Berger said. "Keeping God first and knowing He's the reason I'm here helps keep my focus on what is important and not on some of the stuff that get athletes off track."
Someday he'll get back on track with his engineering career, but for now, he'll have to settle for blocking for NFL reigning MVP Adrian Peterson.