Steelers' punter Mitch Berger is a regular Joe feeling Super
Mitch Berger, who's from Kamloops, B.C., has played for 10 teams in 15 years
Six months ago, Berger didn't have a job and nearly gave up on football
He might be best remembered for drawing a 15-yard penalty in the first quarter
You want the feel-good story of the Super Bowl?
Well, keep on going. Past Ben Roethlisberger at his locker, crying into his cell phone. Past Troy Polamalu, glitter stuck to his hair like celebratory shrapnel, young son cradled in his arms. And past coach Mike Tomlin, grinning like a Jeopardy winner and hugging anything that moved and yelling, "We did it!"
Keep looking, past MVP Santonio Holmes and owner Dan Rooney and there, hidden behind a lumbering lineman or six, you'll find Mitch Berger. Yes, Mitch Berger, the punter. You know, the 36-year-old from Kamloops, British Columbia, who has played for 10 teams in 15 years. The guy who didn't have a job six months ago, who almost gave up on football after suffering a gruesome injury to his pubic bone, who might have played his last pro football game on Sunday and is completely okay with that because, well, he finally made the Super Bowl.
We never give much thought to the punter -- that is, "unless we screw it up," as Berger says. So after the game he wasn't besieged by reporters -- in fact, he actually went to find some -- and no agents lingered, ready to sign him to an endorsement deal. Because, well, why would they? Hey, this is Mitch Berger. I downed 15 punts inside the 20 this season and I'd like to tell you about Pepcid AC, helping YOU keep it all down.
So, yeah, he's not the star of the game, but he is something else: our surrogate out there. He's us if we'd just won the Big One. So, for a moment, let's live vicariously through Berger. He doesn't mind. He'll tell you all about his unlikely career arc. How he was cut by more teams than most NFL guys play for, how during the supposed "height" of his career he spent time pumping unleaded at a friend's gas station. Did I mention he's Canadian? And a punter? And even though he grew up in British Columbia, he never quite got the hang of the whole Northern deal. He never even learned how to skate, which is akin to sacrilege up there. "My dad never taught me lacrosse or hockey," Berger explains. "It was football all the way."
Not a surprise, really. Don Berger grew up in Pittsburgh and he'd be damned if his son didn't play football. So he dressed Mitch in Steelers garb, taught him how to ankle-tackle a man. You can imagine, then, how ecstatic Don was last fall when, after stints with Philadelphia and Minnesota and Green Bay and Indianapolis and St. Louis and New Orleans and Arizona, Berger signed with the Steelers. At least until Mitch got cut a few weeks later.
Then, when injuries opened a roster spot, Berger was asked back in December. And, what do you know, a month later he was making a touchdown-saving tackle in the AFC Championship game. Then, last Saturday, on the eve of the Super Bowl, coach Tomlin was using him -- Berger! -- as inspiration. "He singled me out as one of a few guys, about the journeys we've been on and how improbable they are and to respect and enjoy it," said Berger. He certainly didn't need a reminder; all week, he'd been carrying around the photo his father gave him, of him as a 7-year-old, grinning in a Steelers jersey.
And then, finally, on Sunday, Berger was the guy booming those kicks. Or perhaps you remember him better as That Guy Who Got Annihilated on The Field Goal. Think back to the third quarter. Jeff Reed lines up to kick and the holder stands his ground and gets absolutely flattened by Adrian Wilson, drawing a penalty? "Yup, that was me," Berger says with pride.
Luck you say? "Hey, that's a savvy veteran move," he argues, though his good friend Chris Burns, who has known Berger since high school and was at the game, disagrees. "He's just not quick enough to get out of the way," he says. Either way, Berger got the Steelers a first-and-goal, and, had things turned out differently, that could have been the difference in the game (alas, Pittsburgh couldn't punch it in). All because of the punter.
Up in Berger row, they held their breath on that play. That's where nine friends and relatives gathered, decked out in matching Gerber jerseys, the most attentive group in the stadium during punts. And how did those go? "Shanked the first one a bit and hit it inside the return," said Berger. "But my defense, they backed me up." Of course they did, his defense.
When the game ended, after Holmes made that surreal catch and Pittsburgh survived one final Kurt Warner attack, Berger sprinted to the end zone and reverse-stormed the field, pushing past a security guard to run up to his father, who suddenly had very little to say. "He's 67 years old and I've never seen him cry," said Berger. "I'm so happy I was able to make him cry." Into his son's ear, Don Berger whispered three words: "Super Bowl Champs."
You know how you might act if you won a Super Bowl? That's exactly how Mitch acted. He took pictures with the Lombardi trophy, kissing it like a 17-year-old at the prom. He posed with Tomlin, even though wearing only underwear ("15 years man, wow!" said the coach). He took pictures with Rooney, and with Big Ben and with Trey Wingo and then, when that wasn't enough, he ran out onto the field, still wearing his commemorative Super Bowl bathrobe over his clothes and jogged in giant arcs, the robe fluttering out like a cape, while Burns snapped pictures and took video at the same time. He climbed the Super Bowl podium, pretending to address the throng, then went to pose by the goal posts. If any of the lingering media and fans recognized that this was a player sprinting around and not some drunk fan acting like a giant 9-year-old, they didn't let on.
So Mitch kept right on celebrating and as he did, a little bit of me ran in giant arcs with him. "After all," he said, "I didn't have a job four months ago and now look at me. I was just hoping that I wouldn't be that guy that's saying, for the rest of my life to kids and friends, I almost did it, we almost won."