Tyler Berger’s 100th victory at the University of Nebraska last month made the former Crook County wrestler take a walk down memory lane.
“You kind of reflect back on your career when you hit a mark like that,” Berger said last week over the phone from Las Vegas, visiting his parents who moved from Oregon to Nevada two years ago. “It was cool to see how I’ve changed and the process it took to get where I am now.”
Berger was a four-time state champion in high school. After winning three titles at Hermiston (Class 5A, 2011-13), he transferred to 4A Crook County, where his uncles, Curt and Cliff, were state champions before him.
Berger joined an already loaded Cowboy wrestling room.
“He brought a different vibe to the whole deal, just the way he approached his training,” said Jake Huffman, former Crook County wrestling coach. “He was the cool guy but he was also the hardest-working guy in the room. It (Berger’s transfer) changed the culture even more. It was already starting to change but that year it changed even more.”
At the 2014 state championships, Berger was one of five Cowboys to win his weight class as Crook County scored 405.5 points to obliterate the previous all-classification state record.
“He made us better and he made a lot of the guys around him better, too,” Huffman said. “He was physical. He liked to inflict pain, in a legal way. He left no doubt. He was an awesome kid to have in our school. It was the perfect thing.”
After high school, Berger chose to wrestle at Nebraska over scholarship offers from Oregon State and Iowa State.
“I wanted to be around the best competition and I wanted a coach that had a vision for me and my career and not just my NCAA career but also when I graduate,” Berger recounted. “Coach (Mark) Manning was a trip. He had more energy than any coach I’d ever met when he walked into my door.”
Berger went to Nebraska confident, believing he would be a four-time national champion.
After a redshirt year, he won his first 10 matches, including an overtime victory over Lehigh’s Mitch Minotti, a two-time all-American.
“It was a huge win,” Berger remembered. “It got my name out there and I just expected to keep winning.”
But he finished his freshman season 24-13.
“I wasn’t used to losing so I got in this rut and I was losing close matches,” he said. “I was losing focus in matches, giving up a takedown at the end of a period, doing things that weren’t normal for me. I got introduced in a rough way. I got slapped in the face.”
Berger was also letting nerves beat him.
The worst came in his first NCAA Championships on March 17, 2016, at Madison Square Garden in New York City.
“It was the most nervous I have ever been for a competition in my entire life,” Berger recalled. “It was quite the introduction to the tournament. I walked out for my first match and I remember looking around and the crowd was loud and in your face. It was a minute into the match, I was in a scramble situation and we got out of bounds, me and the kid, and I just remember being absolutely exhausted. I just had no energy. It was just all nerves. It was terrible. It was just a crazy experience.”
Berger got to the Round of 12, where he lost by a 3-2 decision, falling well short of his goal of being a national champion. He was not even in the top eight, which would have made him an all-American.
“After going through an entire season and not being an all-American, it didn’t sit with me well,” Berger said. “I just remember going into the back of the coliseum and my head was down, I was crying. I was so mad and disappointed in myself. I could have sacrificed a little bit more. I could have worked a little bit harder. Instead I just expected I was going to do it in the end. I just remember being really, really upset.”
Berger took those feelings with him into the offseason, determined to work harder than ever before.
“I knew there was no way I was going to go through another season and feel that empty feeling at the end of it,” Berger said. “There was no way I was going to let someone take away my goal and my dream like that again. I just put in a ridiculous amount of work day in and day out, trying to force myself into being one of those top guys.”
Along with spending additional time in both the wrestling and weight rooms, Berger watched more film to better study his opponents.
“Some people like to do the extra things once or twice a week, but to me it was important to do it every day, constantly,” Berger said. “I think I finally started chipping away and getting an edge on my competition.”
Wrestling at 157 pounds, Berger finished his sophomore season with a record of 36-6, third in the Big Ten and fifth at the NCAA Championships.
His 36 wins led all Huskers starters, and Nebraska coaches voted him the team’s most improved wrestler.
“He just came into his own,” Manning said of Berger. “He got a lot more confident. You could just tell he knew he should be an all-American and he really put in the work to do it.”
Berger got a takedown in overtime to advance to the semifinals of the NCAAs.
“It was just a rush that I can’t really experience ever again because you can’t ever experience being a first-time all-American again,” he reflected. “It was a relief. It felt like all that time I had put in was finally paying off. And I just remember everyone congratulating me and hugging my coaches. It was a special moment.”
Berger’s junior season felt like a combination of his first two.
He got off to a disappointing start before finishing strong.
“I was having the worst season,” Berger said. “I was losing to guys I shouldn’t lose to and was in a lot of close matches with guys that I should be majoring (defeating by major decision). It was rough. It was probably fear that I couldn’t do it again and that I couldn’t repeat what I had done the previous year.”
Berger’s breakthrough did not come until the NCAAs, where after losing to the No. 1 seed, North Carolina State’s Hayden Hidlay, 3-2 in the quarterfinals, he won four consecutive matches to place third.
“I can’t really tell you what changed,” Berger said. “I was in a rut. I knew my ability was there. I knew it wasn’t anything to do with me physically. I knew it was something wrong with my mentality. I just stayed the course. I just kept going into the practice room and putting in the work and trusted the process.”
Now, with his sights set on winning his first conference and national championships, Berger has started his senior season 13-1, including a win over Hidlay. But unlike the freshman who thought he was destined to dominate the sport, Berger is enjoying the journey, taking it one day at a time.
“It’s exciting to look forward to the NCAA Tournament, but I think the more important thing is just focusing on training, just focusing on the next day and what you’ve got to do the day of,” Berger said. “I’ve definitely trained to be a national champion, and to be a national champion you’ve got to take care of what’s in front of you today.”
The 2019 Big Ten Championships are March 9-10 in Minneapolis, followed by the NCAA Championships March 21-23 in Pittsburgh.
As his college career comes to an end, Berger said he would not change anything, even though he has not lived up to his own lofty expectations.
“It’s been bumpy and it’s been the best experience of my life,” he said. “I definitely would not want it to happen any other way, which is weird because I haven’t even obtained the one goal (national champion) that I came here to do yet.”
While Berger has thought about life after Nebraska, which could include training for the 2019 World Championships and 2020 Olympics, and then coaching when his own wrestling days are over, he also wants to be known for being more than a wrestler.
“Ultimately, I don’t want people to just remember me as Tyler Berger the wrestler,” said Berger, who has tattoos of a cross on his chest and a Trinity knot on one of his calves. “I want them to know me as Tyler Berger, follower of Christ, Tyler Berger, a good leader, a mentor and a good friend. One day I won’t be able to wrestle anymore so I think when you start reflecting on that and see that bigger picture of what’s more important in life, that’s where God’s been working in my life the most this past couple of years.”
It is that mentality that Manning says has made Berger such a pleasure to coach.
“He’s just a great kid to be around,” Manning says. “He really fits in with the culture of Nebraska. He’s a hard worker. He’s really bought into it. His work ethic, his attitude, his intensity, all go up as the years have progressed.”
— Reporter: 541-383-0307, email@example.com