Berger With Bittersweet Ending to NU Career
Nearly three weeks have slowly passed since Tyler Berger suffered what he labels his most crushing defeat, and he still hasn’t fully come to terms with how his illustrious Nebraska wrestling career came to a quiet close.
Maybe, someday, that time will come.
Or maybe it never will.
Those who know Berger can feel his passion and appreciate his will to win. They understand his heartache, and why, until now, Berger has not publicly talked about his loss in the finals of the NCAA Championships to his bitter rival, or the events leading up to that match, and how he’s dealt with both.
But through it all, he’s learned lessons he’ll remember forever.
“It still stings, for sure,” Berger said. “It’s the biggest loss of my entire career. I think the reason it hurt so bad is because I’ve never pictured anything so clearly. I saw it vividly in my mind that I was going to be a national champion. There was no doubt.”
Berger had a similar vision as a redshirted freshman, when he attended Nebraska’s annual Night at the Lied ceremony to celebrate the successes of Nebraska's best and brightest student-athletes. He learned then about the award for Nebraska’s Male Athlete of the Year, and knew immediately he badly wanted to win it.
“I knew where I was at, and how much sacrifice and time it was going to take to get there," Berger said, “because I knew I wasn’t there yet.”
A three-time All-American with 116 career victories, Berger indeed claimed that award during Sunday’s ceremony.
“It was a surreal feeling to finally stand up and to be the athlete of the year at the University of Nebraska,” Berger said. “It was a cool, cool experience.”
And yes, a little bittersweet, knowing what could have been – what should have been.
A national title.
“It was like 18 to 20 years of my life,” Berger said, “going after something that I thought I could do on my own and … it was crushing.”
Day-in and day-out, Berger visualized it. He repeated it in his head.
National champion. National champion. National champion.
Even when he lost to Penn State’s Jason Nolf during the regular season, and again at the Big Ten Championships, it didn’t faze Berger. Neither did his collegiate career record of 0-4 against Nolf, the nation’s top-ranked wrestler at 157 pounds.
Berger was No. 2.
“Defeat isn’t going to put me down. My confidence stays high,” Berger said. “I just went back to the game plan and I changed things.”
Of course, by the time the Berger and Nolf had met in the Big Ten Championships, Berger had been the target of several weeks’ worth of social media backlash from some in the wrestling community, most of them with Penn State allegiances.
On January 25, Berger announced via Twitter he’d be disappearing from social media “for the next 57 days,” or until the NCAA Championships. He said it’d be a time to prepare his mind and body.
Oh, and one other thing. In so many words, he predicted he’d win his five matches at the NCAA Championships, including his final one against Nolf.
He’s not sorry he did it.
“Because I wanted kids to see, ‘Hey, look, if you want to do something great, you’re going to have to do something that other people think is impossible,’ ” Berger said. “When you do that, people are absolutely going to criticize you. They don’t want to see people go outside the boundary. They want people to stay in this nice little bubble of mediocrity.”
Berger, if nothing else, is consistent with that belief. Go back to his college recruitment, when the Prineville, Oregon, native was deciding between Nebraska and Oregon State. He battled the lure of staying home and being comfortable. That would be easy.
“It was a scary decision to come to Nebraska,” he said, “but it made so much more sense.”
So he took the scary route. If Berger was going to be successful – in life, in wrestling – he knew he needed to leave home, do something outside his comfort zone. Something scary.
“Best decision of my life,” Berger said.
So for Berger to go outside the box with some outlandish declaration on social media wasn’t unlike him. He knew there’d be criticism. He wears thick skin.
Still, he was irritated.
“The reason it irritated me,” Berger said, “is because it’s people who were mediocre, content, average that criticized me for standing out and wanting to do the impossible, to go after the giant.”
They wanted him to fail.
“It really amazed me.”
But something funny happened after Berger’s 12-4 loss to Nolf in the finals of the NCAA Championships.
In a post-match interview on ESPN, Nolf, with his third national title in hand, expressed his respect for Berger, and his hunger to win.
“Everybody gives him a lot of crap for talking on social media and all of that stuff,” Nolf said, “but he just wants to win. I love that about him, I love him. He’s just passionate, and I don’t think you can be mad at someone for being passionate about what they do.”
Berger said he’s never watched the interview, but has heard about it.
“If I’m being honest,” he said, “I probably wouldn’t have done the same thing.”
And for that, Berger has deep respect for the man he could never defeat. Berger and Nolf wrestled each other at the Pittsburgh Wrestling Classic to close their high school careers, and four years later, closed their collegiate careers in the same state, and same city.
“There are no hard feelings at all. We came into college together, and we ended it together,” Berger said.
“We have a high level of success, and there’s a certain level of respect that happens between guys. We both knew what it took to get to where we’re at. There’s never ever going to be any hard feelings. I’m always going to respect the guy.”
Berger graduates in May with a degree in psychology. He’s exploring options to coach and train, and says staying on at Nebraska is a possibility.
“It’s being content and seeing how I can use a platform that God has blessed me with and how can I use that to give back to others,” Berger said, “how can I use the platform of leadership to serve the people around me to have a positive effect on the community, on the country, on the sport of wrestling.”
He won’t rule out competing again someday, but for now, he’s going to take some time away to rest, to reflect, to recharge. Following the most difficult defeat in his life, his heart isn’t into competing, and no way will Berger do anything halfway, especially the sport he loves and respects.
“I’m the type of guy that if I’m going to come back,” Berger said, “I’m going to come back to win.”
Reach Brian at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @GBRosenthal.