Photo by Scott Bruhn/Nebraska Communications

Berger, Huskers Connect With Local Wrestler

By Brian Rosenthal

Walk through an airport wearing a T-Shirt that indicates you’re affiliated with wrestling, and you’re bound to have some stranger strike up a conversation with you about the sport. It’s representative of a strong bond between competitors and coaches, and even wrestling fans; a special connection that’s arguably different from more mainstream sports, like football or basketball.

“The wrestling family is that – it’s a family,” Nebraska senior wrestler Tyler Berger said. “We take care of each other.”

It’s especially true at Nebraska.

That family feel is also a big reason Berger felt honored to be able to connect with 16-year-old Harley Kessler, a wrestler at North Star High School diagnosed in August with Osteosarcoma. It’s the same type of rare bone cancer that brought national awareness to Purdue student and football fan Tyler Trent.

“When I reached out to Harley,” Berger said, “I wanted him to know he has a family here, that it’s not just the Division I program, the Huskers and then the high school programs. We’re all in it together.”

Kessler had begun experiencing severe leg pain when a bone scan revealed a mass in his tibia. The cancer became so severe that in mid-December, doctors had to amputate his left leg below the knee.

When Kessler awoke from that surgery, he saw a pair of wrestling shoes. They were from Berger, who’d sent them to the hospital via the North Star coaches. Berger also wrote Kessler a letter of inspiration.

And on Sunday, Kessler’s dream of a Nebraska wrestling experience, granted through Union Bank and Trust’s Magic Moments, culminated when he served as an honorary captain during the Huskers’ dual with Northwestern.

“It’s what our sport teaches us,” Nebraska coach Mark Manning said. “Wrestling is a tough, one-on-one sport that requires a tremendous amount of discipline and commitment. We really love that Harley loves our sport.

“That’s what it’s all about. It’s about giving yourself. We wanted to give back to Harley. He loves Nebraska wrestling, and we want him to be a part of it.”

Manning first met Kessler through the initial Magic Moments ceremony at the North Star gymnasium on Dec. 10, before Kessler had his surgery. A family neighbor had nominated Kessler and his family for the Miracle Moment.

“Wrestling is his life,” said Stephanie Duley, Kessler’s mother. “You get into wrestling, and you breathe nothing but wrestling.”

Kessler said he was excited and honored to serve as an honorary captain. The Nebraska program also saluted him in this tribute video.

“It’s had a big impact,” he said. “It’s something I’ve really enjoyed and am thankful for.”

Connecting with Kessler has helped Berger remember that collegiate student athletes have a responsibility outside of a sport that doesn’t revolve around them. After all, Berger doesn’t want his entire Husker experience as a wrestler to be 100 percent about him.

He wants to reach out. He wants to help.

“It’s good to have Harley, a kid who looks up to guys like us,” Berger said. “It kind of makes us take a step back and see a bigger picture of a bigger family of Husker wrestling and Huskers athletics. To have him come, it’s a good way to humble us. We get to see how much he enjoys us and how much he enjoys wrestling.”

Berger had his own battle on Sunday. Ranked as the nation’s No. 4 wrestler at 157 pounds, he faced No. 2 ranked Ryan Deaken. Berger trailed 1-0 when he scored on a reversal 35 seconds into the third period. He then scored two takedowns in a 6-3 victory.

“I think having Harley there and just being able to talk to him before and meeting him and his family, it just kind of humbled me to a point where I was a lot more relaxed going into that match than I think I probably would have been otherwise,” Berger said.

“Seeing a kid like that, I have a lot more to learn from him than he does from me. It was a cool experience to be around a young boy who’s turning into a man – probably quicker than what he had been if this situation hadn’t come up. It’s really cool to see the joy he’s still seeking during a time where it could be very easy to turn to harsh feelings and bitterness. I didn’t catch any of that.”

Manning said he’s impressed with Kessler’s determination and courage – and his passion for wrestling.

“Not a lot of guys are going to go undefeated,” Manning said. “It’s about being able to pick yourself back up after defeat. This is just a speed bump in Harley’s life. He’s going to have a very productive life.”

Kessler’s battle continues this week. He’s hospitalized for a few days while going through chemotherapy treatments to shrink inoperable tumors in his lung. When Kessler recovers and is feeling better, Berger will be ready to meet again.

“I don’t look at him as a charity case,” Berger said. “It’s not a one-time event or me dropping off my shoes and never talking to him again. I genuinely do like him. I want to learn more about him. I want to hang out with him and do anything I can to help him during this time.”

Reach Brian at brosenthal@huskers.com or follow him on Twitter @GBRosenthal.

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