ND alum, Texas native Bertrand Berry anticipates déjà vu

VINTAGE IRISH

Mike Vorel
South Bend Tribune

Charlie Strong can make a statement without ever saying a word.

Bertrand Berry has seen it. Back in 1996, Berry — a former standout outside linebacker/defensive end at Notre Dame — witnessed some of his Irish teammates teasing Strong in the team’s weight room for not being as strong as advertised.

In response, the then-Notre Dame defensive line coach smirked, calmly loaded four 45-pound weights on either side of the bar, positioned himself on the bench and got to work.

“He got under it, no warm up or nothing, and just slow pressed it,” Berry recalled this week with a laugh. “He took it down real slow, and took it back up just as slow and steady. And then he racked it and walked out.

“And we were just sitting there dumbfounded, because I couldn’t believe he could actually put 405 (pounds) on the bench and press it and then just leave.”

Under Strong’s watchful eye, Berry exploded in his senior season, racking up 10 sacks in 1996 before embarking on a productive 12-year NFL career. Berry supported his former coach from a distance throughout Strong's stints at Florida, Louisville, and currently, as the second-year head coach at Texas.

But not on Saturday night. Not against his alma mater.

“There’s a little bit of mixed emotions,” Berry said of the prime-time matchup between the 11th-ranked Irish and Texas at Notre Dame Stadium. “I want him to do well. I hope he goes 11-1, but I certainly don’t want him to win that game Saturday. I know he’s going to do a great job of rebuilding that program.

“To have two storied organizations like that going up against each other Week 1, it doesn’t get much bigger than that. That’s a good thing for college football.”

Berry doesn’t need to be told what Saturday means. The former 6-foot-3, 245-pound pass rusher is plenty familiar with both iconic programs, having grown up in Humble, Texas, (a suburb of Houston) and having been recruited by the Longhorns before eventually committing to Notre Dame.

“I was recruited there, but at the time, Texas wasn’t really what I was looking for, to say it nicely,” Berry said. “It wasn’t my type of football. I looked at it as…going to Notre Dame was the ultimate. Nothing against UT or A&M, but it was just a better opportunity for me at the time.”

It proved to be a wise decision. Berry’s Notre Dame teams went 3-0 against representatives from the Lone Star State during his four years in South Bend, defeating Texas A&M in the Cotton Bowl on New Years Day 1994 and Texas in both 1995 and 1996, the latter being the final meeting between the two teams prior to this weekend's season opener for both teams.

The game mattered to Berry then, just as it matters to Texas products such as Corey Robinson, Torii Hunter Jr., Grant Blankenship, Durham Smythe and Nick Watkins now.

“It was a big deal, because we knew that it was bragging rights,” Berry said. “If I went home and didn’t want to hear from people that went to UT, which a lot of my classmates and stuff did, you have to win that game. Being from Texas and having Texas high school football roots, it’s always a big deal.

“We prided ourselves on really getting after UT and having so many Texas guys on the team, that made it a little extra special.”

It’ll be special again this weekend, as two of the winningest teams in college football history meet under the lights inside Notre Dame Stadium, with tickets hard to come by and even more difficult to afford.

And in his weekly press conference on Monday, Strong emphasized that the significance of Saturday’s reunion isn’t lost on the opposing sideline.

“You’re looking at two storied programs with a lot of tradition — 882 wins at Notre Dame, 881 wins here at the University of Texas,” said Strong, who coached at Notre Dame as an assistant from 1995 to 1998. “You look back and at these two teams, and it’s been a while — I was on the other sideline many years ago — but just to get this game back on the schedule is really important to both programs.”

It’s still important to Berry, too, even after all these years. On Saturday night, as kickoff looms underneath the bright lights and the Golden Dome, Berry — who hosts a sports radio show in Arizona — will be alone by choice, situated in front of his television, with his wife and three children out of sight.

“I’ll be by myself. My family is very gracious in that,” Berry joked. “They know when I watch Notre Dame football games, they kind of let me do my thing.”

Of course, Berry hopes to see a pleasantly familiar case of déjà vu, as Notre Dame tramples Texas en route to a banner season. He wishes all the best for his former defensive line coach, in all of his games except for this one. But he also knows what Strong is capable of.

If the Longhorns pull the upset, their head coach will have made yet another statement without ever saying a word.

mvorel@ndinsider.com

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Twitter: @mikevorel

Humble, Texas, native Bertrand Berry, here celebrating a sack against the Longhorns in 1996, went 2-0 against Texas while at Notre Dame. (SBT File Photo)
7. Bertrand Berry (1993-96). A staple along the Irish defensive line, Berry racked up 187 tackles and 16.5 sacks in a steady four-year career at Notre Dame, including 10 sacks in the 1996 season. He went on to play 12 seasons in the NFL.