MINNEAPOLIS -- The powder blue 1953 Studebaker that sits at Joe Berger's house in Michigan -- the one he picked out and had restored at a custom auto shop in Savage, Minnesota, this spring -- could have easily been the kind of project you tinker with for years, on weekends and nights after work.
Had Berger's life worked out a little differently, he could have been a decade into a career as an engineer by now, his two years of college football experience a mere footnote to his time at a school that dropped its program. Michigan Tech -- the Upper Peninsula school of 7,000 students whose only Division I sport is men's hockey -- had decided to cancel football in the spring of 2003, and rather than transferring to another school to continue his career, Berger had decided to stay at Michigan Tech and finish his degree in mechanical engineering.
"It's one of those things -- you don't know what you didn't know," Berger said. "If I was an engineer somewhere -- happily married, kids, in a small town somewhere, just loving life -- I can't guess what it would have been like not having this, if I didn't know it was even there. I've loved playing football. It's been great. I'm glad it worked out the way it has. You sit back and think about it, it's amazing how things have laid out for a career to last 11 years."
When Michigan Tech eventually decided to keep football, it put Berger on an unlikely road to a career that's now spanned five different stints with four teams, and a five-year run with the Vikings. The team made resigning Berger one of its top priorities this spring, wanting to bring back its top backup at all three interior line spots, and after starting seven games at guard last season for the Minnesota Vikings, the 33-year-old is preparing to start his fourth game of the season at center with John Sullivan recovering from back surgery.
Berger's father was a builder, and Berger's forte is in woodworking. He knows enough about cars to replace parts, he said, but "when you start hacking away at the frame and re-weld the suspension, that's a little more than I wanted to take on," he said.
That kind of an endeavor would have to wait until Berger's journey through the NFL finally concludes.
He and his wife Abigail were in the market for a classic car last fall; they wanted something they could drive, and she liked the compatibility of an old truck with her photography hobby. They found the powder-blue truck northwest of the Twin Cities in Rogers, Minnesota, last fall. Abigail Berger won out, and the paint stayed the same color it was when they bought it.
The Bergers took the truck to Straightline Customs in Savage, and asked the shop to redo the drive train so it would travel like a modern vehicle. Work on the truck was finished this spring, and Berger had the Studebaker at the Vikings' training facility at various points during the spring and summer.
"It turned out great -- just the way I wanted it to turn out," Berger said. "It's a fun little ride."
The Studebaker is back at Berger's home in Michigan, but he was planning to bring it back to Minnesota for a once-over in a few weeks. Once the truck's finishing touches are complete, Berger doesn't plan to stash it away in a garage.
"I got it built to be a driver. That's what I kept telling them the whole time," he said. "If it's nice out, and I need to go somewhere just myself or with one other person -- hop in. With three kids, it's a little harder to find the right time to drive it. But we want to drive it; that's why we did it."
The two-year deal Berger signed in March will pay him $2.155 million through 2016, with $1.12 million of that coming this year. Surely that's enough to fund a little classic car collection, right, Joe?
"I would like to," Berger said. "They cost money. There are all things we would like in life, and you've got to balance how much you want it, how much you need it, compared to what it costs."
On second thought, that level of practicality seems about right for a guy who, but for a few twists in the road, could have been done with football a long time ago.
"I'm thankful. I feel blessed," Berger said. "I know it's not a path I could have ever seen."