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University of Montana freshman Matt Berg starts most days at 6:30 a.m. for the football team's weightlifting session. His nights end with a mandatory "Study Table" that wraps up nearly 15 hours later, around 9 p.m. In between, Berg hustles from a full course load of classes to film sessions and position meetings with his coaches to practice on the field. Somewhere in there, he eats. "At the end of the day, I pretty much crash," says the former high school quarterback and All-State kicker.
Berg's schedule is typical for a UM football player, but Berg's situation isn't. While most of his teammates compete with the reward of a full academic scholarship, Berg pays his own way through school and essentially volunteers to take part in the team's rigorous regimen of training, meeting, studying and competing.
There's virtually no chance Berg will play in a game this year—in fact, he watches the games from the stands—and there's no guarantee he'll ever see real action on the field. Berg is what's known as a walk-on.
"I just want to play football," he says. "I grew up watching the Griz and going to a few games here in the stadium. The support from the community and the students, that atmosphere, is something I wanted to be a part of. I wanted to be a part of a great team."
The opportunity also puts Berg in position to add to a growing legacy in the Griz football program. In recent years, two players who started their UM careers as undersized, undervalued, bottom-of-the-roster tackling dummies vaulted not just to full scholarships, but to the holy grail of any aspiring ballplayer—a spot in the National Football League.
Marc Mariani was a scrawny wide receiver from Havre when he walked on with the Griz in 2006. He didn't earn a scholarship until his junior season, but ended his career as the most prolific receiver and all-purpose player in Montana history. He's now an All-Pro kick returner for the Tennessee Titans.
Colt Anderson walked on for the Griz in 2004 and, during his first two years on campus, only saw action in five games. Under the guidance of position coach Tim Hauck, a former UM walk-on who eventually played professionally for the Philadelphia Eagles, Anderson became one of the university's all-time leading tacklers—and biggest hitters. He now plays for Hauck's old team, the Eagles.
Berg knows all too well about UM's history with walk-ons, especially Anderson's. "I'm from Butte, and that's where Colt Anderson is from, so I hear about it," he says when asked about his chances of following a similarly long-shot path. "It's hard not to think about it a little bit. But I try not to think about it too much. I need to focus on just getting better every day."
Berg starred for the Butte Bulldogs as both a quarterback and a kicker, rewriting his high school's record books. He started for three years at quarterback, and, as a senior, averaged 250 passing yards per game and threw for 30 touchdowns. As a kicker, he earned All-State honors both his junior and senior year, and once successfully booted an attempt from 50 yards. Despite his accomplishments, Berg had one major strike against him as he pursued a college career: He's listed as 5 feet 9 inches, which is criminally short for a quarterback. He received just one offer from an NAIA school, and it was without a scholarship. He also received a personal visit from UM head coach Robin Pflugrad and recruiting coordinator Mick Delaney.
"They came to Butte and told me they'd give me a shot," recalls Berg, "and that's all I wanted."
Berg, however, quickly realized that his best shot was to focus exclusively on kicking. While not as glamorous or complex as playing quarterback, the position still requires a ton of adjustment at the next level. For one, college kickers aren't allowed to use tees; they must kick off the ground. The speed of the game is also jarringly fast, and the players rushing to block Berg's kicks are a little bigger than the AA division high schoolers he faced last year. So while Berg tries to keep his head as he juggles college life for the first time, he's also trying to keep pace on the field. "It can be a lot," says the business and accounting major, who just turned 19. "I think for any freshman, adjusting to the skill, speed and size of the other players is the hardest part. That's just part of it, though. You adjust."
Berg currently sits as one of two kickers backing up senior Brody McKnight, arguably UM's best player and an All-America candidate. Berg says he's learning a lot from McKnight about the finer points of the position, and puts his current kicking range at 45 yards. With McKnight's eligibility up at the end of the year, there could be a chance for Berg next season. But the freshman walk-on knows better than to project too far into the future:
"I keep it simple: Work hard and show your teammates and coaches you're there to get better. That's my biggest responsibility right now. I can't worry about the other stuff."