The first thing you notice about Blaine Berger - well, maybe the second thing, right after the Marine hairdo; well, maybe the third thing, right after the 'do AND the sheer mass of this man - is the tattoo. It was a birthday present from former teammate Dave Chaytors. Berger considered several choices before he had a fierce-looking samarai skull emblazoned on his very large right bicep.

"That's my mind set," says Berger, explaining his choice. "The warrior type, you know. For the D-line and the O-line, that's what it's all about. Being a warrior for 60 minutes."Just in case the tattoo fails to do the trick, Berger, a senior defensive tackle for the University of Utah football team, finds other ways to turn himself into Saturday's warrior. Before games he likes to listen to heavy metal music and watch any of a number of action movies, namely Last of the Mohicans (very warrior-like), Young Guns, Unforgiven, and anything with Arnold Schwarzenegger in it, all of which he has seen dozens of times. If a movie doesn't have violence in it, it gets a N.G. rating - no good.

"I like to watch violent movies," he says. "It puts me in the right frame of mind. Anyone who plays football likes Schwarzenegger. He has control of the situation. He comes out a winner in the end. And he has size and power."

Berger himself is a Schwarzenegger-like 6-foot-41/2, 280 pounds, and like the movie star he has been lifting weights forever. But not even Schwarzenegger can claim to have dislocated a man's shoulder with his bare hands, in real life.

Berger hopes to play the role of terminator on Thursday night, when Utah meets Southern Cal in the Freedom Bowl. He will be a key figure against the big, physical Trojans. "They'll be the toughest line I've faced since I've been here," says Berger. "It will definitely be a physical game up front."

For Berger, there is a lot riding on outcome of the bowl, including his next tattoo. "I've got to get me another one," he says. "What kind I get depends on how the bowl comes out."

From his tattoo and brawn to his taste in music and movies, Berger, for better or worse, is nothing if not a football player. "His whole life centers around football," says Utah coach Ron McBride. "That's his first and only love."

None of which escapes Berger, who wonders now more than ever what life would be without it, especially since the Freedom Bowl will mark the end of his collegiate career. He's done almost nothing else but play and train for football the past decade.

Growing up in Idaho Falls, Berger began lifting weights when he was 15 years old. "I wanted to be big," he recalls. "All the tough guys were huge. And I wanted to play football." Berger, an only child who was raised by his divorced mother, stayed after school daily to lift weights with his pals. On the rare days when he didn't feel like lifting and went straight home after school, his mother was waiting for him. "Did you lift?" she asked, and then she sent him back to school to complete his routine.

"My mom never let me miss a day of weight lifting," he recalls. "She pushed me to excel."

Berger grew from 160 pounds as a sophomore to 215 as a senior. He arrived at the University of Utah weighing 220 pounds. By the end of his freshman year he was 250. He gained 10 pounds annually for three years, settling 280 pounds on his 6-foot-4 1/2-inch frame. His strength grew even more rapidly. His squat improved from 350 pounds to 625; his bench press from 280 to 460.

"I call the weight room my office," he says. "When I come here, it's time to go to work . . . I'll bet I've spent a quarter of my life in the weight room and on the football field. I can't imagine not lifting. What would I do with those 2 1/2 hours every day?"

Berger didn't leave his intensity in the weight room. In one season alone he put two players in the hospital - and they were his own teammates. One of them was center Lance Scott, who had his shoulder dislocated when Berger gave it a yank during a pass rush. "He gave me an arm rip (a defensive line technique)," says Scott. "It dislocated my shoulder right out the side. He's a strong guy."

"(Berger) goes ballistic once in a while in practice," says McBride. "We have to take him aside and get in his face."

As you might imagine, Berger didn't always leave his football mentality on the field, but McBride says, "He's learned to do that, to control his temper, to find another personality. It hasn't been a problem since I've been here. He's had a few scrapes, but nothing big."

Berger became a starter in the first game of his sophomore season, and he's been there ever since. Last season he was Utah's second leading tackler with 85 tackles - an oddity for a defensive tackle - and earned honorable mention all-conference honors. This year he sprained an ankle in a physical education class shortly before fall training camp began. After sitting out training camp and the season opener against Arizona State, he returned to action, but it wasn't until late in the season that he regained the form of his junior year. Against San Diego State he had 7 tackles and 1 sack. Against BYU he had 5 tackles and 2 sacks.

Now Berger's career is winding down, and his future is uncertain. After all, there is a limited market for defensive tackles in the world. He would miss the game, the intensity, the work, the places it has taken him, the camaraderie, everything about it.

"This is what I do best," says Berger. "Football has taken over my whole life. I'm an only child. My teammates have always been my family. Winter is boring because I'm not around them. I'm from a little town in Idaho, and I've made friends with guys from Louisiana and The Bronx and L.A. and Canada.

View Comments

"It's taken a while for my girlfriend to understand what this game means to me. After practice I don't want to go to a movie or to dinner. I want to rest to be ready for the next day's practice. I don't want anything to take away from football. It's like a religion to me."

Berger is scheduled to graduate in June with a degree in sociology and one day hopes to work for the Drug Enforcement Agency. But can it replace football? What will he do if he can't play the game? "That's a good question," says McBride. "Hopefully, he can play somewhere else. He can if he continues to get better."

"I don't know," says Berger. "I want to be involved in football somehow, but I can't stand just to watch because I want to be out there on the field."

That's where Berger will be come Thursday night. Berger coaxes the warrior inside him, the heavy metal thumping, Arnold barking ("I'll be back"), the intensity building for the next battle. "Football is controlled violence," he says, and that suits him just fine.

Join the Conversation
Looking for comments?
Find comments in their new home! Click the buttons at the top or within the article to view them — or use the button below for quick access.