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Viking Joe Berger thankful for opportunity, family

MINNEAPOLIS -- When Joe Berger was growing up in Newaygo, Mich., he always wanted to watch the Detroit Lions' annual Thanksgiving Day game. There was one small problem. His mother didn't want the game to distract from the holiday, so it was releg...

Oct 3, 2016; Minneapolis, MN, USA; Minnesota Vikings running back Jerick McKinnon (21) celebrates with center Joe Berger (61) his touchdown against the New York Giants in the fourth quarter at U.S. Bank Stadium. The Vikings win 24-10. Mandatory Credit: Bruce Kluckhohn-USA TODAY Sports
Oct 3, 2016; Minneapolis, MN, USA; Minnesota Vikings running back Jerick McKinnon (21) celebrates with center Joe Berger (61) his touchdown against the New York Giants in the fourth quarter at U.S. Bank Stadium. The Vikings win 24-10. Mandatory Credit: Bruce Kluckhohn-USA TODAY Sports

MINNEAPOLIS - When Joe Berger was growing up in Newaygo, Mich., he always wanted to watch the Detroit Lions' annual Thanksgiving Day game.

There was one small problem. His mother didn't want the game to distract from the holiday, so it was relegated to a small set in the corner, and had to be turned off when it was time to eat.

There will be no such issues for Berger on Thursday. The 12-year veteran will start at center for the Vikings in his first Thanksgiving game in Detroit.

"It's going to be cool," Berger said. "It's going to be interesting to go there and see what the Thanksgiving game is all about."

It's seems appropriate for Berger, 34, who can't help but reflect on his good fortune this week. The kid from Newaygo (population 2,000) was a walk-on at Division II Michigan Tech who was cut by NFL teams four times before finding a home with Minnesota in 2011.

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Now Berger and his wife, Abby, will be celebrating the holiday with a new daughter after the recent adoption of Macy, now sixth months old. She joins brothers Blake, 6, and Gavin, 9, and sister Ella, 4.

"I'm very grateful and thankful," Berger said.

The family appears in a public-service announcement recognizing last Saturday's National Adoption Day. It ran on the Internet and on television, including during Minnesota's 30-24 victory over Arizona on Sunday.

"Adoption is something that has impacted our lives," Berger said. "My wife's dad grew up in an orphanage in Ireland, so it's always been important to her and to me. We've decided to grow our family in a way that has been great, and we would like to encourage other people if they are interested at all to look into it."

Abby Berger's father, Joe Murray, died in 2013. Berger said he was "super excited" when the couple adopted Blake, just as he was when when Gavin and Ella were born.

"(Murray) grew up in orphanage and aged out of it, and when (Abby) was growing up, she was always saying, 'Dad, I would have adopted you,'" Berger said. "Looking at her dad, she wondered why a family didn't adopt him. It was important to her. It is important to these kids to have a good home. They need a good chance at a good start in life."

Berger calls adoption a "blessing" in his life. He uses the same word to describe his career.

Berger enrolled at Michigan Tech to become an engineer, and only decided to walk onto the football team because his father suggested it might be nice to have an extracurricular activity. When the school briefly dropped football, he planned to stay and finish his degree.

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The 6-foot-5 Berger was 210 pounds as a freshman. By the time he was a senior, he added 80 pounds and ultimately was selected by Carolina in the sixth round of the 2005 NFL Draft.

After being waived by the Panthers, Berger had two stints with Miami and played with Dallas before joining the Vikings. That Berger has lasted more than a decade in the NFL, his college coach, Bernie Anderson, said is "almost one-in-a-million odds."

"There are so many people that have helped this career happen," Berger said. "Words can't express how grateful I am for that. There are the Michigan Tech coaches that gave me the opportunities, the opportunities I've been given in the NFL and (Vikings general manager) Rick (Spielman) giving me a shot after getting cut by the Dolphins."

The versatile Berger was a bit player during his first three seasons in Minnesota, but because of injuries, he started nine games at guard in 2014 and all 16 last season at center. This summer, he beat out nine-year veteran center John Sullivan in camp.

"He's a very calm individual," said Vikings tackle Jeremiah Sirles. "He's definitely a thermostat, not a thermometer. He's not up and down. Some guys joke on the sideline that he's too calm, but that's just how he is all the time."

Berger was rated the NFL's No. 2 center last year by Pro Football Focus and is No. 6 this season.

"You don't hear his name a lot, but he does a fantastic job for us," said guard Alex Boone. "I think he's very, very underappreciated."

When the Vikings acquired Sam Bradford from Philadelphia on Sept. 3, the quarterback said Berger played a key role in getting him quickly up to speed. "He's a really smart guy," Bradford said. "He's really helped me with protections."

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"Knock on wood," Bradford said, "we've had consistency with him at center."

Berger is the only player on the team to have played every snap this season, the outlier on a battered offensive line. Injuries have ended the seasons of tackles Matt Kalil, Andre Smith and Jake Long. Boone missed a game and more than half of another, and guard Brandon Fusco sat out nearly an entire game.

"I have lists of people after games telling me that they were praying for me during the game, so maybe that helps," Berger joked. "It definitely can't hurt."

Some of those who have prayed for Berger will be at Thursday's game. Even his mother, who "struggled a little bit" with the decision because she enjoys Thanksgiving so much, will be making the three-hour drive from Newaygo along with family members.

Aug 1, 2016; Mankato, MN, USA; Minnesota Vikings center Joe Berger (61) walks to the afternoon session of training camp at Minnesota State University. Mandatory Credit: Bruce Kluckhohn-USA TODAY Sports
Aug 1, 2016; Mankato, MN, USA; Minnesota Vikings center Joe Berger (61) walks to the afternoon session of training camp at Minnesota State University. Mandatory Credit: Bruce Kluckhohn-USA TODAY Sports

Related Topics: MINNESOTA VIKINGSFOOTBALL
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