Notre Dame Football Recruiting

Friendship, Football Bind Drew Pyne & Ryan Berg

November 8, 2019

One minute you’re watching the Cleveland Cavaliers stave off elimination in Game 5 of the 2016 NBA Finals, which they’d ultimately go on to win, and the next, you’re told you need to rush your child to the hospital.

“That’s how suddenly your life changes,” says Ian Berg.

Berg’s five-year-old son, Ryan, had been experiencing a tremendous amount of pain and it wasn’t clear why. After a trip to an urgent care, the Bergs were informed they needed to get Ryan to the Rady Children’s Hospital in San Diego right away.

After multiple hours in the emergency room, the Bergs were told Ryan needed to be admitted to the hospital right then and there.

“I was like, ‘Immediately?’” Ian Berg recalls. “They said, ‘Yes. Right now.’”

Eventually a doctor pulled Ian into the hallway to ask him what he knew.

“My answer was, ‘Well, I know where I’m standing,’” he remembers. “‘I’m standing on the hallway where they treat blood disorders and blood cancers.’ I knew the ballpark, but I didn’t know the specific diagnosis.”

He was told his son had Acute Lymphocytic Leukemia, a cancer of the bone marrow and blood.

Fear, shock and devastation are just some of the emotions many would expect a parent to feel.

“I don’t think we’re an isolated case based on who I’ve spoken with – but you don’t necessarily go through those emotions in that moment,” Ian says. “The only thing you’re thinking about is, ‘What’s next?’”

He likens it to a first-time parent bringing a baby home from the hospital.

“The first time you get thrown up on or whatever it is, you just say, ‘OK, I guess this is my life now. I’m just going to clean it up and move forward,’” Ian explains.

Still, even parents have difficulty wrapping their heads around being in the position he found himself.

“You’re overwhelmed with the sympathy you’re receiving from others,” he says. “Sometimes it’s pity and sometimes it’s just warm support and it feels awkward because your only focus is, ‘What’s next? What’s the obstacle in front of me and what do I have to do for my child?’”

What was next for the Bergs was a multiple-week hospital stay followed by a long-term regimented treatment plan.

“In the beginning, it’s just treatments every day,” Ian says. “Then, there’s a strict schedule of nine months of intense chemotherapy. You’re taking pills, you’re getting pushes through a medical port, you’re getting shots in your spine.”

After nine months, Ryan was in the maintenance phase, which is the longest stage of the 38-month process and includes daily chemotherapy pills, monthly trips back to the hospital for more powerful medicine through the port and shots in the spine every few months.

“People say, ‘Are you in remission?’” Ian says. “Well, technically you are, but it doesn’t feel like that because you’re still going through treatment every day.

“But at the same time, life goes on.”

As much as Ian needed to figure out everything he could do to help Ryan, he also needed to find out what he had to do to ensure his daughter Casey, who is three years older than Ryan, had as normal a life as possible.

“There are two different philosophies,” says Ian. “One is to say, ‘I have a sick child and I need to do everything I can to protect that child from anything more harmful.’ The other perspective is to say, ‘Yes, I have a sick child, but life goes on and I’m going to make sure we live it.’”

The philosophy the Bergs chose was for every bad day, they’d try to create two good days.

“So every time Casey was unable to do something because we were caring for her brother or dealing with a dire situation, we’d say, ‘OK, you missed one. Now, let’s go get you two,’” Ian explains.

“Ordinarily we wouldn’t let you stay up an hour later to go see a movie on a school night, well, we’re going to do it. Or, we don’t really feel like driving to an amusement park this weekend, but you know what, we’re going to do it.

“We’re going to make sure we give you two good days for every one that was least two.”

Amusement parks provided more than just a temporary source of refuge. Ryan and Casey both have “a little daredevil in them,” according to their father, wanting to ride the biggest rollercoaster as soon as they reach the required height.

“They just love the thrill,” he says. “I say my daughter is not afraid of them and for the most part, she’s not. The joy with Ryan is that I know that he is at least a little bit afraid, but he really believes in finding the courage in that short burst of courage.”

The family likes to quote Matt Damon’s character in the movie ‘We Bought A Zoo,’ who says, “Sometimes all you need is 20 seconds of insane courage, just literally 20 seconds of embarrassing bravery, and I promise you something great will come of it.”

“That’s been Ryan’s mantra throughout this,” says Ian. “When he doesn’t want to get his port accessed, when he doesn’t want to get poked – he refers to needles as ‘pokes’ – when he doesn’t want to take the medicine because he knows it’s going to feel bad or he’s going to throw up in the car on the way home or on the way to school, it’s just finding that little bit of courage to get over that moment.

“If you view life in those small windows, you can do anything.”

Within months, Ryan was able to begin kindergarten with the rest of his class.

“It was great,” says Ian. “But at the same time, by no means was he out of the woods. He’s starting kindergarten with a bald head, overweight from the steroids and just trying to get through the day.”

Ryan doesn’t remember much from before the diagnosis.

“There might be a moment here and there, but as far as he knows, that was just his life,” his father says. “He had some tough days and there were days he just didn’t want to go to treatment.

“We were very honest with him, we didn’t sugarcoat anything.”

They explained the trips back to the hospital were not a choice and bluntly told him exactly what was at stake. 

“That if he didn’t go get treatment, he might not be here,” says Ian.

“That became real as we recognized children who were no longer with us.”

In addition to chasing two good days for every bad one, the family turned to sports as another avenue of inspiration.

Ryan refused to let the medical port in his chest stop him from going out for his local flag football team less than a year into his treatment.

“Because that’s life…and he wanted to play,” his father explains. “He didn’t want to sit on the sidelines and watch because something bad happened to him.”

They talk about “winning the day.”

“Every day he made it through his treatment and every day he felt lousy was a chance to win the day,” his father adds. “That’s where you start to see this very obvious connection between sports and treatment.”

There are plenty of fans who show up for the big events or when things are going well, but few get to see what the journey was really like to get to that point.

“They don’t see the hard-work days in between,” Ian says. “They don’t see you trying to get that extra rep in in the weight room. They don’t see you trying to make a pass for an hour or trying to get it down when you just can’t make the throw.”

They don’t see the grind.

“Every time Ryan talks with athletes, they share that bond over the grind,” says Ian. “Anytime athletes come across kids who are fighting this battle, they can talk in a common language.”

Last year, Ryan had a chance to speak that language when he attended the Jessie Rees Foundation Gala.

The Jessie Rees Foundation was founded in memory of Jessie Rees, a 12-year-old girl who bravely fought a pair of brain tumors for 10 months before passing away in January of 2012. During her fight, Jessie focused on helping other kids who were in their own battles and eventually led to the Never Ever Give Up (aka NEGU) motto.

In addition to being an Elite 11 Quarterbacks coach, Jordan Palmer is a member of the Jessie Rees board and helps deliver the message of purpose and intention to many of the players he mentors along with Cory Tomlinson, who is the Manager of Program and Sports Engagements for the foundation.

“I don’t want to sell the message short because me explaining it to you won’t do it justice,” Ian acknowledges. “But they say, ‘You’re in this life and you have this platform. Why are you here and what do you want to do with it?’

“The athletes come to understand that it’s a gift. For every bad day they feel when the spotlight is on them and they might not want it to be, they have this incredible platform.”

Ian can see it in the athletes’ eyes whenever they meet a kid going through something that “they just get it.”

Ryan attended the 7th Annual Jessie Rees Foundation Gala on St. Patrick’s Day 2018 and struck up a conversation with former USC assistant and current Pac-12 Network analyst Yogi Roth and Sam Darnold, who would be the #3 pick in the NFL Draft a month later.

Darnold was expressing his disappointment with the fact that one of his Final Four picks, Virginia, had become the first #1 seed to be beaten by a #16 in the first round of the NCAA Tournament the night before.

“Ryan and Sam and Yogi had a conversation about how good you have to be to be the biggest upset of all-time,” says Ian. “Virginia had to be incredibly great for it to be the biggest upset of all-time.”

Ryan didn’t leave the table the rest of the night.

Roth eventually invited Ryan and his family up to the Elite 11 Finals in Rendondo Beach, Calif., where they would be trimming a field of 24 of the best high school quarterbacks in the country to 12. The Bergs have been connected with Palmer, Roth, Elite 11 President Brian Stumpf and Elite 11 Director of Scouting Joey Roberts ever since and have had chances to reconnect with Darnold as well.

They traveled to different Elite 11 regionals this past spring, including the one in New Jersey, where they first met Drew Pyne‍. A true friendship would develop between the two when both Ryan and the future Notre Dame quarterback were invited to The Opening Finals down in Dallas this past summer.

“That’s where they had the opportunity to really talk and get to know each other,” says Ian. “It was an instant connection between the two of them. They were all great kids who were there. Every one of them was warm and it seemed like Ryan had a personal connection with most of them, but I have to say, for some reason, Ryan and Drew just seemed to connect.”

Ian believes the two share a “tremendous” amount of emotional intelligence and empathy.

“I noticed in Dallas that it seemed whenever somebody might not be having the best day, they ended up near Drew,” Ian says of the other elite quarterbacks in Texas. “Whether Drew sought them out to comfort him or they sought a safe place in Drew, I think he showed tremendous empathy and support for his competition while he was there.”

Ryan and Drew stayed in touch via Instagram in the months that followed.

“Ryan genuinely and authentically pays attention to what his friends do and he does consider Drew a friend,” says Ian. “He doesn’t see Drew as a star athlete or future athlete or the fact that he’s going to play for Notre Dame. The significance of that doesn’t really weigh in on Ryan. He just sees a friend who is working hard and playing great.”

In August, as Drew was preparing for his final season of high school football, Ryan was getting ready for his own season in Pennsylvania, where he moved with his family last year. His medical port was removed that month and within days of being cleared, he was in a helmet and pads for the first time in his life ready to play tackle football.

Like Drew, Darnold and some of his other favorite players, Ryan is a quarterback.

According to his father, he takes pride in being the field general, making sure his teammates know where they’re supposed to be and where they’re supposed to go.

“There are other kids with more talent, speed and power, but Ryan really seems to understand the game and the purpose of being a team and being ready to play, getting everyone set,” says Ian.

“There are times when there are other kids who are better-suited to play because of their size, skill and experience and Ryan takes the backseat and does what he can to help.”

Throughout his own season, Ryan tracked the progress of Drew’s New Canaan High School squad during the fall.

“When Drew was winning, Ryan was happy, but when Drew lost a game, that’s when Ryan really wanted to reach out and check in and see how his friend was doing,” says Ian.

Ryan was eager to make the two-and-a-half-hour drive up to New Canaan from Pennsylvania to catch a game, but scheduling issues prevented it from happening early in the season.

But on Oct. 19th, Ryan made it to New Canaan’s home game against Warde, a 28-7 Rams win. When he was embraced by the team and invited back for the team’s next home game, there was no way he was going to miss it.

So, last week, he returned to Connecticut to support Drew and his teammates. Pyne threw for five touchdowns and ran for a sixth in a 42-0 win with Ryan on the sidelines.

Ian Berg says New Canaan head coach Lou Marinelli was “incredible” during both visits.

“He treated Ryan like a player on the team,” he says of Marinelli. “He got him a jersey right away, put him in a team meeting. They did the walkthrough before the game, went out onto the field to do the warmups, Ryan participated in the warmups. Went back in for the pregame speech and led them out onto the field, just as if he was a true member of the team and a true captain.

“I credit Coach for his openness and willingness to let him do that, but I also know if he tried to tell Drew no, he would have had a fight on his hands. I don’t think Drew was going to let that happen and I don’t think the Pyne family was going to let that happen. They’ve been absolutely incredible, amazing hosts, treated us like we’ve known them for years.”

The trips certainly qualified as two days good enough to wipe out a bad one.

“People say, ‘Oh, you drove two and a half hours to go a football game in Connecticut,’” says Ian. “‘Yeah, that’s exactly right and it was worth it. If we were only there an hour, it was still worth it.’ He was there for a few hours.

“It’s worth it to me because that’s the joy that makes up for the day you’re spending three hours, four hours, five hours in a waiting room.”

Ian does his best to stay in the background and is rarely within 50 feet of his son during such experiences, but can’t help but be touched by the gestures.

“It’s truly overwhelming and humbling for me,” he says. “Again, I try to divorce myself from emotions because I don’t want any of it to be about me.”

He’s never pushed Ryan to do something because it would be a “cool experience” or “something he’d appreciate” down the road.

“I want him to do what he feels comfortable doing and only what he feels comfortable doing,” he says.

Often, coaches will ask if Ryan can go here or there, on the field or in the locker room and Ian’s response is always the same.

“I say, ‘You’re just going to have to ask him,’” he says. “I try to follow Ryan’s lead and I’m happy to be there.

“It’s so incredible for me to see a picture of him with a smile that I haven’t seen before. It obviously melts my heart as a father, but I try to take the same workmanlike approach that this is just something I do to enhance his time. It’s about him in those moments, truly.”

Pyne found a way to make his own moment about Ryan as well.

Before last week’s game, the 2020 Notre Dame commit was presented with his Under Armour All-American jersey and chose to share that spotlight with Ryan.

“I could not believe that he did that,” Ian says. “Drew is a true influencer. I’m humbled that Drew included Ryan in that well-earned spotlight, the spotlight that he worked for years to achieve. He included my son and that is humbling. It’s humbling because of the authenticity of Drew’s feelings.”

But even more than what it meant to his son, Ian was struck by what Pyne’s decision should mean for others.

“Drew’s actions are a model for other athletes,” he says. “He’s basically giving other athletes permission to be unselfish and inclusive and to have a purpose and a platform.

“You can take the picture and enjoy your own spotlight of your accomplishment that you earned or you can say, ‘Here’s an opportunity for me to do something more.’ It’s not just one child who gets the benefit of that, it’s all of the other athletes who see the model and all of the other children who think, ‘I can do more also.’ It’s one thing to envy the star quarterback, it’s another thing to envy others who are fighting everyday life. I’m just so grateful for Drew’s emotional intelligence and authenticity.”

Ryan’s current health outlook is very positive.

“He’s clear now,” his father says. “We still do well checks to make sure it’s not coming back. There’s no guarantee that it won’t come back. All you can do is check. After having completed three years of treatment, it looks like we’re in good shape. I don’t think they ever say, ‘You’re finished.’ But he’s completed active treatment and he’s great.”

Ian says he’s envious of some of the qualities his son has displayed over the past few years.

“I was just incredibly impressed with his courage and his wherewithal to be able to keep it in perspective to understand he has to do things other kids don’t, but he also has luxuries in life that other kids don’t. I think that’s part of his emotional intelligence. He’s had a mostly good life. If you ask him, he’ll say, ‘I had a great three years’ not withstanding all of the bad things.”

The strength of the friendship may best be understood through the prism of the Notre Dame-Michigan rivalry.

Like his father, Ryan grew up a fan of the Wolverines.

“I told Drew that I’m frustrated because now Notre Dame is a part of my life that I can’t let go,” Ian laughs.

Michigan has hosted Ryan for a game and “has been great,” according to his father, but Ryan has taken “a more generous approach” to accepting the Irish as a now-former foe.

Drew has already invited Ryan to see him in South Bend sometime after he enrolls early next year and while Notre Dame and Michigan aren’t scheduled to play during Drew’s stint in South Bend, if they do, Ryan has already made it clear where his loyalties will lie.

“He said, if it ever comes that Notre Dame has to play Michigan whether it’s a Playoff or whatever it is, he’s going to be rooting for Drew.”

He won't be rooting for the quarterback.

He'll be rooting for his friend.

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Friendship, Football Bind Drew Pyne & Ryan Berg

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