This wasn’t what he had in mind.
Back home in Magee, Miss., for the summer, Mike Berry was working. That part was good. But the work wasn’t easy. It wasn’t fun. It sure wasn’t football.
To play football again, Mike Berry had to wait.
A tall, fast, strapping wide receiver who’d just finished two years at Copiah-Lincoln Community College, Berry didn’t get his associate’s degree until May - and of course, when the big-boy football programs recruit junior-college kids, they usually want them on campus in time for spring practice.
Besides, Berry’s stats were nice, but not spectacular. He fell through the cracks.
So there he was, the best 6-foot-2, 215-pound leaf-raker in town. Berry was working for a tree-removal company until it was time to leave for training camp at Southern University.
He couldn’t wait.
“I tried to work out over the summer, running and all. But it’s hard when you don’t have somebody to motivate you,” Berry said. “So when I first came here, I was rusty. I know I was. I was out of shape. But I slowly got back into it.”
That he did.
Forced to switch from outside receiver to de facto tight end, Berry has blossomed into the kind of big-play threat everyone covets. At 6 p.m. Saturday at Delmar Stadium in Houston, he and the Jaguars (3-5, 3-3 Southwestern Athletic Conference) will try to start the first winning streak of the Stump Mitchell era when they face a deceptively tough team in Texas Southern (3-5, 1-5).
Berry ranks second on the team with 27 receptions for 347 yards and five touchdowns. This week, with leading receiver LaQuinton Evans serving a one-game suspension (he was involved in the Oct. 15 postgame fight at Arkansas-Pine Bluff), Berry might be more important than usual.
“We have allowed him to play some outside receiver, but mostly, he’ll be inside, playing some tight end,” Mitchell said. “We had him block a few plays because we need him to be able to do that - and also, of course, run some routes from that position.”
A pretty diverse role.
Not bad for a guy who was raking leaves a few months ago.
A native of Magee, a small town off U.S. 49 between Jackson and Hattiesburg, Berry was always a good-looking athlete, a youngster who played football and basketball and ran track.
Programs like Ole Miss and Southern Miss sniffed around, wrote letters, things like that. But Berry had a problem.
“I didn’t have but a 16 on my ACT, and my GPA wasn’t high enough for me to go to Ole Miss with the 16 score,” he said. “So I went to junior college.”
When the Copiah-Lincoln coaches got a hold of him, well, they liked what they saw.
“The first day we actually did times on him, he’s 6-2, 215 pounds and ran a 4.3 (40-yard dash). I mean, that’s just not something you see very often,” Copiah-Lincoln coach Glenn Davis said. “We knew he had the athletic ability. It was just a matter of him putting it together. ... He doesn’t mind working. He just needed to learn how. That’s the big thing. sophomore, Berry made 28 catches for 290 yards and four TDs - solid numbers, but not great. And when other colleges realized he’d be a May graduate, well, that meant he was still on the market after signing day in February.
He learned a hard lesson. Twice.
“Get your grades. Get your grades,” Berry said, repeating the statement for effect.
It turned out all right, thanks in part to a familiar name.
Carlos Funchess, the longtime assistant to SU women’s basketball coach Sandy Pugh, helped make the connection. He, too, grew up in Magee, the son of two teachers who practically knew everyone in town.
When the Southern football coaches got a good look at Berry, well, they liked what they saw.
SU offered a scholarship, and he committed.
Between graduation and training camp, Berry went home to Magee and worked for a tree-removal company. It just so happened to be owned and run by Charles Funchess - Carlos’ father, who had long since retired from teaching.
All summer, Charles Funchess kept Berry busy. The young man cut tree limbs, hauled wood, raked leaves. He even asked to work the chainsaw, to do a little stump-grinding.
One thing Berry didn’t do: complain.
“Good work ethic, good manners,” Charles Funchess said of Berry. “Easy to work with. No trouble. He’s willing to work and willing to learn. He’ll listen. ... That’s the key thing. You can’t find that in many students now.
“Even talented guys - a lot of times, they get hung up on themselves and do what they want to do. Not him. He’s going to make it in life.”
By summer’s end, football beckoned. Berry traded stump grinding for Stump’s grinding.
Training camp doubled not only as a time to refine his skills and learn the playbook, but also to get in football shape.
By the final scrimmage, the light bulb was on; Berry had clearly become one of the Jaguars’ top receivers.
The team was about to leave for the season opener at Tennessee State when the coaching staff learned that all three veteran tight ends - Javon Jordan, Rashaun Allen and Kesean Peterson - were academically ineligible. And because freshman Eric Janeau was a redshirt candidate, well, that forced a serious on-the-fly adjustment.
The first game was a bona fide disaster. The Jaguars lost, 33-7, and Berry wasn’t a perfect replacement (“I still need to get better at blocking as a tight end. I do,” he said). But before long, Berry became a tough matchup for opposing defenses. If they cover him with a linebacker, he’ll blow past the guy. If they bring down a safety, he’ll muscle past the guy.
Worse yet, Berry has earned a reputation for making the first tackler miss.
His five touchdowns have come on deep balls (he has scores of 56 and 60 yards) and in tight quarters (he has scores of 13, 14 and 21 yards).
“Sometimes, he has a tendency to not look the ball in, and that’s to their advantage,” Mitchell said, referring to the defense.
“But if Mike does everything he’s supposed to do, he’s a very tough matchup for their safety or linebacker. It’s not one that will play in their favor. He’s very athletic.”
And very skilled.
With or without a rake.