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It's never wise to doubt Chris Bergin
He's a player nobody's talking about, yet he also led the nation in tackles. The Northwestern linebacker, an admitted psychopath, will absolutely build upon his underdog story in the pros, too.
He reads constantly. When Covid first hit back in 2020, Chris Bergin started reading more than ever — self-growth books specifically — and hasn’t stopped since. He’s averaging 15 books per year. Each one struck a different nerve inside of the Northwestern linebacker, elevating him to a new level.
Take “Can’t Hurt Me” by David Goggins.
“That guy,” Bergin says, “is a psychopath.”
He means that as a term of endearment, of course, considering Bergin labels himself the same thing. In the NYT bestseller, Goggins claims that when your mind and body are starting to fatigue and you want to quit, you’ve only reached 40 percent of your true capabilities. Bergin ripped through this book while quarantined as a close contact for a roommate who got Covid last winter. Cooped up, itching to do something, he finished the book and decided to put Goggins’ bizarre theory to the test. So what if it was minus-12 degrees outside in Evanston, Ill? Who cared if it was pitch black? He bundled up, stepped out and… started running.
There was no plan. He simply ran.
Personally, he thought this “40% rule” was a bit absurd. He’s felt himself close to breaking before but, this day, he’d find out — even if he hadn’t run distance since fourth grade.
At a pace of 7:30 per mile, Bergin ran straight north through the beautiful scenery. The pain was real. The cold “was sharp,” he says. “I could feel it in my bones.” But eventually Bergin did physically feel himself punch through that throbbing pain begging him to quit and reached an entirely new cruising altitude. Along the way, he even called a few friends to say he might actually run a full marathon. That didn’t happen but Bergin did run eight miles north, turned around and hit 15.5 miles on the dot at that 7:30 pace, before cooling down to a jog and logging 18 miles total by the time he was home.
“Wow,” he told himself, “maybe there is something to the whole, ‘Your mind can do whatever it wants.’”
Now, it’s his goal to run a marathon totally untrained — “solely,” he adds, “off my mind.” Once his football career is over, Bergin wants to pop on a pair running shoes and take off for 26.2 miles. Friends are understandably informing him that he’s a certified lunatic.
“I promise you,” he assures, “I’m going to do it.”
First thing’s first: proving everyone wrong (again) on a football field. There’s a good chance you’ve never heard the name “Chris Bergin.” Most certainly not while absorbing endless hours of predraft coverage this spring. He’s an undersized linebacker who may go undrafted this weekend. But he also led the country in both total (141) and solo (84) tackles. He did it in the Big Ten, too, as the leader of Northwestern’s defense. It may seem like Bergin, all of 5 foot 10, 220 pounds soaking wet, has no business on a pro defense. Like the officials would need to blow the game dead, hold his hand and escort him back to Section 125. But, honestly, that’s what it looked like when he first arrived on the Northwestern campus. He was a walk-on with a minuscule shot at ever doing a damn thing in the Big Ten.
To him, history is merely repeating itself.
Should we believe? You’d be hard-pressed to find another prospect who’s this easy to root for.
He isn’t stressing the predraft crickets.
“What comes with that is peace honestly. Because I look in hindsight at everything I’ve done in my career and think, ‘What would I have done different?’ And when I come up with a solid goose egg of what I would’ve done,” says Bergin, cupping his fingers into an O, “I’m able to sleep pretty well at night. It’s one thing to understand, but it’s another thing to internalize and practice what you’re preaching. I think I’ve done a good job of understanding that it is out of my control and worrying about it and getting negative and losing confidence is just extremely unproductive and useless because, again, it’s not you.”
Out of high school, the two-time first-team All-State linebacker from Bloomfield Hills, Mich., had zero Power 5 offers. A few MAC schools offered scholarships, the military academies, some Ivy schools and the weekend before Signing Day, his older brother — who played at Northwestern — told him he should consider walking onto his team. Bergin visited the school, it felt like home and rolled the dice with “no buzz, no expectations, no hype.” He was only armed with his father’s advice to keep his mouth shut and work hard. The head of recruiting at Northwestern once told Bergin that if he was two inches taller, he could’ve gone to Ohio State if he wanted.
Which, uh, was nice. Part of Bergin thought, Yeah, but I’m not. That’d be great in another universe.
Even though Northwestern had opened the door a crack for Bergin, this felt like the lowest place on the totem pole. Some coaches had no clue who he was — Bergin felt like “another face.” Meanwhile, those same coaches would be dabbing up other players they had just spent two full years recruiting. You sort of feel like the extremely un-cool kid at the party nobody wants to hang out with. The team meeting room was extremely humbling. All players sat in a hierarchical fashion. Captains, starters and seniors posted up in the front and the further back you go, the less valuable you were to the Wildcats. Chatting on Zoom, Bergin swoops his camera across his bedroom to exaggerate how far back, back, back, back he sat initially as a walk-on.
“I kid you not,” he says, “I was in the dead-last seat in the back of the team room. I remember sitting there like, ‘Wow. This is a humbling experience.’”
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Yet Bergin never did have expectations for himself, and that turned out to be a powerful tonic. One of Bergin’s favorite books of all-time is “Chop Wood, Carry Water.” Whereas most people in life tend to keep one eye on the process and another on the prize, this book stresses to keep both on the process.
That’s precisely how he attacked every day.
First, Bergin sought to win every sprint. He did. The pads came on, and he aimed to get in a fight — to be aggressive — in every conceivable way. And Bergin not only made the team but played in 11 games as a true freshman.
When the Wildcats were 1-3 that season, Bergin recalls the team’s receivers coach telling his guys to block beyond the whistle against the scout team. So, after one play, Bergin was two-hand shoved directly in the back. He was pissed. He asked the head coach, Pat Fitzgerald, if he’d be kicked out of practice if he fought this teammate. Fitzgerald simply said not to injure him. One play later, the two were throwing haymakers at each other. (Bergin had a suspicion Fitzgerald loved it, too.) This turned into a common scene through that 2017 season, too. The scout team wasn’t afraid to stick up for itself, engaging in three or four full-fledged fights per week with the No. 1 offense.
One time, Bergin approached the quarterback to fight and admittedly got his ass beat by the entire offensive line. “I got within five feet of him,” Bergin says, “and one of the senior offensive linemen was like, ‘No, no, no.’ And then I got wailed on.” Another time the QB ran right into him in his red jersey, fell and, next thing Bergin knew, he was blindsided by a 255-pound tight end. All the tight end saw was the quarterback fall and snapped. Bergin flew horizontally through the air like a helicopter propeller.
However you slice it, he made enemies. Daily.
“I remember I was talking to Coach Fitz once and he’s like, ‘Yeah, you’re a bit of a polarizing figure.’ I said, ‘What do you mean?’ He said, ‘Some people really like you. Other people really don’t.’ I’m like, ‘As long as you like me, right?’”
Northwestern won out, too, to finish 10-3. Bergin clearly had a future with the team and estimates he won the team’s “practice player of the week” six or seven times that freshman year.
“I was like, ‘Maybe, I helped our offense get a little nasty,’” Bergin says. “We practiced like it was a game every single day.”
The next season, he started five games and never looked back.
Bergin doesn’t believe he ever lost a sprint in college. He ran with the DBs and receivers, too. Very early he realized his advantage was that he could play “forever.” Los Angeles Rams wide receiver Cooper Kupp was clocked at 4.62 in the 40-yard dash but, as Bergin heard once, Kupp can run that 4.62 on 70 consecutive plays. That’s the sort of consistency he lived by at Northwestern and how he finished with more tackles than anyone in college football last season.
Most players get tired over the course of a game. He does not.
Those first two years, as a walk-on, Bergin watched Northwestern give kids on scholarship every opportunity to play ahead of him and he flatly refused for that to happen.
“If you watch: every play I’m within a pin drop of the football,” he says. “My thought process going back to it was, ‘I’m paying money to come to practice to beat the hell out of these kids on scholarship. Someone’s gotta pay. I was an angry kid in hindsight. I was always on, always on. As I grew older and into a leadership role, I realized I couldn’t always be that dickhead. So, I toned it back to help others and lead a defense. I saved it for Saturdays. It’s little stuff you hold resentment for, that you don’t tell people about. You keep it to yourself. There’s a lot of stuff I’ve internalized. You just don’t forget it.
“You sometimes feel like people look at you like you don’t belong here. That’s something you have to deal with inside. Once you realize it’s just football and you do belong, and you’re able to apply that, that’s when you get going.”
Special teams action led to subpackage snaps and a scholarship after his sophomore season.
Starting at linebacker led to an All-Big Ten honorable mention selection.
Then, in 2021, he was All-Big Ten first team with that tackles mark.
When Bergin speaks, he tilts and glides his hand up… and up… and up to denote a natural progression. This is what he expects to happen in the NFL, too.
“I don’t look back,” he says. “It’s ‘What’s next? What’s next? What’s next?’ Keep moving forward. The sky’s the limit. I truly don’t believe I have a ceiling.”
Mainly because when he wasn’t being recruited as much as he should’ve back in high school, Bergin essentially dropped to a knee and proposed to the sport. He has never sipped alcohol or smoked. Football is the only thing ever on his mind because, to him, it’s simple: Chris Bergin must relentlessly chase every conceivable edge he can — however small. He needs to find the new 0.00005 percent way to improve. Then another. And another. And another. And then he’ll see how all those tiny percentages add up come gameday.
That’s why he calls his mentality “psychotic.” He believes there’s always another edge to chase. Beyond weightlifting and speed training, Bergin became a certified yoga instructor in college. That helped his mental state, too. He took his recovery work to a new level through Pilates, a full-time physical therapist, hyperbaric chambers and IV work. It all cost him plenty of money — he sought assistance beyond the resources on campus, right into nearby Chicago — but Bergin, A, viewed this all as an investment in himself and, B, could not live with regret.
“Will I look back and say, ‘Damn, I should’ve done this?’ Almost every time, I said, ‘Yeah.’ So, I did it,” he says. “It was a full-time commitment to myself physically, spiritually and emotionally.”
He learned to value a full eight hours of sleep after reading that the only time you produce HGH (after puberty) is when you’re asleep. He can’t stand it when celebrities like The Rock brag about pumping iron on a few hours of sleep.
Nothing changed the game for Bergin more than discovering and nurturing his “flow state.”
During the 2020 season, he got into a rhythm he had never experienced before. After a 21-13 win over Nebraska, Bergin was named the Big Ten defensive player of the week. It was a strange feeling he had only felt in spurts before. As if he blinked and, boom, he was making the tackle. Out of body even. “You don’t even remember what happened between snap and then,” he adds. The more he researched, he learned this is the “flow state,” or what’s commonly known as being in the zone. He visited a sports psychologist to learn how to stay in this state permanently.
Soon enough, he met with that psychologist twice a week. A cycle of visualizations and meditations helped and he cannot recommend the book “Atomic Habits” enough for those out there trying to find their own flow state.
For Bergin, this needed to be a lifestyle. Not a switch to flip.
“It’s really difficult. You can’t just do it on command,” he says, snapping his fingers, “and say, ‘Oh. I’m there.’ It’s knowing what triggers it and what outside factors affect it. It was very productive.”
“The way I thought about it — which is a perspective I’m so thankful that I had — is I was able to perceive and understand in real time that I was living my dream. Which was to be at this level. Knowing that a dream and a prayer was now my reality allowed me to appreciate and do everything I could for the opportunity that was at hand. I think that’s why I maximized it. Lifestyle-wise, it helps you know that every play technically could be your last play. When you take that approach, you really value it. You’re not thinking ‘I’m sore.’ It’s ‘Do you know how many people would kill to be where I’m at right now?’”
So, he reads constantly. That Covid lockdown habit stuck. Tapping open his iPad, Bergin rips through his personal library to rattle off a handful of his favorites. He likes to read multiple books at once because it starts to feel like the books are speaking to each other.
“Stillness is the Key,” by Ryan Holiday, was fantastic. He’s a huge Holiday fan.
“Relentless,” by Tim Grover, was a fast read. The personal trainer of Michael Jordan shares his wisdom. And “Ego is the Enemy,” by Holiday, was a sharp contrast to Grover’s perspective but Bergin says shared the same overarching message.
There was Kobe Bryant’s “Mamba Mentality” and Darren Hardy’s “Compound Effect.”
“Limitless” by Jim Kwik teaches an understated quality: learning how to learn.
There was the “5AM Club” on how to “own” the morning (Bergin gets up at 5 each morning now) and “The 48 Laws of Power” and “Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.”
He doesn’t agree with 100 percent of what he reads but always tries to apply what he does believe. Take “The Oxygen Advantage” by Patrick McKeown. Bergin always thought there’s an element to conditioning he must’ve been missing — breathing proved to be a biggie. This book showed him there’s a real science to maximizing oxygen supply to your muscles by the way you breathe. You do not want to inhale deeply. Rather, it’s much wiser to take shallow inhales and longer exhales because that leads to higher oxygenation of muscles.
Once more, he found an edge.
“Little stuff like that,” Bergin adds, “has made a world of difference.”
Scouts worry about his size and his 29 ½-inch arms. They recorded a 34 ½-inch vertical with a time of 4.72 in the 40 and 15 reps on the bench press, though it’s also been reported Bergin ran a 4.48. He also had strong three-cone (6.85 seconds) and short shuttle (4.16) times.
He’ll need his mind to be his greatest asset in the pros.
“And I can’t wait to show everybody,” he says. “I can’t wait for the opportunity to prove one team right.”
When it comes to his gazillions of tackles (OK, 359 for his career), he’s been making the case to teams that being so compact has its benefits. It forces Bergin to live in the film room. Nobody ever taught him how to watch film growing up so he asked Fitzgerald one day if the head coach could show him. Next thing he knew, he was watching film with his position coach and defensive coordinator twice a week — in-season and out of season. He started playing two steps ahead. Up to then, Bergin had played off pure athleticism because he’s fast, can change direction as well as anyone and, he says, has never been afraid to use the crown of his helmet on blockers. He calls that maneuver the “stun grenade,” the “chinchilla.” He drills a bigger player directly in the chin with his helmet and their heads jolt straight up into the sky.
All of this film study makes his 4.7 look much faster in real time.
“That’s when I really learned how to see the game,” Bergin says. “That changed everything. This year was a whole different level of understanding of the game. I was able to quickly dissect what these teams were trying to run. That’s when your mindset switches from playing checkers to playing chess. Understanding conceptually the weaknesses of your defense and where teams are trying to attack that, it changed the game for me a ton.”
When NFL teams ask how he plays at his size, Bergin explains the advantages. He doesn’t have the physical gifts of a guy like Montana State’s Troy Andersen, and that could prove to be an insurmountable mountain to climb. Maybe there’s a reason a slew of other linebackers will be drafted ahead of him.
Bergin vows to find a way. He’s cognizant of the fact that the best special teams player of all-time also hails from Northwestern: longtime Buffalo Bills ace Steve Tasker. That’s why he made a special teams highlight tape to send NFL teams, too. Even as he grew into the leader of Northwestern’s defense, Bergin asked Fitzgerald to stay on some special teams because he wasn’t dumb. He knew this could be his meal ticket to the pros. If that meant exerting more energy than anybody else on the team every game, so be it. He could handle that load with everything he did off the field. However he latches on with his first team — draft pick, UDFA, tryout — Bergin fully plans to make himself a special teams stalwart immediately, then work up from there.
“How do I get my foot in the door? Special teams,” he says. “That’s your niche. Get in there. Show you can play and then prove however possible that you can play defense and slowly — like I explained before — it’s one thing at a time. Stack those wins. With that, the sky’s the limit.”
As he speaks, Bergin’s hand again moves up… and up… and up.
He’s not spitting cliches. He sincerely believes history will repeat itself in the pros. He is counting on starting at linebacker for an NFL team and even wearing that green dot on his helmet to get everyone lined up.
Over the course of this hourlong chat, Chris Bergin makes it very difficult to doubt Chris Bergin.
His father actually played for Nick Saban at Michigan State and once told him that his value to the defense could be measured by how far from the ball he was when the whistle was blown. Chris took those words to heart. In Pop Warner, there was hell to pay some nights. Dad would snipe, “You wouldn’t play a snap for Nick! Get your ass to the ball!” Through high school, on to Northwestern, No. 28 in purple and white was the one first on the scene. Watch any Wildcats game and he’s constantly in the frame.
“It became a habit,” he says.
Linebacker after linebacker will be drafted this weekend. Bergin will watch and wait and likely stew inside.
At which point, there’s a good chance he turns the TV off, throws sneakers on and goes for a run.
He’ll run farther than he did last time, too.