The Berger family found itself at a crossroads in the fall of 2009.
While Joe Berger, up until that point a journeyman offensive lineman, finally was earning his first starting gig in the NFL in his second stint with the Miami Dolphins, his wife, Abby, for most of that season endured weekly fertility treatments.
“It was so hard,” Abby said. “It was awful. It was grueling, consuming, emotional.”
It had previously taken a year of trying for Abby to become pregnant with their young son, Gavin. The prospect of Abby giving birth to a second child seemed slim.
“Doors just kept closing one after another with that,” Abby said. “We just didn’t feel at peace about that. Thankfully God had other plans.”
As Joe, now the starting center for the Vikings, was dealing with the excitement of starting the final six games of the 2009 season and the stress of auditioning for what he hoped would be a permanent gig with the Dolphins, the Bergers decided they should cease Abby’s fertility treatments and consider adopting a baby.
“There was a lot on our mind in 2009,” said Joe, who can chuckle about it now.
After the season ended, in January 2010, the Bergers attended their first adoption meeting. Over the next months, there were more meetings and background checks and mountains of paperwork for Abby to fill out. And on March 23 of that year, Blake was born and soon would be welcomed into the Berger household.
A year later, after Berger started 14 more games for the Dolphins, he was released after the preseason. The Vikings, looking to bolster their offensive line depth, quickly signed him. He ended up starting seven games in 2011, his first year in Minnesota.
That next year, the Bergers began to discuss adoption again. Joe and Abby, whose father had been an orphan in Ireland, first met at church in their hometown of Newaygo, Mich. The couple got married in 2004, before Berger’s last season at Michigan Tech, and always had envisioned having three or four children.
“We’ve just always said we wanted to be open to how the Lord would grow our family,” Abby said. “So whatever way that is, we just wanted to be open to it.”
A week later, the Bergers found out that Abby was pregnant with a girl, Ella.
“So we were like, ‘Well, I guess now is a great time to have another kid,’ ” Joe said.
Even though Berger had established himself as a quality backup who was capable of stepping in as a starter, his standing as an older lineman offered him little stability in Minnesota. Every summer, the Bergers would live in a hotel, with Abby cooped up in a room with the three kids until Joe officially had earned back his roster spot.
But that changed midway through the 2014 season, after right guard Brandon Fusco was lost for the season because of a torn pectoral. Berger started the final nine games in his place and solidified the position. The 34-year-old has not missed a snap since.
Putting down roots
The Vikings re-signed Berger to a two-year deal before the 2015 season, and he started every game at center that season after John Sullivan injured his back. This summer, he beat out Sullivan for the starting job and, playing well again, earned a contract extension that will keep him in Minnesota through the 2017 season.
That means Gavin, 9, and Blake, 6, don’t have to worry about switching schools until Joe retires and the family moves into their new house back in Michigan full time.
“The six years before [coming to Minnesota] we kind of bounced around a little bit,” Joe said. “To just be able to stay in Minnesota for six years, from a family perspective, has been great. They’ve been able to go back to the same school every year. We didn’t picture this or plan on it, but it’s worked out awesome.”
They also weren’t planning on adopting another child, at least not anytime soon.
But this past spring, the Bergers learned through a friend of Abby’s mother that a pregnant young woman back in Michigan was putting her baby up for adoption.
“It wasn’t even on our radar to adopt with Macy,” Abby said.
“We were open to it, but weren’t talking about it,” Joe said.
“The baby was due in three weeks and we had just got done building our house in Michigan and so life was a little bit crazy,” Abby said. “But we just took time and prayed about it again, and even though it was so fast we felt excited about it.”
Macy came home a month later on May 8.
Both of their adoptions are open, meaning the two birth mothers still are involved.
“We couldn’t ask for better birth moms,” Abby said. “They both absolutely love these two and our other kids, too. That definitely shows with the sacrifice that they made. They are different situations but it’s nice to know that they made those choices for the better of their child.”
‘For us, it’s great’
Tuesday evening, as Joe and Abby shared their story, Joe, who is listed at 6-5 and 305 pounds, cradled his 6-month-old daughter in his arms. The two boys played catch on the indoor field at Winter Park, with Joe keeping a watchful eye on them. Ella, now 4, stopped by to ask her daddy to hold on to her little hot pink purse.
“Everyone has a unique story,” said Joe, who appeared in a public service announcement for National Adoption Month that aired at halftime of Sunday’s Vikings-Cardinals game.
“I know ours in both cases were relatively easy for us. But you hear that it’s not always that way. I don’t know if I can say that adoption is for everyone. But for us, it’s great. I think it’s something that if you’re considering doing it at all, you should look into it.
‘‘I think it’s a great thing just to be able to give a kid a family and just the joy that the kid brings to your family.”