New York Giants safety Natnael Berhe has always prided himself on being tough.
This is, after all, a player who, during his college career at San Diego State, pushed through a staph infection, one that Berhe was determined to not let cause him to miss a game.
In my nine years of playing football I've never missed a season or even back to back games for that matter, so I'm upset to say the least— Natnael Berhe (@NatBerhe) August 27, 2015
So when last year Berhe, who in his second NFL season sought to earn a starting job at safety, felt a tweak in his calf, he didn’t think twice about it and resolved to push through it.
His body had other ideas. Berhe would reaggravate his calf again. This time, the injury caused his calf to swell to nearly three times its normal size.
What happened in the hours following that second pop that led to that swelling would ultimately change Berhe's perspective on life and on his career.
The key to making it in this business is having a solid team outside of football to advise you, can't do it alone.— Natnael Berhe (@NatBerhe) March 16, 2016
About five years ago, the Berhe family, a tight knit-group, narrowly avoided a tragedy involving one of Berhe's aunts.
His aunt was a perfect picture of health and the mother of a vibrant 14-year-old daughter. In the blink of an eye, she one day found herself on the brink of death thanks to a blood clot that had broken free and threatened her life.
While Berhe's aunt escaped death not once, but twice, because her brain had been deprived of oxygen, she was never quite the same physically.
Berhe prayed and watched as his aunt fought and survived her battle. Little did he know that a few years later, he too would deal with a similar issue that, while not life-threatening, could have killed his budding NFL career.
Thank you all for your well wishes and kind words. Having surgery tomorrow morning on my calf to remove a hardened blood clot.— Natnael Berhe (@NatBerhe) August 27, 2015
Football players are taught at an early age to be tough. Play through pain, rub some dirt on it, suck it up—whatever verbiage you want to use.
Berhe has always taken pride in being a poster boy for dishing out the punishment and taking the lumps that came with it. If he got hurt, he jumped up, rubbed some dirt on it and went back in.
That's the same approach Berhe took when he joined the Giants as a fifth-round pick in 2014. Last spring, Berhe began to experience pain in his calf, something he thought was simply a pulled muscle.
The injury lingered into training camp. However, just when he thought he was good to go, his body had other ideas.
“When I initially [tweaked the calf], I felt a big pop in my leg, so I thought I just pulled a muscle,” Berhe recalled. “But then the second time I did it, it felt like a grenade exploded in my leg.”
Berhe recalled how he and the trainers were amazed at how big his leg became due to the swelling.
“It was probably three times the size of my other leg,” Berhe said. “That’s how I knew that this was something really serious.”
He didn’t find out how serious things really were until Giants team physician Dr. Russell Warren reviewed the various diagnostic tests done on Berhe’s ailing leg and then opened him up during surgery.
“When I talked to Dr. Warren about it after the surgery, he said that once he opened me up, blood just flowed out, and that he was afraid that I had compartment syndrome in there,” Berhe said.
With the help of Warren’s skilled hand and some blood-thinners, Berhe's clot never had a chance to break off and travel to his lungs or brain.
More importantly, because the problem had been caught and treated early enough, Berhe believed that his 2015 season was still salvageable.
Now that it's gone, I expect to heal up and play this season. I'm an expert in my body, knew something extra was going on. Now it's fixed.— Natnael Berhe (@NatBerhe) August 28, 2015
Although he couldn't practice, he kept detailed notes on the new defensive system being installed by defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo. Berhe believed that if he could master the mental part of the defense, the physical part would follow suit.
When the final moves to get to the 53-man roster were made, however, Berhe was informed that he was being placed on season-ending injured reserve.
Suddenly, Berhe—the iron man who took pride in playing through ailments that might have sent others into a shell—was about to face an autumn without football for the first time in his playing career.
As he digested the news that no NFL player wants to hear, Berhe, confined to a hotel room after his surgery while he recovered, began to wonder about his future and if it included the NFL.
“I had to figure out who I wanted to become at that moment. I was in a hotel room for about two weeks by myself and I had time to really think about it,” he said. “Was this going to keep me from being the player I always wanted to be and knew I could be?”
He quickly found his answers after some deep soul-searching. While Berhe realized that the 2015 season was no longer on the table, that didn’t mean the 2016 season and beyond wasn’t in reach.
Berhe put the past behind him, focused on his rehab and built a plan to ensure that he gave himself every opportunity to accomplish what he set out to do.
Berhe's plan was simple: eat clean, stay away from alcohol and tobacco products, get plenty of rest and train like every day was his last opportunity.
So far so good for Berhe, who, with his new mental toughness, is determined to compete and win a starting job this year.
He also studies the game, scrutinizing every little thing he can find that gives him the competitive edge. When he reports to the Giants' offseason program on April 11, he's determined to put the coaches' minds at ease regarding the open safety spot alongside of Landon Collins.
“I have fully committed myself to this and have completely bought into this,” Berhe said of his lifestyle. “I’m optimistic. I’m running great, I feel great and I have not once thought about my leg.”
My journey isn't fueled by opinions.— Natnael Berhe (@NatBerhe) March 16, 2016
He also has found a way to block out the outside distractions from those concerned about his lack of experience or who think that he may be an "injury prone" player.
“I’m on a mission,” Berhe said. “My objective is to be the starter. I’m grateful to have a second opportunity—not many people get a second opportunity at a job like this. I’m going to do whatever I can do to get on the field.”
When he does get to the field, he hopes to put the versatility he showed in college to work for the Giants.
“I just want to be used any way possible,” he said.
“Whether that’s playing a little nickel here and there, coming off the edge on a blitz or playing the deep post or the linebacker, it doesn’t matter. I’ve done it all through college. I’ve played cornerback, I’ve played safety, so for me it’s ‘Where do you want me to play?’”
Just FYI "Nat" is short for "Natnael," my name has never been "Nate."— Natnael Berhe (@NatBerhe) March 22, 2016
Berhe, who wants to be known as Natnael, his full name, from now on, also sees an opportunity in the Giants locker room to do another thing he did so well in college: be a leader.
“I think there’s an opportunity for everyone to become a leader,” he said. “It’s a new coaching staff—a new everything for everybody. So yes, I do see an opportunity to step up in that role.”
Perhaps the biggest thing driving Berhe is his realization about what he almost lost last summer and how one can't take for granted the opportunities that present themselves.
That's what Berhe sees every time he glances down at his bare leg and sees the six-inch scar on his calf, a not-so subtle reminder of how, in the blink of an eye, things can be taken away.
“I actually enjoy looking at the scar now because it’s a reminder that nothing’s promised to anybody,” he said.
“We’re on this earth and we have to make the most out of our opportunities and the moments we have. I took it all in stride. I enjoyed the process and what I went through and I’m glad I went through what I went through, and I would never change it.”
Patricia Traina covers the Giants for Inside Football, the Journal Inquirer and Sports Xchange. All quotes and information were obtained firsthand unless otherwise sourced.
Follow me on Twitter @Patricia_Traina.