Written by: Sean Labar, The Spring League
Last November, Jonte Berry left everything he knew and moved from his hometown of Houston, Texas to California in a relentless pursuit to fulfill his dream of becoming a professional football player. While his journey would take the former high school star to the outskirts of Hollywood — this isn’t some fictional script from a blockbuster film — it’s his life.
On Saturday as the 6-foot-5, 315-pound offensive linemen protects former Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel in front of more than 20 NFL scouts and representatives from various professional football leagues — Berry will pause intently, taking a moment to talk to God and give thanks for his journey.
He will smile.
He will compete.
He will pray every chance he gets.
When the final whistle blows, Berry will reflect on the last year and the pivotal lessons he’s learned along the way. He won’t forget the days that seemed never-ending as he worked two jobs, from dusk until beyond dawn, to save as much money as possible.
He wont forget the memories of his father, and the painful days paired with sleepless nights following the most trying event of his life.
He will always point to a moment of clarity on a desolate beach in San Diego where he vividly recalls God speaking to him when he needed it the most.
“I’m just so grateful and blessed,” Berry said. “The last year as been crazy, my entire journey has been unreal, but God has always had a plan. It was hard for me to see at times, but I know I should be here.”
Berry’s winding path began at Aleif Taylor High School — a notable Houston powerhouse that helped groom NFL talents like Martellus and Michael Bennett. The physical giant thrived on the gridiron and caught eyes from notable college programs like Oklahoma State and Texas A&M, but his grades didn’t meet the requirements to pursue FBS football.
After a stint at junior college, Berry was offered a spot on the Northern Oklahoma University offensive line and jumped at the opportunity. As a big — some might even huge— fish in a small pond, the former high school star found success. While playing for a program that rarely garnered glances from NFL talent evaluators, Berry remained optimistic about his chance to play at the next level. He was ready to pursue his lifelong dream and declare for the NFL Draft.
Life has a strange way of throwing a wrinkle in plans — and while he couldn’t have seen it coming — Berry’s world was about to get rocked at its core.
After a long stint with prostate cancer his father and mentor, James Berry, passed away unexpectedly in 2015 during his son’s senior year of college.
“It’s just one of those things that’s impossible to prepare for,” Berry said. “My dad taught me how to be a man, he was the one I turned to. His passing sent me into a really dark place.”
The days, weeks and months that followed would create unfamiliar feelings for the physical giant. His outside appearance and overwhelming stature wouldn’t save him. He was broken within. Football became an afterthought. The prospect of playing in the NFL was no longer a priority.
After what Berry describes as “the hardest year of his life,” he eventually realized he needed to turn to a familiar place for comfort. His Christian faith had always been a staple in his life, but instead of feeling like his Dad was suddenly taken away from him, Berry’s mindset began to shift.
“I started to view it as a test from God,” Berry said. “I just kept getting signs and continued to pray. It became more clear that I was supposed to play football, and at that moment, everything changed.”
For as long as it took — Berry would make a plan and stick to it. His days were spent working in a Houston-area trampoline park, while his nights were reserved for his part-time gig at one of the hottest drinking holes in town.
Work. Sleep. Repeat.
There were times where it was often hard to see the bigger picture, but Berry remained true to himself and his plan. He knew if he saved enough to move to California, he could link up with some former teammates and get much-needed exposure in a place where so many professional athletes live, visit and train.
“Finally, after helping my city bounce back from the devastation from Hurricane Harvey, I had saved up enough money to move to California,” Berry said. “Nothing was going to hold me back.”
While the idea sounded great on the surface — things didn’t go as smoothly as planned as the Texan got settled in his new home. With the chance of exposure in Los Angeles comes shady agents and trainers looking to exploit upcoming athletes, models and entertainers.
Berry was burnt by several people who said they could help him early on.
He lost money and found himself discouraged. When he finally found a trainer who was recommended through a local Christian organization, he was casted aside and put at the bottom of the pecking order.
“I wasn’t a priority and if I was going to make it, I needed to be the focus for whoever was helping me,” Berry said. “I learned so much about myself during those days and am so much more mature now because of it.”
Eventually, the former college standout made the transition from Laguna Hills to Fresno where he would connect with another former teammate. Finally, through a recommendation from a friend, he found a trainer who was committed to his long-term success.
Berry held strong to a strict diet, lost more than 30 pounds and found himself in the best shape of his life. He felt ready. The long days, the traveling — it had all led him to this point. After putting together a highlight reel, the NFL hopeful spent most of his free time sending emails to anyone who would listen, and then he heard about Manziel joining a developmental showcase tagged as “The Spring League.”
Names like Ben Tate, Greg Hardy and Kellen Winslow Jr. helped give the league credibility as the cautiously optimistic linemen tried to decipher through falling into the familiar trap of false exposure.
“I was like well, if those guys who have already had success in the NFL are joining, and now Manziel, there has to be something here,” Berry said. “I started sending them a Facebook message every day. I sent several emails to the contacts I found on the website.”
But even with countless effort and a barrage of messages expressing his interest — Berry never got the call. He didn’t even get a response on Facebook and his email inbox was empty.
Once again, Berry found himself in an uninvited eerily similar place. Was he even good enough? Was he pursuing a dream that was unrealistic?
The old Berry would have thrown in the towel. It was different this time, he made a commitment to himself, his late father and most importantly, God. He would exhaust every ounce of effort, no matter how difficult it may seem.
The Spring League’s biggest tryout event was coming quick. Berry was working toward getting the coveted invitation so when it never came, he took things into his own hands. Once again, he packed his bags for a trip. This would be a a much shorter drive as the event was slated to be held in L.A., but Berry opted to buy a room in San Diego to save cash.
Like the shore getting battered with crashing waves just down the street from his hotel, Berry’s mind was pounding with uneasiness the day he arrived. He decided to head toward the ocean to get a workout — and in a desperate attempt to regain composure — had one of the most profound moments of his journey.
“I was working out there on the beach in San Diego, and honestly, it was like God was talking to me,” Berry said. “Once again, I felt like everything was okay. I felt at peace. It was like I knew everything was going to be okay and something great was going to happen.”
That night, his phone rang. It was a representative from the Spring League.
“Wait, you’re telling me you’re in San Diego right now for the tryout in LA?” Berry heard on the other side of the phone.”
“Yes sir, I am,” Berry said. “I never heard back from you guys so I came here to see if there was any way to get a chance.”
Berry was stunned to realize he didn’t need to be in San Diego, and didn’t need to attend the tryout. The Spring League had already received his information and informed him they had been scouting him for several months. His roster spot was secure in Austin for the main event — there was a simple email malfunction and the big man — who had worked so hard and prayed nightly — never received the invitation.
On Saturday — in the same state where it all began — Berry will finally get his shot. His film will be sent to all 32 NFL teams and also to the Canadien League and Arena League. If the scouts in attendance like what they see, conversations could come sooner rather than later.
There will be no guarantee, but Berry never asked for that.
He just wanted a chance to pursue his dream of playing professional football, and finally, he’s getting just that.