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A promise kept: Berg takes a timeout from coaching
By Joe Aguilar | Daily Herald Columnist
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Published: 4/10/2010 11:11 PM

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One day last year, when a "Seinfeld" rerun wasn't on TV making them laugh and when their three young children weren't in the same room with them making them beam, Ben and Jen Berg had a real-life talk.

It was a conversation that Ben says all married couples know they'll have someday, only it's assumed it will happen much later in life, like when all their hair is gray, when they're retired, and when they're sitting in recliners beaming about their grandchildren.

Jen, however, was 37. And ill.

Despite her spirit and courage, she was losing her battle with breast cancer, which, try as it might, was unable to rob her of her zest for life. Her illness was failing to take away the smile that Ben fell in love with, and Ben loved when Jen flashed it because when she smiled at you, you smiled back.

On that day, Ben made a promise to his wife.

"She worried that if something happened to her, that I would dive myself into my job and not be at home enough for the kids," Berg says. "I said, 'That ain't gonna happen.'

"I decided there that I'm going to coach this year but I'm not going to coach (basketball) beyond this year.

"That made her feel better."

So, just recently, Ben Berg resigned as Carmel Catholic's girls basketball coach after a two-year run, choosing to make official a decision he made before this past season but kept quiet to everyone but a few people, including athletic director Andy Bitto.

On Oct. 27 of last year, six days before the official start of high school girls basketball practice, Jennifer Berg lost her 21/2-year fight with breast cancer. She passed away in the wee hours of the morning, at home, her husband of 13 years at her side.

"She was one of the most kindest, gentlest, loving souls you'd ever meet," says Berg, 45, a coach and teacher at Carmel since 1988. "A lot of people who'd met her just once or twice could tell that about her."

Ben and Jen had three children: Benjamin, who celebrated his eighth birthday in November, Emma, who turns 7 at the end of the month, and Lauren, who becomes a 3-year-old this summer.

"My wife was always a person that was about making the right decisions," Berg says. "I felt at that time (when she passed away) the right decision was to coach, for a lot of different reasons.

"One, I didn't want them (the players) to have to get used to a new coach coming in a week before the season started. Two, I think a lot of things in life are teaching lessons. To forge through, even though it was tough for me, I think was good not only for the girls I coach but my own kids as well."

So, he coached basketball. The Corsairs went 14-16, despite the absence of a star player and sometimes having 3-4 sophomores on the court at the same time.

"I bet you that there's probably about another 5-6 games that we were in until the last 2-3 minutes," Berg says. "They got an opportunity to be very good next year."

Carmel junior guard Erin Quinn, for one, will miss her coach. She says she tried to convince herself during the season that Coach Berg would come back to coach her again next season, but deep down she knew the reality.

"I love his coaching style because he's very hands-on," Quinn says. "He actually coaches you and shows you how to do something, instead of just saying it. He makes sure you know what he's talking about, and he's very positive about what he's saying."

Ben Berg is a positive person and a better one, he says, for having been together with Jen for nearly 17 years. Ben's dad died of a heart attack at 55, and his mother passed away a day before her 58th birthday. But their deaths didn't prepare him for what he would go through with Jen.

She was diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer when she was pregnant with Lauren, in late April of 2007. Ben and Jen learned immediately that Jen would have an uphill battle, so they prepared for the worst case.

They told their children the truth about Mommy but never focused on the severity of her illness. Ben and Jen continued to enjoy life. They laughed out loud watching their "Seinfeld" DVDs, even when Jen was going through her chemotherapy treatments, and looked forward to raising their kids in their beautiful Antioch home.

"Jen and I together handled things, I believe, the way that, hopefully, they should be handled in a situation like this," Berg says. "There's not a cookie-cutter approach, but we were always very honest with (the kids) from the beginning. We didn't scare them. We wouldn't talk about it constantly. But we always talked about how it was very serious and how hopefully this medicine is going to help Mommy out, but that it could take Mommy's life."

Berg has long been an assistant football coach at Carmel and will continue to serve as offensive line coach and offensive coordinator of the Corsairs' vaunted option offense. Some 85-90 football players attended Jen's wake and funeral.

"It was kind of a statement about what this place is all about," Berg says.

His girls basketball players also attended the services. When the wake ended, they stuck around to offer any support. Senior Juli Taylor read a poem to him.

"It's the kind of things you don't forget," Berg says.

On the opening night of the season, Carmel's players wore T-shirts during warmups and wristbands during the game that sported the initials "JB." The T-shirts red "Live, Laugh, Love" - words that Ben focused on in his eulogy to describe his wife.

"When it happened," Quinn says of Jen's passing, "it brought us closer as a team. We just wanted to be there for him, on and off the court. We wanted to support him through his struggles."

What's helped Berg cope is the support he's received from so many people.

"Carmel has been tremendous with as many things that they've done, whether it be meals or financial support, spiritual or moral support," he says. "St. Pats of Wadsworth, the school that my kids go to, they have a thing called 'Helping Hands,' which has helped us out with meals and things like that as well. Both communities that we're a part of have been great."

Berg's father-in-law, Fred, gets big props. If needed before sunrise at the Berg's home, Fred is there. Jen's mom, Lynne Strutzel, is a principal at Carmel. She's been supportive, too, even as she and her husband cope with their own grief.

Their focus, like Ben's, is the children. Each has a little of their Mommy in them, and that makes their Daddy proud. He sees her in them every time he looks at them.

"Personality-wise, Ben is exactly like her," Berg says. "He's like the male Jen.

"Emma looks like her. You can tell from old video, from when Jen was like 2 or 3 years old, that their mannerisms are the same. It's eerie."

Then there's bright-eyed Lauren, who might be the most outgoing of the three. Called the "miracle baby" by Ben because he and Jen were afraid they might lose her before she was born, she was delivered premature but is perfectly healthy.

"She's a handful," Berg says with a laugh."She runs the household.

"Kids are resilient," he adds. "They're doing pretty well, from what it seems like. At times, I think probably better than I am. Kids are that way. And they're good kids."

This summer, they get Daddy full-time. No summer basketball leagues or camps for Daddy.

"Not only do I want to be at home, my kids deserve for me to be at home," Berg says.

In his psychology class, Berg teaches students about coping with death. He practices what he preaches, and he also draws inspiration from the grace and integrity Jennifer showed in coping with her illness.

"She still is (inspirational)," Berg says. "She taught me how to live my life. A lot of people think death is a stopping of something, and in some ways it's a continuation.

"People have asked me, 'Do you get angry at all?' I've said, 'Sometimes.'

His voice trails off. He adjusts his glasses because tears begin to well in his eyes.

"But I can't," he says, "because she never really did."

With the support of family and so many friends, he soldiers forward, aware so many people, including three little ones who sleep under his roof, need him.

"The best thing I can do is try to be the best father I can be to my kids," Berg says. "I can't be Jen, but I can try to live my life maybe more like her."