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FORGED IN FIRE

Hardships, tragedy made Wyoming's Jordan Bertagnole stronger

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Of all the moments he could possibly remember, Steve Harshman doesn’t gravitate toward any plays made in a football game. That’s no small task for a coach who’s been running the same high school program for 30 years.

When asked to conjure up memories of Jordan Bertagnole, the first thing that comes to Harshman’s mind is that mile-wide grin.

Bertagnole, a redshirt freshman defensive tackle at the University of Wyoming, played for Harshman at Natrona County High. As a senior receiver, tight end and linebacker, Bertagnole flourished, particularly in the team’s state championship victory. He caught a touchdown pass and blocked a punt in Natrona’s 28-14 win over Sheridan in 2018.

There are no doubt any number of moments Harshman could choose to dwell on that happened between the hashmarks when it comes to Bertagnole. But, as is the case with most people who have met the 19-year-old, the conversation almost immediately centers on Bertagnole’s character.

“He’s probably the nicest, most genuine guy you’ll ever meet,” Harshman said. “His body language speaks. He has a beautiful smile.”

Bertagnole, a walk-on, came to UW as an undersized defensive end. He was about 220 pounds in high school without true expectations of being a difference maker. Due in part to injuries and opt-outs, but also due to his hard work, the Casper native quite literally finds himself in the middle of the defensive action for the Cowboys, a starter at defensive tackle who battles every single day to keep his weight at a bulked-up 265 pounds.

“It’s definitely been different. Last year, I did not expect to be in this situation where I’m going out, I’m taking like 60 reps in a game,” Bertagnole said. “(But) I know what I’m capable of (now), and I know that I can handle that workload.”

Things have never come particularly easy for Bertagnole. Every step of his life has been littered with adversity. He has overcome plenty on the football field, to be sure. He broke his ankle the first game of his sophomore year of high school, and had to start from scratch as a junior who didn’t see a ton of playing time. He has battled from walk-on to starter at a Division I program known specifically for producing hard-nosed, gritty defenders.

But nothing in Bertagnole’s football life compares to the hardships he battled off the field as a young boy. His biological mother, Sarah, with whom he shares a birthday, died from cancer when he was just 10-years-old, leaving he and his five siblings without a mom. His father, Nathan, later remarried a fellow cancer widow with five children of her own.

Growing up in a Brady Bunch-ish household of 11 total children isn’t for everyone. Bertagnole would have been justified to be angry about his past, to resent a hodgepodge family that looked so different from that of the neighborhood children he grew up with.

As he always does, though, Bertagnole followed the path less traveled. He became a homebody who couldn’t get enough of his new family despite its strange dynamic.

“You would never know the life that he’s lived,” Natrona assistant football coach Josh Anderson said. “The kid is all smiles. He’s a super positive person. I think it speaks a lot about him.”

When life has knocked him to the ground, Bertagnole has punched back twice as hard. He’s persisted. And as he’s done so, he’s done it with a heart of gold, always looking toward the sunny side of life with hopes of making a positive difference in the lives of others.

“He rises up. He’s the personality that rises up,” Nathan said. “He’s a lover. He has the biggest heart … He has a huge, kind heart.”

To fully understand the impact Jordan has on the people he meets and the speed with which it happens, one need look no further than UW defensive tackles coach Pete Kaligis. Kaligis is a 25-year coaching veteran whose job is, quite literally, to coach some of the toughest dudes on the field. But even a grizzled football coach like Kaligis fights back tears when discussing Bertagnole.

When he first came to Laramie as a preferred walk-on, Bertagnole was set to be a defensive end. At 220 pounds, he was still undersized. But with his background as a receiver, linebacker and high school basketball player, the raw athleticism was there.

So when Bertagnole called Nathan one night with the news the Cowboys’ coaching staff wanted to move him to defensive tackle, you can imagine the shock and silence that ensued on both ends of that phone call.

Bertagnole had chosen to walk-on at UW despite having scholarship offers from a handful of Division II programs. When you tell Bertagnole he can’t do something, he will of course prove you wrong. This was just going to be another battle to be won.

“(I thought) ‘What are they thinking? This boy is not big enough for a defensive tackle position,’” Nathan said with a chuckle. “But the last thing I was going to do was discourage him.”

So father and son put their faith in a bigger plan and put one foot in front of the other.

Jordan was already a big eater. “He’ll eat anything,” his father said. But he took it to another level over the next year or so. He also worked like a man possessed in the weight room. UW director of sports performance Eric Donoval estimates Bertagnole has to consume somewhere between 5,000 and 6,000 calories per day to maintain his weight.

More impressive than the amount of food on Bertagnole’s plate is his effort in the weight room. The strength staff monitors the amount of weight players are lifting and cross checks it with how fast they are moving said weight. If a player is going too slowly with heavy weight, weight is taken off so the speed can be increased. If a player is going too fast, it means it’s too light.

Bertagnole is one of the players who lifts the most weight and also goes the fastest. He comes into the weight room every day with a purpose: to get better than he was the day before.

Since the spring, Bertagnole’s power clean max has increased by a whopping 30 pounds. All of his numbers have increased, in fact.

“That just goes pretty much to speak to his character and personality. If you want him to kick extra points and punt, he’ll do it,” Donoval said. “Whatever is going to help the team.”

Bertagnole’s athletic essence can be best summed up by a family basketball game played three Thanksgivings ago. Following a huge meal, Jordan, Nathan and a few of his siblings went down to the local church to play basketball. The teams were divided so Nathan was with the older siblings and Jordan had the younger ones as teammates.

Nathan, who had dislocated his shoulder a few weeks prior, was working his way back into playing form. He did not expect his group to beat Jordan’s team the first two games. Jordan clearly wasn’t expecting it, either. He was taking Jordan down the lane, which was just as much a shock to him as it was to his son.

Jordan sure wasn’t going to lose that third game. And there is a reason Nathan no longer plays basketball with the family.

“He literally put me to the ground … he dislocated (my other shoulder),” Nathan recalled. “That’s Jordan. He’ll take it for a while, but he’s finally going to give it until he succeeds.”

But Kaligis isn’t moved to tears because of Bertagnole’s changed body, impressive lifting numbers or work ethic. Much like Harshman remembers Bertagnole’s smile and kindness over any football feats, Kaligis remembers a phone call he had with him one summer.

As a walk-on, Bertagnole was not guaranteed much of anything on the field and perhaps less financially. He and his family were largely responsible for figuring out how to make Bertagnole’s college football career work monetarily. Kaligis got a call from Bertagnole just a few days before the team was set to come back for workouts in Laramie.

Bertagnole wanted to know if he could report to the team a bit late so he could work at a construction job back home and make a little more money to pay for his tuition.

That spoke volumes more than any pass rushing drill could ever.

When Kaligis and Bertagnole walked off the field after the game against Hawaii where he notched seven tackles and 1½ sacks, the former couldn’t help but embrace the latter.

“His heart. His heart is so big,” Kaligis said through tears. “He’s tough and I love the young man.”

After living through a childhood many would be desperate to forget, it would be understandable if Bertagnole wanted to move far away the first opportunity he got. Sometimes, people need to move out in order to move on.

But that’s not Bertagnole’s outlook on life. It never has been. Running away from problems is not what makes his heart full. He would rather use his experiences to make his and your life better. It’s what his mother would have wanted.

“He’s told me how she always believed in him. That’s been an important thing for him,” Anderson said. “(He would tell me) ‘There’s times when I can kind of hear her voice. She’s helping me push through.’”

In addition to being an assistant football coach, Anderson also is a history and psychology teacher at Natrona. He first met Bertagnole as a freshman at summer basketball camp where he was also coaching at the time. It was a fairly casual gathering for the majority of players in attendance. To absolutely no one’s surprise, Bertagnole was going 100 miles per hour.

That was Anderson’s first impression of Bertagnole: a kid who didn’t know how to take his foot off the gas.

Where the two truly connected, for better or worse, was through shared unspeakable pain. Anderson’s son, Brooks, died from Sudden Infant Death Syndrome at just 4 months old. That was not too long after Anderson had first met the the teenager.

One of the most rewarding parts of being a teacher and coach is being able to make a positive impact on a young person’s life. A mentor goes into it knowing full well it usually isn’t a mutual relationship. Most teenagers have a million things on their minds, not one of which is checking in to see how their elders are doing. The joy is knowing that, whether the kid realizes it or not at the moment, you changed his or her life for the better.

In a way that very few of his students or players has ever done, Bertagnole took it upon himself to check in with Anderson to see how he was doing following his loss. Bertagnole knows better than anyone about how to fight through life’s toughest battles. He was not going to let Anderson go through it alone.

“That investment, as teachers and coaches, (that) we make into kids … it’s really unique for kids to reciprocate that, to invest in our lives,” Anderson said. “I wish that neither one of us had to go through it … but he’s a kid you’re thankful is there for you.”

Bertagnole impacts nearly everyone he meets in one way or another. As his father says, he is a “peace maker.” He loves with all his heart and puts 100% into everything he does and the people he loves. He is instant energy in any room he happens to walk into.

“The kid comes in with a positive mental attitude,” UW assistant football performance coach Jordan Jurasevich said. “No matter what day he’s having, you can’t tell.”

During team exit interviews with his senior players, Harshman often finds himself giving advice to young men unsure of what is to become of their football careers. Some have offers to play at their dream schools. Some must fight tooth and nail as walk-ons.

Harshman found himself using Bertagnole as an example a few dozen times during those conversations. You can start your career as a walk-on and accomplish great things if you put your everything into it. If it’s the path you want to take, take it, even if it costs more money. Money is temporary, but the memories will last forever.

Just because it’s an uphill battle doesn’t mean it’s not worth climbing. Sometimes, the hardest battles yield the greatest rewards.

“In the grand scheme of your life, it isn’t that much money, anyway. Whether you’re playing at a little tiny school in the middle of nowhere or UW,” Harshman said. “Don’t let a few hundred dollar scholarship get in the way of what you want to do. You’re only young once.”

Anderson still has a text message Bertagnole sent him two years ago. It was after Natrona’s lone loss of the season, a one-point defeat at the hands of Cheyenne East during Bertagnole’s senior season. Whereas most players might be feeling sorry for themselves or want to move on to the next game, Bertagnole refused.

Anderson was his wide receiver coach at this point, and Bertagnole knew he hadn’t played well enough. He demanded better of himself, and he wanted Anderson to demand more from him, too. In that text, Bertagnole asked Anderson to make him do push-ups, up downs and extra sprints if he ever ran his routes that lazily again. He apologized profusely. What he put out on the field that day was less than his best, and that isn’t acceptable.

“He’s a kid that wants to be held accountable,” Anderson said. “We learn so much from our mistakes, but not everyone wants to know when they make mistakes.”

Anderson also fondly recalled an essay Bertagnole wrote when he was in high school. Anderson never taught Bertagnole specifically in history or psychology. Following the passing of Brooks, Anderson and his wife created a scholarship, the 2019 Books for Brooks Memorial Scholarship Fund, for all students in the school district. Bertagnole entered an essay in hopes of getting some money for college.

In that essay, Bertagnole wrote that he does everything in his life to make his mother proud. His relentless determination, his pursuit of perfection but also his kindness and empathy. Those were all to honor her. If he were fortunate enough to win the scholarship, he wrote, he would do everything in his power to honor Brooks with the way he lives his life.

Needless to say, Bertagnole won that scholarship.

“He’s such a unique, special kid. Everyone that has ever met Jordan, taught Jordan, coached Jordan, they just say the most incredibly kind things about him. It’s different when you hear those things from other people,” Nathan said. “It just kind of brings a father to tears.”

Michael Katz covers the University of Wyoming for WyoSports. He can be reached at mkatz@wyosports.net or 307-755-3325. Follow him on Twitter at @michaellkatz.

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