Dec. 4, 2008

By Adam Caparell

Bitter rivals aren't supposed to be good friends, but oftentimes football doesn't follow a script.

Just ask Casey Gerald and Andrew Berry.

Two cornerbacks from two of the most prestigious schools in the country had no idea of the kind of connection that awaited them when their Ivy League careers began four years ago. But for the friendship they now share, all thanks should be directed to Berry's mom for asking too many questions.

Otherwise, Gerald and Berry would have only known each other as numbers on the football field and wouldn't have nearly as much to talk about when they get to see other again in New York for a few special days.

Gerald, from Yale, and Berry, from Harvard, are more than just two outstanding football players playing while dealing with some of the most grueling academic standards in the country. They are far more than that, as evidenced by the fact they just happen to be two of 15 finalists for one of the most prestigious awards in college football.

Given annually to the student-athlete who is "recognized as the absolute best in the country for his academic success, football performance and exemplary community leadership," it makes perfect sense that the Draddy Trophy - commonly referred to as the "academic Heisman" - would have a pair of Ivy Leaguers up for the award. But then you realize that this only the second time in history that two Ivy Leaguers have been up for the award in the same year, and you start to think that there's something unique, something singular about the pair of friends who took very, very different paths to where they are now.

There are certainly bigger names and more famous faces among the finalists. Two high profile quarterbacks - Texas Tech's Graham Harrell and Missouri's Chase Daniel - are among the 15 who will find out if they're the winner Dec. 9 when the National Football Foundation & College Hall of Fame present the award at New York's Waldorf Astoria, but none of the others share the kind of bond that Gerald and Berry do.

And the two of them never would have known it unless Berry's mother, Brenda, had asked a bunch of questions one afternoon that Gerald found to be a little too invasive.

It all goes back to an official visit to Yale that Adam Berry - now a receiver at Princeton - was making along with his mother. The two ran into Gerald, also on a visit, and Brenda could recognize Gerald was from the Dallas area by the way he was dressed in the cold Connecticut weather. The Berrys used to live in suburban Dallas so Brenda struck up a conversation.

"I'm wondering why this lady is asking me so many questions," Gerald said.

It turns out Brenda Berry has a sixth sense. It didn't take long for Gerald to find out that he and the Berrys share some history. Gerald's father, Rod, went to the same high school as Berry's father, Drew. Rod Gerald and Drew Berry also just happened to have been teammates on the football team.

From there, the bond was formed and Gerald got the family's contact information and, over time, a genuine friendship was eventually struck up between Gerald and Andrew. Andrew found his way to Boston while Gerald liked New Haven and the two never stopped keeping up with each other. It didn't hurt that the two were now the fiercest of rivals on the football field. Email, text or the phone; the two talk regularly and Gerald even stayed with Berry after Yale's loss to Harvard in the season finale Nov. 22.

"They've sort of become a second family to me out here on the East Coast," Gerald said.

But what Gerald finds even stranger than the fact he's become so close with the Berrys - from a chance meeting years ago - is that he and his good friend are two of the 15 finalists for the Draddy. Two Ivy Leaguers, two cornerbacks and two pals found themselves on the final list for an award that featured 160 semifinalists back in October. What are the chances?

"They could have picked the next 15 people and it could have been just as amazing of a class as it is now," Gerald said.

Making it as a finalist is quite an accomplishment, but the fact that the two Ivy Leaguers made the list is rather unique. Despite what you might think about the Draddy, the finalists aren't just a bunch of guys from Stanford, Vanderbilt, Northwestern and the Ivy League. It's an inclusive, yet very selective, list that only once before has featured two Ivy League finalists. That came all the way back in 1993 when Cornell's Matt Miller and Princeton's Keith Elias were named finalists. And although one of the Ancient Eight is almost always represented among the Draddy finalist, no Ivy Leaguer has ever won the award.

So for Gerald and Berry to be named finalist was a pretty big deal. And the idea of being associated with the award is something that's weighed heavily on both.

"I just think it's the consummate scholar athlete," Berry said of the award. "We all go and play sports in college to be scholar athletes, but to be one of the top scholar athletes is just a little mind-boggling."

But to play sports at Harvard or Yale does take a different kind of student-athlete than it would at other institutions. The Nos. 1 and 3 universities, as respectively ranked by U.S. News and World Report, are the two hardest universities to gain admittance and feature some of the highest standards in the country. You don't pull a 3.7-plus GPA like Gerald and Berry own at an Ivy League school unless you're more than competent.

The hardest part of it all is the balancing act, they say. The school work and the high level of football Gerald and Berry perform at, on top of any other extra-circular activities, is a big-time juggling act that wears down even the best.

"It's tough," Berry said. "Football is kind of like the vacation. You put a lot of hard work into football, but football's always fun, whereas the classroom you might not be doing something that would be your first choice at the time. It's definitely demanding. You just have to have good time management skills. There's very little wiggle room in the week during the season."

If you can't compartmentalize, you can't survive. When you're taking classes and studying well over 40 hours per week, squeezing football into your schedule can be tricky. The NCAA mandates that football players spend no more than 20 hours per week preparing for a game with the team, but players spend much more time than that on their own watching film, conditioning and mentally preparing for Saturday's game.

"It sort of consumes you. It really does make you prioritize the things you're passionate about," Gerald said.

Gerald estimates he spends about 30 hours per week on football. So it comes as no surprise that he averages about three hours of sleep a night. On top of his school and football responsibilities, Gerald is also the co-founder and president of the Yale Black Men's Union and a Yale Student Ambassador. It takes a different kind of mind to be able to tackle all that in a week.

"I operate in a very compartmentalized way," Gerald said. "Being able to sort of turn your passions on and off and focus on the task at hand is the `A No. 1' priority to get through a week, get through a season, get through a semester."

But as much as school can weigh on the mind, it doesn't compare to the rigors of football. The physical toll adds up as the season wears on and if you think cramming for a midterm is tough, try doing that 10 times a year. That's what it's like each week prepping for a game on Saturday.

"I don't think I've ever done as much per week for a class I've taken at Harvard than what I've done in football in terms of watching film, practicing, lifting weights," Berry said. "You never spend that much time on a problem set or a paper for a single class in a given week."

Berry spends about 20-25 hours a week on football, and that's before he's done watching film and finishing his other preparations for each game. Add up the school hours and Berry - like Gerald - is pretty much working two full-time jobs.

And the two also agree that football is much harder than school. Berry might be an economics major and Gerald might be political science major, and both put everything them have into those pristine GPAs, but the rigors of football easily trump the rigors of an Ivy League education.

"It's not just me and my performance, it's how well the guy across from me is prepared. It's not just me as an individual it's me as a part of a collective team," Gerald said. "If the goal of football is to win a football game then it's much harder to do that than it is write a good paper because I'm the only one contributing to that effort."

But because Gerald and Berry have the total package they'll find themselves sitting on the dais of the Waldorf-Astoria's Grand Ballroom, waiting to find out if they receive the prestigious award and its spoils. It's anyone's guess who wins it, but Gerald's tough childhood could make him a sentimental favorite.

Gerald's father may have played at Ohio State and spent a season in the NFL, but Casey's upbringing was anything but storybook. Rod Gerald battled addictions much of his life and Casey grew up in the typical inner-city setting in Dallas. Trouble wasn't very hard to find, but he managed to stay above it all thanks in large part to his teachers who pushed and praised him all the way to Yale.

He's arguably overcome more obstacles to get to where his is right now than any other candidate up for the award and no one knows that better than Gerald's good friend. Ask Berry who he thinks should win the award and he won't hesitate.

"If Casey were to win it I don't know anyone who would be more deserving of it," Berry said. "It would be a huge testament to all he's gone through, where he's come from, to be the Draddy winner. I just don't think there would be a more deserving winner."

Gerald scoffs at the idea. He thinks Berry would make an ideal winner.

Maybe the final chapter of Gerald's and Berry's college career ends as co-Draddy Trophy winners. It's a nice idea, certainly, but chances are that fate doesn't await two friends who could have easily been nothing more than football rivals.