After playing only one full football season at Tabor College, senior offensive lineman Jon-Michael Bergeron was selected to the 2012 American Football Coaches Association NAIA Coaches’ All-America Team.
But beyond the honor of being one of the top 25 athletes chosen from 93 NAIA schools, Bergeron’s story is one of commitment and perseverance through difficulty.
The 6-foot, 3-inch, 285-pound senior worked through ineligibility and a devastating injury to have an impact on the field in his final year at Tabor.
This past season, Bergeron aided a Bluejay offense that averaged 338 rushing yards per game to lead the nation. As a team, Tabor ended the 2012 season nationally ranked at 17.
In a sense, Bergeron came out of nowhere.
“He worked hard in the weight room, worked hard in the off-season, and Coach (Billy) Hickman did a tremendous job as his position coach of getting him ready to play in the system of offense that we run that I think really utilized his abilities,” coach Mike Gardner said.
“A lot of systems are centered around a quarterback or an offensive receiving core or whatever. Ours is centered around a quarterback, obviously, but our system is really centered around a group of offensive linemen that can be athletic enough to make things happen.”
Bergeron was a unanimous first team all-conference selection.
“Every conference rates their top three or four players to come out of the conference, and Jon-Michael was the third-rated player to come out of the KCAC this year, which as an offensive lineman is very rare,” Gardner said.
The NAIA selection committee, on which Gardner has previously served, then narrows the list to 25 players—11 on offense, 11 on defense, and three on special teams.
It’s an honor never before bestowed upon a Tabor athlete since the NAIA rejected its system of multiple All-American teams seven years ago in favor of one AFCA team.
“This is a first for Tabor College,” Gardner said. “Since 2006, it’s been really cut-and-dry. There’s only one selected team, and for (Bergeron) to make it, that’s what makes it so special to me is because that’s the best of the best.”
Story of perseverance
Aside from the numbers, Bergeron’s story is unique for his perseverance through hardship.
The Houston native arrived at Tabor in 2009 after a brief stint at Henderson State University in Arkansas. He accompanied a friend who had been recruited to play for the Bluejays under then-coach Mike Gottsch.
“The thing that’s so ironic about this whole deal is it didn’t work out for the originally recruited player, it worked out great for (Jon-Michael),” Gardner said.
Bergeron was recruited to play tight-end and started four games his first year on a team that finished 0-10.
“When I got (to Tabor) I was, I don’t know, I was everywhere; I was immature, wasn’t very responsible,” Bergeron said. “I got here and it didn’t change immediately, so that reflected in my grades and social life.”
Ineligibility kept Bergeron sidelined his second season in 2010, the year Gardner re-entered the scene after a four-year coaching stint at Malone University in Ohio.
“Through meeting Gardner and Hickman, and I guess the tough love they showed me when they first got here, it challenged me to either change myself for the better or get out of here,” Bergeron said. “I went with the challenge of trying to be a better person as well as a better football player.”
Gardner and his coaching staff decided to move Bergeron to the offensive line when Bergeron returned to Tabor in 2011. But he broke his leg on the third day of training camp.
“It was real tough not being able to play football for that whole semester,” he said. “I feel like a lot of people might’ve given up, and I was pretty close to giving up after I broke my leg.”
One day Bergeron had a long talk with Gardner.
“We put everything out on the table, and I made it up in my mind that I’d dedicate one last go for it, and it just worked out really well,” he said.
When spring came, Bergeron was able to work out again. He stayed in Hillsboro the following summer to prepare for the upcoming football season.
“I think I probably put in my most work during the summer I stayed here,” he said. “After the whole injury thing, I was kind of questioning football, like if my heart was still in it. After that summer and then coming into this fall, I fell in love with the game again.”
And Bergeron finally was able to play.
Season of highlights
It would be a season that, for Gardner, held many highlights.
First on that list was seeing players value team over self, particularly at quarterback when former signal-caller Tim Rozzell helped current quarterback Simon McKee after Tabor changed its offense in the middle of last season.
“When I saw Tim drop his ego in light of team success, that inspired me to be better,” Gardner said. “That act of unselfishness, when I saw that happening on my squad, it inspired me to try to step up and be even a better leader.”
Gardner would go on to lead his team to a 7-1 KCAC record, 8-2 overall. It would be a team where the defense worked as a unit to create 41 takeaways. A team that tied the school record with 21 interceptions. A team that not only led the nation in rushing yards per game but also was a threat through the air.
And it was a team on which Bergeron would finally have an opportunity to shine.
“I think it’s unique that we went to an offense that definitely showcased what (Bergeron) can do,” Gardner said. “We ran to his side a lot. The way he uses his body, his techniques, the way he plays physical and fast. That’s why I think people noticed that in this conference week after week and how he was performing. He performed at such a high level.”
Gardner was on the road recruiting when he received the phone call that Bergeron had been named to the AFCA All-America Team.
“I got pretty emotional because I understand how difficult it is to play this game at a high level consistently,” he said. “To play this game at a high level, overcoming so much adversity and then to have your peers in coaching recognize what he accomplished and how vital he was to our offensive process, it’s hard for me to describe.”
Gardner also recognized the change he’s witnessed in Bergeron’s life.
“I have seen (Jon-Michael) completely transform his life and his game in my three years here, and that’s the thing that I’m the most pleased about,” he said.
Bergeron said he intends to graduate in May with a degree in business and would like to stay involved in football through coaching.
“Since I’ve been here I’ve grown a lot as a person,” he said. “I think the change of when I first got here to now has been the biggest highlight for me.”
Of his final season, Bergeron said: “There was just something special going on this year, and a lot of the guys saw it. It was fun; it was a real fun year. There was a lot of adversity, some bad things happened, but it was probably a season I’ll remember for the rest of my life.”