‘I Don’t Know if I Can Do This?’
LARAMIE -- "I don't know if I can do this?"
That was more of a reality than an actual question in the fall of 2019.
That thought was already somewhat planted in Jordan Bertagnole's mind. After all, he was an unheralded walk-on. The minute his coaches asked him to switch positions -- and the daily beatings that ensued -- only fueled his doubt.
"I just remember I talked to my dad and I was just crying," he admitted. "This sucks."
Already an undersized, inexperienced edge rusher at 230 pounds, Bertagnole was shuffled to the interior defensive front thanks to an injury a week into his first training camp. His opponents' weight started with a three in the trenches, a place that was already beyond foreign to the former wide receiver and tight end at Casper's Natrona County High School.
The best word to describe that camp -- and a seemingly never-ending year on the Cowboys' scout team -- demoralizing.
To think, he was actually paying for this out of his own pocket.
"Keegan Cryder and Logan Harris, I got hit by them and I was so drained, I just fell over," Bertagnole recalled. "That was definitely one of the lowest points of my career here. I was so out of it. I was thinking, 'I'm so done with this.' That was a Thursday practice, too, which Thursday is pretty laid back. There were a lot of days I would get smacked on a double team and I would be on the ground, just punching the ground as hard as I could.
"That first year at defensive tackle was definitely one of the roughest years of my life. My 2019 season was not very good. I mean, I was kind of pathetic, to be honest."
Now, five years later, 60 pounds heavier and with 174 total tackles under his expanded belt, Bertagnole's inviting, trademark grin appears.
"I never would have thought that I was going to be here," he said, followed by a slight shake of the head.
Now a married man and soon expecting his first child, the gentle giant will cap his career at Wyoming much differently than it humbly began. Oddly enough, though, the final two venues Bertagnole will play in serve as a reminder of how far he has truly come.
The Cowboys will take on Toledo in the Arizona Bowl on Dec. 30 in Tucson.
The first time Bertagnole ever dressed out and traveled for a game came inside that very same venue. Then a true freshman, he recalled the score beginning to swell. That led to an unrealistic fantasy.
"I remember for some stupid reason I thought I was going to get in that game," he said with a laugh, referring to a 38-17 victory over Georgia State inside Arizona Stadium.
That didn't happen.
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The season opener the following year was no laughing matter. Truth be told, Bertagnole can still feel the overwhelming nerves to this day. He recalls shaking. A pregame prayer, he said, helped him gather himself on the sideline.
Though he didn't start that bizarre late-October opener at Nevada, he served as the back-up -- the only other reserve at the tackle position that day in Reno. While the COVID-19 pandemic raged on, the Mountain West reluctantly began its season inside a vacant Mackay Stadium.
"That was such a chaotic year," Craig Bohl recalled. "Our strength and conditioning staff said, 'Hey, this Bertagnole guy. Hey, this Bertagnole guy. He's pretty good.'"
That's the extent of what Wyoming's head coach admits he knew about the Casper product in those days.
It didn't take long for Bertagnole to make an impact.
He registered two tackles that day, including a sack in a 37-34 overtime loss to the Wolf Pack. He also recovered a first-half fumble.
"He wasn't a defensive tackle, and all of a sudden, he's shows up," Bohl added. "Those are bright spots in college football. Many times as coaches, my problem is the glass is always half empty. Those guys are the guys that give me some sense of happiness."
Wyoming closed the 2023 campaign in Reno. Bertagnole again tallied a pair of stops, a quarterback sack and a tackle for loss. This time his team ended up on the right side of the scoreboard, rolling to an easy 42-6 victory.
Thanks in large part to Bertagnole and fellow tackles Cole Godbout, Ben Florentine and Gavin Meyer, the Cowboys' defense finished the season ranked No. 49 in the nation, allowing just 360.2 yards per game, only 144.6 of those coming via the ground game. Bertagnole, who was named to the All-Mountain West Preseason First Team, wrapped up a career-high 55 tackles, including two sacks, a pair of batted down passes and a forced fumble.
When the dust settles on his career, Bertagnole will likely be remembered as yet another walk-on success story during the Bohl era. Nearly 50 players have earned scholarships here since 2014. A home-state favorite, his work ethic and character are unmatched.
"I love him."
Bohl has uttered those three words when referring to Bertagnole.
So has former UW coach Pete Kalagis and incoming head coach Jay Sawvel.
"He's a really good football player who just works his butt off," Sawvel said. "He's just such a great kid. To call him a kid is not even really a service to him, right? He got married this summer. This is a man. You know, he's a man. He's a man of how he handles his business, he's a man how he handles everything. You have such a great respect for him, but then I have a great admiration and appreciation for him that he's that much of a man at this young of an age. I think the kid is awesome.
"I love him."
Does Bertagnole ever think about that tear-filled phone call with his father?
"I remember my dad kind of reminded me I've never been a quitter," he said. "I've always put my best foot forward and just always done my best. He just told me to go after it and just do what I was supposed to do: learn the playbook, study, put in the extra hours. So, I did that."
* The interviews included in this feature were completed last August.
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