NFC South Reporter
TAMPA, Fla. — As the Buccaneers’ equipment director, Brad Berlin is responsible for everything the team wears and uses — about 25,000 pounds of helmets, pads, jerseys and everything else, enough to fill a 53-foot tractor trailer or the entire belly of a 767 wide-body jet.
For the past two seasons, one of the smallest pieces a Bucs player or coach could wear was a tiny red bracelet with the words BERLIN STRONG in capital letters.
Berlin, 57, first knew something was wrong nearly three years ago, just days after the Bucs won the Super Bowl, when an end-of-year physical with the team doctor showed an abnormality in his blood-protein levels. When the 2021 season started, more labs showed the same, and the Bucs sent him to Tampa’s Moffitt Cancer Center, one of the nation’s top cancer facilities.
“That’s a gut punch,” Berlin said, remembering the reality of what would be ahead for him. “[The doctor is] like, ‘I’m going to set you up with a hematologist over there. I want you to go talk to him. It may not be anything, but we’re going to make sure it’s not that.'”
But it was that. A bone-marrow biopsy and other tests showed in October 2021 that Berlin had multiple myeloma, a blood cancer that develops in the bone marrow. It usually attacks the bone, but to complicate matters, Berlin had a rare case in which it attacked his heart, causing a condition called amyloidosis, a buildup of proteins that can stiffen the heart and reduce the circulation of blood to the rest of the body.
Days after the Bucs lost to the Rams in the playoffs in January 2022, Berlin started chemotherapy treatments, going every week for a year, then every two weeks for the past year. Through all the treatments, through all the uncertainty of what he was dealing with and how severe it could be, Berlin leaned on his job and the normalcy and routine of work, the daily challenges and distractions it gave him.
“He’s such a dedicated, tireless worker,” Bucs general manager Jason Licht said. “To support him goes without saying, because he’s so loyal, such a hard worker. It’s the least we could do. I had to tell him, ‘Stop apologizing (because) you’re going to miss a couple hours tomorrow. Take the day, take as much time as you need. Whatever it takes, we just want to make sure you’re good.’ He’s such a strong-willed person.”
Berlin didn’t know it then, but his final chemo treatment was Dec. 26, the day after Christmas and two days after a big Bucs victory over the Jaguars. On Jan. 2, he had a bone-marrow biopsy, his third, and it came back negative. His heart had fully recovered, and last Tuesday, two days after the Bucs clinched a division title, he got the best news of all: Doctors told him he was cancer-free.
Brad credits his family, here with him at a Packers game in December, and his extended Bucs family with helping him stay strong throughout his cancer treatment. (Photo courtesy of Brad Berlin.)
Cancer is cruel and unfair, but it also somehow brought Brad and his wife, Molly, together. He lost both of his parents to cancer, and in 1997, they both lost their mothers to cancer when Brad was the equipment manager at Missouri, where her father, Moe Ankney, was the Tigers’ defensive coordinator. Their mothers didn’t know each other, but they had the same doctor and the same nurse.
“Coach Ankney came to me and said, ‘I’d really like you to talk to my daughter Molly sometime. I understand your mom is going through the same thing my wife is,'” Berlin said. “That’s how we became friends.”
They’ll be married 12 years this summer, and cancer has bonded them even closer in the past few years as she became the heart of his support system. There’s been outreach from all over the football world, with a network of coaches and equipment staffs throughout the college and NFL ranks sending him pictures, wearing the BERLIN STRONG bracelets and T-shirts that read “His Fight Is My Fight.”
Football and the Bucs helped Berlin in so many ways in his recovery. He’d been on a football sideline every fall since 1979 — from playing in eighth grade growing up in Missouri to his entire adult life working in football — and he didn’t want to let his treatment take that away from him. He missed five games in 2022, but it took not only chemo, but getting COVID and pneumonia twice each, sending him to the hospital, to sideline him.
“I hated it, taking a lot of time off work,” he said, proud that his staff could keep the operation moving smoothly when he couldn’t. “Jason was awesome. Coach [Bruce] Arians was awesome, Coach [Todd] Bowles has been awesome. They’ve all been so awesome. They’d call and check on me, we’d FaceTime or Zoom, but they knew what to do. They didn’t miss a beat.”
Berlin is grateful that as hard as his past two years have been, it could have been worse. Chemotherapy technology has improved, so it isn’t attacking the entire body but more precisely the areas it needs to attack.
“Even if you do feel good, the chemo knocks you back down,” he said. “I never lost my hair. The medicine made me gain 20 pounds, which I can’t wait to shed. The fatigue is the big thing. The medicine has come so far. At Moffitt, I got the drugs that attacked my bone-marrow cancer and my amyloidosis, and it didn’t affect any other part of my body. Seventy-two hours after a treatment, I could sleep all day if I wanted to. I took a ton of naps. I’ve got a couch in there. Guys knew, if my light was off, I was taking a nap.”
Berlin’s oncologist told him at the outset that he was fortunate, that a routine physical had caught something early, and the technology has advanced so much that even five years earlier, the same cancer probably would have killed him. He’s constantly thankful for his friend, Bucs trainer Bobby Slater, who administered the physical, and team physician Byron Moran, who flagged a lab result and got him to get it checked out, starting his relationship with Moffitt.
“He saved my life,” Berlin says of Dr. Moran.
In 2022, Berlin became a grandfather. His son-in-law, Alec Wargo (far right), is also one of his Bucs assistants. (Photo courtesy of Brad Berlin.)
Berlin was back at work full time this season, going to chemo treatments on Tuesday mornings and to work on Tuesday afternoons. His staff remains extremely close. One of his assistants, Alec Wargo, is married to Berlin’s daughter, Hannah, and they made him a first-time grandfather in 2022. He loves the camaraderie of a football staff, on and off the field, but the last few years have reminded him how family — especially Molly and their three children, all still local — has an importance above all else.
“Cancer consumes you,” he said. “It changes everything, turns your world upside-down. Vacations, time off, instead of flying to New York, you’re like, ‘I just want to hang with the family this weekend. Want to go to the Bahamas? Let’s just have a family dinner.'”
Last week’s news was an unexpected joy. Berlin had been warned to expect chemo treatments the rest of his life, so he’d accepted that, but his results gave him a clean bill of health.
“He’s like, ‘Brad, you’re good to go. I’ve looked at your file a million times. I’m confident in the results,'” he said. “‘You’re healthy. The results of all these tests and labs show you’re healthy. I’m going to take you off.’
“Molly started crying, and I said, ‘Where do I sign? Give me the pen!'”
Berlin will still have blood tests every three months for two years, then every six months from then on, but he is a grateful, healthy man, one who can get back to worrying about having enough of the right cleats and all the minutiae of work that he loves, finishing up his 21st season in the NFL. In postseason football, as in life, every week is a blessing.
“That’s fun for me,” he said. “I have to be challenged every day, like this playoff game Monday and the weather. Is it going to rain? I enjoy that part of it, the relationship with the coaches and the players, my role in making sure everybody’s outfitted and protected. That’s huge to me, that’s paramount. The daily challenges are what keep me going.”
Greg Auman is FOX Sports’ NFC South reporter, covering the Buccaneers, Falcons, Panthers and Saints. He is in his 10th season covering the Bucs and the NFL full-time, having spent time at the Tampa Bay Times and The Athletic. You can follow him on Twitter at @gregauman.
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