Berry College football is for the birds


Berry College football is for the birds

Of all of Berry College’s 27,000 acres, this was the spot.

Nestled behind the Steven J. Cage Athletic and Recreation Center was a pristine location for the first stadium in the school’s 112-year history. It had adequate storm runoff, proximity to parking, access to utilities and a slew of other positive features. They even had a name picked out. It would be called Valhalla.

Then someone noticed a pair of bald eagles had moved in. This is a story of how a couple birds moved a stadium.

A healthy pine forest, proximity to the Coosa, Oostanaula and Etowah rivers, ample access to fish and small animals all led to the eagles nesting 120 feet above the planned stadium site three years ago.

“Research tells us that eagles nest in areas within so many feet of water,” said Eddie Elsberry, director of environmental compliance and sustainability at Berry. “We’ve got a great river over here. We’ve got a quarry that’s got a huge amount of water in it. We’ve got some lakes over here. … Berry College is perfect for eagles because we’ve got everything they want and it’s a semi-protected area because it’s a closed-campus private college.”

The Cage Athletic and Recreation Center and other modern brick buildings decorate Berry’s main campus, which is dominated by illustrious Ford Hall, an architectural echo of Oxford’s Christ College. Tucked behind “The Cage” and an otherwise ordinary parking lot, where Valhalla was first proposed, is the pine tree that the eagles call home.

Since the pair’s nesting in 2012, Berry installed two cameras to live-stream the family as it grew — a mother, father, two eaglets last year and one this year — and their daily activities are live-streamed to 16.5 million viewers around the world. Some 62,000 loyal fans communicate on the Berry College Eagles Facebook page, including a devoted woman from New Zealand whose only opportunity to watch the birds is at night with an infrared light because of the time difference.

“Before our eagles, we didn’t look for eagles. Now that we have an eagle and 16 million viewers, everybody’s looking for eagles,” Elsberry said. “We were talking with some students one day out here (and) instead of looking down and texting when you’re walking across the parking lot to Cage, now you see people looking up in the sky and looking for eagles.”

But what of Valhalla? The plans for the $6.9 million job began long before the eagles flew into town, but on a campus where the student-to-deer ratio is 2:1, it’s no surprise Berry wholeheartedly embraces its wildlife.

On May 29, the college announced it had selected a new site a couple hundred yards away for the stadium that Berry’s football, lacrosse and track and field programs will soon call home. After Berry football’s inaugural season last year, the enthusiasm surrounding the construction of Valhalla grew and the $500,000 that school president Steve Briggs estimates the site change will cost was deemed worth it.

“We thought people we’re going to like it,” Briggs said of the football program, “but we didn’t expect 7,000 people out to the first game.”

Head coach Tony Kunczewski expected between 3,000 and 4,000 fans down the road at Shorter College’s Barron Stadium, host to two of the Berry Vikings’ games last season. The nearly 7,000 people in attendance at that first game epitomized the support the program has received from students, the community and alumni since its inception, which spilled over to funding Valhalla.

The Vikings ended 2013 at 1-9, while Berry transitioned from NAIA to Division III, joined a new league (the Southern Athletic Association) and welcomed new athletic director Tom Hart. Any disappointment was ephemeral.

“There’s certainly growing pains. It’s a process,” Kunczewski said. “Especially when we’re trying to bring in 100-plus guys and with NCAA restrictions we have 25 practices and then we’re lining up for game No. 1.”

Construction of Valhalla should end in time for the 2015 season, which gives Kunczewski and his staff a significant selling point when recruiting. Those growing pains will dissipate once Kunczewski’s team has the opportunity to grow in a nest of its own.

As for the eagles of Berry, their nest shouldn’t be going anywhere anytime soon. After all, Elsberry and his team estimate the weight of the nest at two tons.

Perspective: the Vikings’ 13 offensive and defensive linemen fall about 700 pounds short of that at 3,309 pounds.

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