by Christian Storms
April 22, 2020
How Pine Valley’s Bill Bergey helped put Chautauqua County football on the map
Due to the novel coronavirus, everything in the sporting world has been cancelled or put on hold to flatten the curve and defeat this horrible virus. Fortunately, things like the NFL Draft are able to adapt and still entertain sport fans to some degree by being conducted remotely.
This past weekend, the WNBA saw their draft viewership go through the roof, and the NFL draft this Thursday will probably follow suit as the only live sporting event available.
The 2020 NFL Draft poses as a big draft for the Buffalo Bills to build and retool last year’s playoff squad, but it will likely be done without a first round pick.
As we look through the history of sports, every year someone gets slept on or falls down the draft board into the second or later rounds. A great example of that is one of the most important drafts in our county’s history, in the 1969 NFL Draft, Pine Valley’s Bill Bergey was selected in the second round by Cincinnati Bengals.
Bergey was selected 30 picks after the Buffalo Bills selected running back O.J. Simpson with the first overall pick. Looking back to that 1969 draft, it was Simpson and Bergey who helped make it possibly the most relevant draft in western New York history.
Simpson helped put the Bills on the map with his play and was the best running back of the 1970s. He received the most votes at running back on the 1970s All-Decade Team just ahead of Walter Payton and Second Team selections Earl Campbell and Franco Harris.
Meanwhile, if you are a fan of football and have lived in Chautauqua County for some time, you have probably heard the Bill Bergey story before. For those who have not, the high school fullback and defensive lineman turned linebacker in college went on to have one of the best athletic careers from out of Chautauqua County.
Coming from a small school like Pine Valley, the odds to make it to the NFL go way down. To make it as far back as in the 1960s, those odds fall off a cliff. As expected, in his senior year Bergey had no offers or recruitment from big schools. To add even more adversity, Bergey was injured during his senior year and didn’t play the full season. Still, Bergey somehow was able to get in contact with coaches at Arkansas State while they were in New York City. He managed to get them to give him partial aid without even seeing him play. To say that gamble worked out would be an understatement.
After playing fullback and nose tackle his freshman year, Bergey made the switch to linebacker his sophomore year and it clicked. Bergey led the Red Wolves in tackles for three consecutive years and was named a First-Team College Division All-American in 1968. Bergey’s accomplishments in his senior year landed him in the Senior Bowl, and after that, he started for the College All-Stars against the World Champion New York Jets in 1969. The Jets narrowly escaped a loss to the College All-Stars, 26-24.
Even with great college numbers and accolades, the Pine Valley product slid much further than he should have in the NFL Draft, all the way to the Cincinnati Bengals at pick 31 — at the time a second round selection. But Bergey immediately rewarded the Bengals. In his rookie year, Bergey started all 14 games and was a big fixture in the defense. He was selected to his first Pro Bowl and was picked as the AFL Defensive Rookie of the Year.
Bergey’s first year with the Bengals was his best year with the young franchise. Eventually his relationship with the Bengals turned sour, as he forced a trade by attempting to sign in the World Football League. The Bengals attempted to sue Bergey, but lost their suit and instead traded the young linebacker to greener pastures in a green jersey with the Philadelphia Eagles.
When most people think of Bergey, they think of the hard-hitting linebacker who was great for the Eagles in the 1970s. It didn’t take long at all for Bergey to find his way with the Eagles. That first year, Bergey had five interceptions and a fumble recovery while playing hard hitting defense at middle linebacker. In 1974, Bergey became the first Chautauqua County resident named as a First Team All-Pro.
It’s crazy to look back at that All-Pro team from 1974 and see a Pine Valley alum among the legends. On the defensive side at linebacker, the names included were Philadelphia’s Bergey, Kansas City’s Willie Lanier, Pittsburgh’s Jack Ham and Green Bay’s Ted Hendricks. Out of the 17 defensive players named to the first team, 10 of them were selected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
The following year, Bergey demonstrated that his first year on the Eagles was not a fluke as he once again was named a the First Team All-Pro. The 1975 team at middle linebacker was even more exciting to see the names in Bergey’s company, this time the three named were Bergey, Lanier again from Kansas City and now Pittsburgh legend Jack Lambert.
After the 1975 season, Bergey did not make it on another First Team All-Pro, but he was named to the Second Team from 1976-78 for a total of five selections in his career. For many people, being recognized that many times as one of the best in the league could warrant a call to the Hall of Fame in Canton.
What likely keeps Bergey out of Canton is his lack of team success, without a championship — and maybe one less First Team All-Pro selection, too. In 1976, 1977 and 1978, Bergey missed out on the First Team because only one middle linebacker was selected. The first time it was Lambert who beat him to the punch, and the last two times, it was Randy Gradishar who was selected ahead of him.
In Bergey’s final season of his career, the Philadelphia Eagles almost did the unthinkable — winning Super Bowl XV — but they ultimately came up short to John Madden and the Oakland Raiders. Bergey called it a career almost going out on top. By the end of his career, there was no doubt that he was a legendary linebacker and the Philadelphia Eagles honored the Pine Valley alum by inducting him into the Eagles Hall of Fame.
Putting Bergey’s greatness into perspective is difficult for many that did not see him play throughout his career. However, if you look at the era he played in, his position was far more valuable than it is now. In the 1970s, football was a different game, where the play would be primarily on the ground and the middle linebacker was used as the intimidating heart of the defense that stopped the run.
So when you look at it all together, Bergey was not only just a great middle linebacker in the NFL, but he was a great during a time when the defenses needed to be tough to stop the elite running backs of the era.
The additional financial assistance of the community is critical to the success of the Chautauqua Sports Hall of Fame. We gratefully acknowledge these individuals and organizations for their generous support.