He is the kid brother who won’t stop hanging around. The wide receiver who has gotten fired – and hired – more times than anyone you know. The Carolina Panthers’ real-life elf on a shelf.
So here Brenton Bersin is yet again, playing a surprisingly prominent role for the Panthers as their No. 4 wide receiver in the most critical part of the season. You’ve got to hand it to the guy, really – most people would have given up this NFL dream the third time they got fired by their hometown team. Or the fourth. Or the fifth.
“I was joking with my agent,” Bersin said this week, “that I’ve probably signed 20 contracts here if you include the ones for the practice squad.”
Bersin just keeps persevering, and on Sunday made what the NFL’s Twitter feed judged the week’s second-best catch among any wideout.
Bersin went up high for a 17-yard Cam Newton pass, got hit low by a Minnesota safety, did a mid-air flip onto the back of his neck and somehow still held onto the pass.
“I knew if I had dropped it that it would have hurt a lot more,” Bersin said.
Bersin has now played in 39 games for the Panthers, including the past five for the 2017 Carolina team. After the Panthers traded Kelvin Benjamin – “I was shocked,” Bersin said – and Curtis Samuel got hurt, Bersin was brought back one more time because of his familiarity with the offense. He not only knows how to play all three receiving positions, he also knows almost all of the tight end and running back assignments.
When I said this week to Panthers coach Ron Rivera that he literally couldn’t seem to get rid of Bersin, he replied: “No, you can’t – because he’s a smart football player.”
Added Panthers quarterback Cam Newton: “Bersin is a person that is … dynamic in this offense. He’s a very intellectual player that helps this team move fast.”
‘I was kind of bitter at first’
Bersin has all sorts of nicknames, owing in part to his blond locks and his ready smile. Some people call him “Sunshine.” Some people call him “Spicoli,” after Sean Penn’s character in the 1982 movie “Fast Times at Ridgemont High.”
About half the people in the Carolinas either know Bersin or at least feel like they do. He attended the Panthers’ first-ever home game at Clemson in 1995 with his family. He later graduated from Charlotte Latin and then Wofford – where he tied and broke some of Panthers owner Jerry Richardson’s receiving records – so he’s seemingly been around forever. When he lost that fumbled punt in the Arizona playoff game in the 2014 postseason, no other current Panthers wide receiver was even on the roster.
But Bersin, 27, isn’t a fictional character designed for your social media trolling enjoyment. He’s a real person and he isn’t always full of sunshine. For instance, when the Panthers fired him for the fifth time just before this season, Bersin did not take it well initially.
“I was kind of bitter at first,” he said.
But then Bersin started watching the season opener on television and couldn’t help himself.
“I watched the San Francisco game,” he said, “and found myself cheering for us.”
Bersin kept working out at Velocity Sports Performance in Charlotte, hoping for another chance. The odds did not seem great. The last time the Panthers had “terminated” him – that’s the official word for what they did – Bersin also had a separated shoulder. So that needed to heal. But it did. And then came Halloween, when the Panthers shipped Benjamin to Buffalo for a couple of draft picks, scoured the waiver wire for depth and eventually brought back Bersin.
Golf vs. football
Bersin has played in every game since, catching a single pass in three of them and serving on both the kickoff and kickoff return teams. I asked him if he was confident by now he would be on the team through the end of this season and he shrugged.
“One week at a time,” he said.
How does he keep so calm in such a tenuous position?
“Stressing over stuff doesn’t help in any part of life,” Bersin said. “In my free time, I love to golf. It’s my favorite sport. That’s a huge mental game. Get a double bogey, and you go to the next tee box. I love watching it because it translates to football – the mental side of it. You can’t let stress get in the way.”
Bersin has become quite a golfer. He has a club membership at TPC Piper Glen in Charlotte, sports a two handicap and has even beaten backup quarterback Derek Anderson – widely considered the team’s best golfer.
But football remains his livelihood. He somehow injured his left big toe but not his head on that spectacular catch against Minnesota but remains confident that he will play Sunday vs. Green Bay. After all, he has some history against the Packers, even though few may remember it.
“I’ve scored once in my career – in 2014 against Green Bay,” Bersin said. “We were getting killed and DA (Anderson) threw me a touchdown in garbage time. Still counts though. So maybe it’s Green Bay who I like to score against.”
Bersin’s older brother is in the Navy but is on leave and will attend the Packers game. In his younger brother, Bradford Bersin will see a player who will never be the most athletic guy on any NFL field but who has been a model of career perseverance through sunshine and darkness.
“You’ve got to go through hard times,” Brenton Bersin said. “In my career I’ve been cut, on the practice squad, up, down, playing, not playing. And you just have to fight through it.”