Utah State basketball: Danny Berger slow but steady on road to recovery

College basketball • Junior looks to play basketball again after near-fatal heart episode in early December.
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Logan • Danny Berger huffed through sprints on a recent afternoon as Utah State basketball practice drummed along beside him. One of the team's coaches watched him tensely.

"He said, 'Man, it's scary to watch you run sprints right now,' " Berger recalled. "I was like, 'Well, I have to do it sooner or later, so I might as well get it out of the way.' I'm sure it's scary for everybody, but they'll get more comfortable over time."

It was an afternoon much like that one when Berger's heart stopped.

On Dec. 4, Utah State was running practice when the junior stepped aside for a drink of water. He collapsed into a teammate's arms before being resuscitated by athletic trainer Mike Williams with an automatic external defibrillator.

Berger was on a stretcher in a helicopter as he flew to the Intermountain Medical Center in Murray on a Tuesday. On a Saturday, he was walking out of the hospital with his family.

Since then, he's focused on the process of healing, hoping to play basketball one day soon.

"I realized it would be a while before I play again," Berger said. "I just listen to the doctors and take it slow. I want to make sure I'm ready and not rushing anything before I go full speed."

After a few weeks, he started light exercise to get his heart pumping. He graduated to going up and down stairs, then sprinting, then a little bit of shooting. He even can work on weights now.

He ran a little bit faster, then a little bit further.

He can't rush to any new plateau. His body is still healing after a defibrillator was surgically implanted in his chest. The way it's wired means he can't strain his left arm, which means no bench pressing or hanging on the rim.

Almost two months removed from his life-threatening episode, he's still gripped occasionally by the fear that it could happen again. Dealing with that anxiety is part of the process.

"It was worse at the beginning when I started working out and stuff," Berger said. "I just started paying attention to my body and thinking about it a little bit more."

In many ways, however, it's been harder for the teammates around him. Berger acknowledged that after the Aggies saw him collapse after exerting himself in practice — doctors haven't found evidence that was the cause — one of his tougher jobs has been convincing them he's OK.

Recently, they've started welcoming the signs of his recovery.

"It's awesome for us to see him, it's really a miracle," Preston Medlin said. "After you see something that traumatic, just to see him able to walk again, do all this stuff again, it really motivates you to do a lot of things because it can always be worse. That's the way I look at it."

Berger still is uncomfortable sitting on the Utah State bench with a button-up shirt and a tie. It's been difficult to only be able to watch, particularly as the Aggies struggle through their recent slump. With additional injuries, more players in ties seem to be joining him on the sidelines.

But Berger hasn't been discouraged on the sideline, teammates say.

"He's always encouraging," Spencer Butterfield says. "Every time I'm on the court, I hear him on the bench cheering me on."

Berger is filling out paperwork for a medical redshirt because it seems unlikely he'll be medically cleared before the season's out. But he doesn't believe his career is over at Utah State, and he doesn't want to be remembered just as the kid whose heartbeat once ceased.

"I'd like it to be someone who had odds against him but pushed through it," Berger said. "Hopefully I can set an example for kids who go through trials and show them you can be successful."

kgoon@sltrib.com —

Louisiana Tech at Utah State

O Saturday, 7 p.m. TV • KMYU. Radio • 960 AM

Series history • Utah State leads 14-3

Last meeting • LTU 72, USU 70 (March 8, 2012)

About the Aggies • Utah State has now lost three straight games, the first time since 2008. The Aggies have not lost four straight under coach Stew Morrill. … Spencer Butterfield is coming off career highs in points (23) and rebounds (11) against UT-Arlington. … Utah State leads the WAC in 3-point field-goal percentage, shooting at a 38.5 percent clip.

About the Bulldogs • Louisiana Tech is the only remaining undefeated team in the WAC, now on a nine-game winning streak. … The Bulldogs are the top scoring team in the WAC (73.6 ppg) and also lead in scoring margin (plus 9.2 ppg).