‘A bit of an adventure’
New Zealander Berry uses soccer to see the world
Published: Tuesday, October 22, 2013
Updated: Tuesday, October 22, 2013 17:10
When Nicolai Berry scored his first goal as a Buffalo soccer player, he ran around, stretching his arms to his side and imitating an airplane. It was a famous celebration amongst his family – he performed it often as child when he scored.
But there was a marked difference in the way his parents watched his celebration when he scored against Vermont Sept. 1. Berry’s parents weren’t watching in the stands; they were watching from over 8,000 miles away – on a live online stream at 6 a.m. in Auckland, New Zealand.
Berry, a freshman midfielder for the men’s soccer team, grew up in Auckland and moved to Buffalo this fall. Amid his transition to a new culture in the United States, Berry has excelled on the pitch. He ranks second on the team in points and has started in 12 of 13 games.
Berry began playing soccer at 5 years old, and his talent led him to play in countries throughout the world including Fiji, France, England and Switzerland – it gave him his first taste of international soccer and filled him with a desire to travel.
That desire was one of his main reasons for coming to America for college.
“I wanted to do something different than the standard day-to-day life back home,” Berry said. “I wanted to have a bit of an adventure and see the world.”
Berry chose UB because of first-year head coach Stu Riddle. Riddle is also a native of New Zealand and Berry refers to their relationship as the “Kiwi connection.”
“It’s a very tough adjustment for him,” Riddle said. “I went through it myself coming over. I think he’s done a really good job adjusting and [he’s] fit in really well with the lads. But that’s very typical of New Zealanders. We’re very extroverted people who like to travel and see new things.”
Berry’s teammates have been a big help during his adjustment. Twelve of the team’s 23 players are foreigners, and Berry said he likes being a part of a diverse team.
Though he was not completely unaware of the United States’ culture (he caught a glimpse of the states through American television and cinema), Berry wondered if the portrayed image would be accurate.
“The culture of everything is so different in America,” Berry said. “You watch the movies and TV [of American college life] where I’m from, so it’s kind of cool to be here and experience it. Everyone talks different. It’s like being in a movie when you think about it.”
Since coming to America, he has heard different accents, referred to the game he loves as ‘soccer’ instead of ‘football,’ eaten fast food and lived far from a beach.
But Berry’s biggest adjustment has been living without his family. Before coming to the states, the longest time he had spent away from his parents, Steve and Jane, and sister, Olivia, was two weeks.
“We just wanted to back him in what he wanted to do,” Steve said. “He had a passion to come and we just had to get behind him. It was hard for us to let him go because we’re a close family, but that’s what he wanted to do and we needed to make that happen for him.”
Steve played soccer in high school and influenced Berry to play the sport at a young age. YouTube users can find highlight videos of Berry’s soccer career that Steve posted for college scouts and coaches.
One of the parents’ only requests was that when Berry scored his first goal for Buffalo, he had to celebrate incorporating a piece of New Zealand – stretching his arms out and mimicking an airplane like he used to do as a kid.
On Sept. 1, Berry obliged. Steve and Jane threw a fist pump in the air and yelled, “wahoo,” as the proud parents huddled around their computer screen at the crack of dawn.
Steve and Jane watch most of Berry’s games online, even if it means having to wake up at 5 a.m. – there is a 17-hour time difference between Auckland and Buffalo.
They recently made the trip to Buffalo to see Berry play in person in the Bulls’ match last week against Hartwick. The Bulls won the game, 2-1, and Berry had an assist.
“It was really great to see him,” Steve said. “We’ve been building up to it ever since he walked through the doors of the Auckland Airport. We’ve been counting down the time to come here.”
In addition to soccer, his parents have influenced his faith.
Berry describes himself as a devout Christian. He participated in youth groups growing up and says pastors and church leaders mentored him. Berry returned the favor as he grew older, serving as a church youth leader in high school. His Christianity also helped him in his decision to attend UB.
“From a Christian perspective, I just felt like God wanted me to be here,” Berry said. “Obviously my faith is a big thing and part of the reason I feel I’m here is because God has a plan for me. He’s led me to Buffalo.”
The Bulls have struggled this year, winning just two of their first 14 games with a new head coach and a roster full of freshmen (12 of 23). But Berry still believes in the team’s potential.
“We all know we’re a young team and I think it’s shown,” Berry said. “We’re starting to pick things up and get on a roll and we’ve definitely been improving overall.”
Berry hopes to play soccer professionally after his time at UB. He understands it might not happen, though, so he must take advantage of this time at school to prepare for other career opportunities.
Regardless of how his professional soccer career pans out, Berry is grateful to have soccer as a tool to see the world.
“If I think back to when I was younger, [soccer] was just something I played with friends at lunch time,” Berry said. “It was just a bit of fun. And now it’s taken me all over the world. It can take you anywhere.”
The next question for Berry: Where will soccer take him after Buffalo?