It isn't unusual to hear an athlete referred to as a born leader. The term, in fact, has become so common it is often little more than a handy descriptive phrase.
But in the case of Tracy Bergan, a sophomore guard for Loyola College's basketball team, it is not an exaggeration. His background practically demanded leadership.
Bergan is the only member of his family who has the ability to hear. His parents, both sets of grandparents, brother and uncle were born deaf.
"I wonder, 'Why me?' all the time," said Bergan. "People ask me about it and all I can say is that I'm just lucky. You can't explain it."
He grew up with sign language as his basic form of communication, yet recalls no particular speech difficulties with his education. "Sign language was always natural for me from the time I was 1 or 2 years old," he said. "I don't remember when it was that I first noticed the difference.
"I learned to talk from television and my mother was always getting me outside with others. I guess I must have caught up quick, because I didn't have any problems when it was time to start school.
"In a way it made me understand more -- it made me more responsible at a young age," said Bergan.
As a youngster he spent a lot of his free time roaming the campus of Gallaudet College, where his mother was an academic adviser, and he became an interpreter at the age of 8. "I carried towels and the water bucket for the football team and translated any time the coach and the officials had to talk."
For obvious reasons, Bergan has a close bond with the deaf community, a segment of which closely followed his high school career at DeMatha High School. "There was a group of about 20 or 30 who used to come to all the games," said Bergan, who found an unusual way to repay their loyalty. During basketball timeouts he would translate what was said in the huddle for the benefit of his private fan club.
"I love those people," said Bergan. "It was a way that I could share with them what we were trying to do."
Bergan attracted Division I attention in both football and basketball, but decided early in his senior year to concentrate on the hoop game. "Because of my size," said the 6-foot, 165-pound point guard.
Loyola was the most persistent, with assistant coach Mark Lezanic heavily involved even before Tom Schneider became head coach. "We went after him very hard," said Schneider. "I like to play through my guards and if you get a point guard who knows how to play it helps the system. If you get a good one, you don't have to worry about it for four years."
As it turned out, however, Schneider and Loyola did have a concern the second half of last year -- probably in an area it was least expected, considering Bergan's educational background. At the midway point of the season, after Loyola had beaten Army and Navy within a span of three days, Bergan was declared academically ineligible and missed the final 14 games. The Greyhounds won only one of those games.
Bergan offers no excuses. "I don't know if I was unprepared," he said. "I just came into college and was enjoying myself, whatever. I got into the habit of missing classes. I just got lazy. I thought I could catch up. In high school you can get away with that, but you can't do it in college.
"I learned the hard way. It was definitely a big part of my learning experience. I had a good second semester last year and I'm looking forward to a 3.0 [grade-point average] this semester."
Even though the Greyhounds were outmanned in their first year in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference last season, the loss of Bergan had a chilling effect. "I think he realized what happened -- Loyola takes academics seriously," said Schneider. "It's not overly difficult, but it is demanding, and I think maybe it [the ineligibility] got Tracy's attention."
Bergan already had gotten the attention of Loyola's opponents. He had 35 points against Navy in his final game last season, and 25 four days earlier against Siena. "They beat up on [leading TTC scorer] Kevin Green after Tracy was gone," said Schneider, "even though Mike Malone did a terrific job keeping us in games."
In a 10-game trip to Scandinavia last fall, Bergan led Loyola with a 19-point average as the Greyhounds went 8-2. Schneider thinks Bergan's ability to score will take pressure off Green, but that won't be his priority.
"He's the quarterback and the kids on this team really respect him," said Schneider. "We're going to do more things to keep the ball in his hands. He can score, and he can make other people better."
Anybody who's ever dribbled a basketball likes to score, but Bergan sees himself more as a playmaker. "I love my role this year," he said. "We have guys who can score if they get the ball in the right spot. We don't have a lot of guys who can just take it at the top of the key and get their shot. But if they get the ball in the right place they can score."
Much of the responsibility of distributing the ball to the right people in the right places will belong to Bergan, which suits him just fine.