GILBERT — Nearly 30 years ago, Bertrand Berry helped recruit Florida running back Autry Denson to Notre Dame. From that point on, a decades-long friendship took root. Three decades later, their paths have crossed again.
Berry played six of his 13 NFL seasons in an Arizona Cardinals uniform, and Denson was recently hired as the running backs coach for the Cardinals. Their sons, Bertrand Berry II and Elijah Denson, are both seniors and play for Highland High School. Similar to their fathers, Berry II plays outside linebacker and Elijah is a running back. The longtime friendship expands generations.
“It was kind of like an artificial relationship at first,” Berry II said. “I ended up having a class with [Elijah) and of course he’s my teammate, so I’ve been able to build a pretty good relationship with him over the past few months.”
After Autry’s six-year professional career in the NFL came to an end, he coached at different schools in Florida, South Carolina, Ohio and even at his alma mater Notre Dame, where he still holds the school’s all-time rushing record. Meanwhile, the Berry family has lived in Arizona since he signed with the Cardinals in 2004.
Elijah and Berry II knew each other, but didn’t become friends until Elijah moved to Arizona and attended Highland. Even though they play on the same team, sitting next to each other in class brought them closer. Elijah understands that this is almost history repeating itself.
“(It’s) like looking in the mirror,” Elijah said. “Like (Bertrand Sr.) and his son and then me and my dad. It’s pretty cool.”
When Berry heard Autry was coming to the Valley, it was deja vu as he made sure to recruit Elijah to play for Highland because of how well the Highland community treated Berry Sr. and his family over the years. Even though Autry and Berry have been off and on for years, according to Denson, the two pick up where they left off each time they see each other.
“The last thing that I want to do is from an athletics standpoint, go against one of my fellow Irish,” Berry Sr. said. “So I put the full court press on him to make sure that he came to Highland as opposed to some of the other competing schools.”
Autry and Berry sit next to each other every week in the parent’s section of the Highland crowd. Their sons, similarly, have developed their own relationship. According to Berry II, the two sit next to each other in class, crack jokes and help each other with classwork.
“It’s all love,” Berry II said. “I think it helps us grow a little bit.”
Through the Hawks’ first four games, Elijah rushed for 100 yards on 18 carries, with 53 of those yards coming in Highland’s game against Campo Verde. Midway through the season, he averages 5.6 yards per carry.
“My son is so much (more) talented than I was,” Autry said. “His god-given talent is unbelievable. I wish I had a bit of the talent that he has.”
This is high praise, as Autry still holds a slew of Notre Dame’s rushing records. Over the 1995-1998 seasons, he rushed for 4,318 yards, 43 touchdowns and 5,327 all-purpose yards, while also earning MVP honors in the 1999 Gator Bowl.
Autry was drafted in the seventh round of the 1999 NFL draft by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and played four seasons in the NFL, mostly with the Miami Dolphins.
Berry II is currently recovering from an arm injury and hasn’t played a game with the Hawks this year. He still supports his team on the sidelines even though he can’t physically play. When he is on the field though, he is one of Highland’s dangerous players. In the 2022 season, he was third on the team in sacks with 6.5 while tackling 29 players, 12th on the team.
“Bertrand’s really come into his own,” Highland coach Brock Farell said. “He leads the defense from not only an example point of view of always hustling and getting to the ball.”
Although they’re in different parts of their football journey, the friendship between the Densons and Berrys spans generations, on and off the gridiron.