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Salisbury coach Jim Berkman celebrates with his team after the 2023 NCAA Division III championship game at Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia.

Six Months After House Fire, Jim Berkman Still Has Sea Gulls Soaring

May 15, 2024
Paul Ohanian
Rich Barnes

It was a perfect fall day for a bike ride.

Having spent the night in Cambridge at his in-laws’ house, Salisbury men’s lacrosse coach Jim Berkman had a 50-minute drive to get back to Salisbury on the morning of October 8. He had to swing by his house to get his bicycle, drop off his dog Scout and check on the cats. Berkman was meeting the members of his OVC cycling club at 8:30 a.m. for a 60-mile Sunday outing.

About one hour and 20 miles into their ride through the bucolic back roads of Maryland’s Eastern Shore, Berkman’s phone began buzzing. Since he doesn’t usually answer during a bike ride, he ignored the first couple of calls. But they kept coming, and when Berkman noticed the newest call was from his wife, Jenn, who was in Chicago visiting the grandkids, he knew he needed to answer.

Unable to reach Jim, a neighbor had contacted Jenn to tell her there were flames coming from their house. The fire department was already on the scene. Jenn immediately dialed Jim.

“Our house is on fire,” she said, with tears rolling down her cheeks and 1-year-old Eva on her hip.

Berkman and others from OVC flagged down a passing pickup truck, which drove Jim back into town. By the time he arrived at their Cape Cod home tucked among the majestic trees of Salisbury’s Pinehurst neighborhood, firemen had extinguished the blaze.

The damage was overwhelming. The emotional toll was devastating.

“Scout and our two cats were laying in the front yard, covered up,” Berkman said. “They had been brought out of the house and they were dead.”

Fortunately, plenty of support arrived quickly to help sustain Berkman.

“Within 15 minutes, the president of the university was there,” he said. “Our AD was there. All my assistant coaches, guys from the team, people from our church — they were all there within minutes.”

Some never left his side as activity in and around the house continued into the evening. Fire marshals and inspectors from multiple jurisdictions came and went throughout the day.

“They went through the whole thing, again and again,” Berkman said. “It was a long, long day.”

The investigators eventually determined that an extension cord to a lamp in the living room had been the cause of the blaze. The damage was estimated to be $250,000.

“I was going ballistic because I knew he was there trying to deal with the whole thing by himself,” said Jenn Berkman, who couldn’t get a flight back to Salisbury until two days after the fire. “The hard thing at the beginning was worrying about Jim and losing our pets.”

The devastation was just as overwhelming 48 hours later when Jenn saw their charred home for the first time.

“Number one, you’re in shock. And then you’re in denial, like, this just can’t be,” she said. “It’s surreal. I think it’s all the normal stages of grieving.”

Over time, as the emotional recovery progressed, the Berkmans were able to see some silver linings.

“We are now very thankful that we both walked out of there,” Jenn Berkman said. “Chances are, on a Sunday morning, I would have been reading and enjoying my down time while he was out on his bike. I would have been in that house and most likely would have been trapped because it exploded so quickly. So, you balance the horror of it all by saying, thank God we weren’t there. When we look back on it, we know that it could always have been worse.”

Firefighters work to extinguish the blze at Berkman's house in Salisbury's Pinehurst neighborhood Oct. 8, 2023.
Firefighters work to extinguish the blze at Berkman's house in Salisbury's Pinehurst neighborhood Oct. 8, 2023.
Courtesy of the Berkman Family

On the Tuesday after the fire, just hours after his wife returned from Chicago, Berkman resumed fall practice with his team. He welcomed the distraction.

“The first thing I did,” Berkman said, “was I called everybody together and told them, ‘Boys, this is the highlight of my week, being out here with you and even though I might not say much tonight, I’m really excited to watch you play.’”

His players responded with the type of high-energy practice that has been the hallmark of his program for the past three decades. Play hard. Play with pride. Respect the game.

“The effort was incredible,” said Berkman, the NCAA’s all-time leader in men’s lacrosse coaching victories and a 2013 inductee to the National Lacrosse Hall of Fame. “It was fun to have an escape for a few hours and be out doing something that you love.”

Those who know Berkman best know how important that evening was for him.

“The practice field is his favorite place to be,” said Justin Axel, Berkman’s assistant coach since 2014. “It’s a calming place for him. He loves practices more than games.”

Rebuilding Jim Berkman's Salisbury home after a fire left it in ruin six months ago.
Courtesy of the Berkman Family
Rebuilding Jim Berkman's Salisbury home after a fire left it in ruin six months ago.
Courtesy of the Berkman Family
Rebuilding Jim Berkman's Salisbury home after a fire left it in ruin six months ago.
Courtesy of the Berkman Family
Rebuilding Jim Berkman's Salisbury home after a fire left it in ruin six months ago.
Courtesy of the Berkman Family
Firefighters work to extinguish the blze at Berkman's house in Salisbury's Pinehurst neighborhood Oct. 8, 2023.
Courtesy of the Berkman Family

It's now been more than six months since the fire, but quite naturally, the pain lingers.

“There are still days, when you go through something like this, that are very depressing,” Jenn Berkman said. “I can only go back through the house in small doses because it brings everything to the forefront.”

Keeping a sense of balance has become a coping and healing mechanism. And a new puppy, Gracie, helped restore some joy.

“We keep saying that we lost a lot, but there’s also so much we didn’t lose,” Jenn Berkman said. “Having that new little puppy, who just loves you unconditionally, has become a good distraction.”

The ongoing individual and community outpouring of support has also been a great source of comfort. An endless stream of handwritten cards and notes of encouragement serve as a constant reminder of that support.

“People just come out of the woodwork when something like this happens,” Jenn Berkman said. “So many people from the lacrosse community, literally across the nation, have been there for us. People who are simply parents, club team players — and of course the coaching community — have all been so supportive. We don’t even know many of these people. It is truly humbling and really what is pulling us through.”

Just days after the fire, Salisbury set up an online fundraiser for the Berkmans and for the lacrosse program. It quickly surpassed the $30,000 goal and then the $50,000 benchmark. The donations amounted to more than $83,000. That doesn’t include the dozens of gift cards also received for meals at local restaurants or shopping at retail outlets.

The Intercollegiate Men’s Lacrosse Coaches Association (IMLCA), which inducted Berkman into its Hall of Fame in December, also provided the family with a generous gift from its coaches relief fund.

Since October, the Berkmans have been splitting their time between living in a faculty apartment that the university provided for them in Sea Gull Square and staying with family in Cambridge. After months of frustrating insurance delays, renovations are now underway to rebuild their home, although the Berkmans don’t anticipate being back in their house until sometime in 2025.

Meanwhile, this spring has brought the therapeutic cadence of another lacrosse season, Berkman’s 36th leading the Sea Gull dynasty he has crafted. After capturing the program’s 13th NCAA Division III championship in 2023, the Gulls are now three games away from a repeat in 2024.

“Jim is really good at compartmentalizing,” Axel said. “He tells the players that we all face adversity, and how we respond to it is the most important thing.”

Salisbury has maintained the No. 1 ranking throughout this season and brings a 21-0 record into Saturday’s NCAA quarterfinal game against Washington and Lee.  If this year’s Gulls complete the championship run, they would become Berkman’s ninth undefeated championship team.

“We obviously don’t have a bad team, so that makes things easier,” Berkman said in his understated way. “The development of some of our younger guys this season has allowed us to have six weapons on the field at any time.”

Salisbury will serve as host for this weekend’s quarterfinal and semifinal games.

“We’re excited that we’re playing at home and we have the opportunity to advance on our home field, but we’re playing a great team in W&L and we need a great week of preparation,” Berkman said. “I feel blessed to have a chance to move forward with this group of guys that we have.”

Berkman is also back on his bike these days, riding as time allows with his OVC buddies. Ironically, the meeting place for the group many days is right in front of his house. Perhaps that’s just another step in the healing process.

“There’s always life-changing moments, but you have to put it in perspective,” Berkman said. “We’re going to be okay.”