State of the Hogs: Movie Connects the 11s with Calli and AJ

With Calli Berna and AJ Derby, the hot topic was always about the number 11. The symmetry was always there for the former Arkansas athletes.

It would have been appropriate if Calli Berna and AJ Derby met on November 11, 2011 — maybe an hour before midnight. That wouldn’t have been possible. Derby was still at Iowa and Berna was beginning her freshman season at Arkansas.

Now Mr. and Mrs. Derby, the newlyweds laugh about the way all of the 11s lined up for them as they start their lives together in Foxboro, Mass., where AJ is giving it a go with the New England Patriots.

Yes, they both wore No. 11 at Arkansas, Calli for the women’s basketball team and AJ for the football team. Yes, they were married in Northwest Arkansas last summer on the 11th day of July.

There was a slight window of opportunity that their introductions could have happened in 2011 in Iowa. Calli, the top high school player in Arkansas at Fayetteville, was recruited by Iowa State.

“I always joked that I didn’t want her to go to Iowa State, because she would come back with an Iowa boy,” said Scott Berna, Calli’s dad. “So she ends up with an Iowa boy. We’ve laughed about that.”

AJ doubts there could have been a meeting had Calli gone to Iowa State. He grew up in Iowa City with both parents and an older brother attending Iowa. There was nothing Iowa State that they liked.

That story was told by Scott at the wedding, to which AJ replied, “I would have found her.” He does admit that he’s glad she didn’t go to Iowa State.

The jersey deal is neat and often a big topic. AJ admits that Calli wore No. 11 first, but he claims a better reason.

“My dad’s best friend lost his son on the 11th to an inoperable brain tumor,” AJ said. “I decided then I’d wear 11 in his honor. But when I got to Iowa, it wasn’t available.”

Derby left Iowa to give quarterback a try at Coffeyville, Kan., Community College. He had been moved from quarterback to outside linebacker at Iowa. It was at Coffeyville that No. 11 became his number and again at Arkansas when he walked on as a quarterback.

Eventually, Arkansas head coach Bret Bielema talked Derby into trying tight end. Bielema and AJ’s dad John were close friends in college at Iowa.

It was a masterstroke. Derby enjoyed a solid senior season, catching three touchdown passes including a highlight reel 54-yarder against Alabama which featured a stiff arm and a sprint past the Tide secondary.

After the game Bielema said Derby probably made himself a lot of money with that play. And, eventually, the Patriots drafted Derby in the sixth round. He spent last summer on injured reserve and will try to make the roster in his second year.

Back to the romance, Derby met Calli through mutual good friends that center around quarterback Brandon Allen. Allen and Berna have been extremely close since high school.

“It started out as just hanging out with a group,” Calli said. “Brandon and I are so close. AJ was the backup quarterback and became close to Brandon, too. So we all just became friends.

“We’d all go to movies together, a big group. Alex Voelzke and Austin Tate were in that group, too.

“AJ was always joking that he was going to ask me out, but I didn’t take him serious. Then, one day, he texted to see if I wanted to go to a movie. He said he’d come by and grab me.

“When he came to pick me up, it was just him. He opened the door and I said, ‘Where is everyone else?’ He said it was just us.”

So that’s how the first date happened.

“I always say that he tricked me into going out with him,” Calli said.

AJ maintains it was not a trick, just a careful plan.

“I didn’t say it was a date,” he said. “But I didn’t say it wasn’t. I just texted her and asked if she wanted to go to the movie and that was it.”

It wasn’t just any movie. It was the classic animated film, The Lego Movie.

“Yeah, real romantic, The Lego Movie,” Calli said. “There is a good story though. We were cleaning his place one time and I found a shoe box. Inside was the ticket to The Lego Movie. He saved it. That was sweet.”

Derby has a simple explanation for the movie selection.

“We’d seen everything else,” he said. “I fell asleep.”

There is no confirmation, but it’s likely he didn’t fall asleep the first time he saw Calli. It was on his visit to Arkansas with his parents before transferring from Coffeyville.

“When we came to campus, we were looking for something to do,” AJ said. “My family likes basketball. My mom was an all-state basketball player. So we went to the women’s game.”

Eventually, going to the women’s game to watch Calli and others was a big thing to do for the group AJ hung out with. Tate was dating a member of the women’s team. Of course, Brandon always wanted to go watch, too.

“I love basketball,” AJ said. “I played a lot of basketball growing up. I tell Calli this, but she doesn’t believe me, I was offered a basketball scholarship to Iowa as a ninth grader.”

Derby, a top rated quarterback in high school, did have basketball offers. He traveled the AAU circuit for hoops, once landing in Fayetteville to play in the Real Deal on the Hill.

“I broke my finger blocking a shot,” he said. “Really, that’s kind of crazy that I was there. I was 15.”

AJ would go to the gym with Calli, promising to rebound for her. That would only last so long until AJ would grab a basketball. Sometimes H-O-R-S-E games broke out.

“I’d rebound for her a little while,” he said. “That gets old real fast. She never misses. It’s not much fun. So I’d end up getting a ball and we’d end up in a competition.”

The H-O-R-S-E games were even.

“I always joked about that,” she said. “I told him if he wasn’t up to my standards in H-O-R-S-E, I wasn’t going to date him. He did beat me. I don’t know if he could beat me a lot, but he’d put up a fight.

“When we went back to Iowa to meet his family, his brother played with us, too. I know I won two games.”

AJ doesn’t dispute that he lost to Calli, but said, “I’ve won a few, too. She puts down certain rules. I’m not allowed to dunk. But I get her with bank shots. She just doesn’t shoot bank shots except on layups. I can go to the elbow and bank them in and that gets her.”

There is a great story about AJ’s first introduction to Calli’s parents, Scott and Paula. It came after a basketball game. AJ was wearing pajama bottoms.

“My parents love AJ,” Calli said. “They say he’s always himself, that he is who he is and it’s take it or leave it.

“So the first time they met him, he was wearing snowman pajama bottoms at one of my games. He came down to see me after the game and that’s when I introduced him. My dad still kids him about it. He gave my dad some pajamas for Christmas.”

AJ said it was unfortunate that he was dressed like that for the first meeting.

“I can’t remember why, but we were in the middle of something and I didn’t have time to go back to change,” he said. “It was last minute. I had the snowman pajamas and a sweatshirt. I think we’ve moved on from that.”

There was much speculation among friends if the Calli/AJ thing was going to work out.

“Brandon always told me it was never going to happen,” AJ said. “He said we were just so different. Then, after we had dated awhile, he said, ‘You guys are perfect.’ And we are.”

Calli said, “After we gave it a real shot, we said, ‘Wow, this actually works.’”

And, how is it working in Foxboro?

“AJ was here first before we got married,” Calli said. “He told me it was great, a lot like Fayetteville. I’m not sure I would have ever tried something like this without him. It’s not like Fayetteville. I don’t think the sun is out much here. But we are having fun, just seeing where (the NFL) is going to take us.”

Calli, who has a broadcast journalism degree, has been finishing an internship to complete work on her Masters in sports management. She worked as a color analyst on some UA women’s games this season for the SEC Network.

“They were some of the games on SEC Plus,” she said. “I also worked with the Foxboro High team here this winter. I loved it, building a relationship with the girls. I’ve been helping at Providence College (in media relations), getting some on-camera stuff with women’s basketball.”

You might say it’s some eleventh hour stuff. Oh, it’s always about the number 11.


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