Meet Atlanta Falcons 'Captain America,' Rookie LB Who Has Staff 'Very Excited'

Inside the origins of Atlanta Falcons linebacker JD Bertrand's unique nickname.
Atlanta Falcons linebacker JD Bertrand's homecoming is off to a flying start.
Atlanta Falcons linebacker JD Bertrand's homecoming is off to a flying start. / Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- While hotdogs came off the grill and fireworks flew in the sky to celebrate July 4, a Captain America stuffed animal sat inside Atlanta Falcons linebacker JD Bertrand's apartment, which also holds shirts and other merchandise of the popular comic book superhero.

No, Bertrand isn't a Captain America superfan - instead, those around him think he embodies the character.

Bertrand earned the nickname "Captain America" while at the University of Notre Dame; he was called it some, but not often. He speculates the tag arose from his eating habits and the way he takes care of his body.

Regardless of how or why, the name isn't going anywhere. Falcons head coach Raheem Morris confirmed as much in his draft-day call when Atlanta selected Bertrand at No. 143 overall in April.

"Get your little Captain America ass up here and let's go to work," Morris told Bertrand within the first 15 seconds of the call.

Falcons general manager Terry Fontenot has a different nickname for Bertrand: Blessed Trinity's finest, a nod to Bertrand's high school days as a standout in Roswell, Ga.

But Morris's appears to have stuck, with Bertrand's birthday featuring more Captain America gear than he knew what to do with.

Morris said he doesn't know precisely why the nickname started, but he said it made sense when seeing Bertrand's approach on his film and learning more about him as an individual.

Bertrand's pre-draft process impressed Morris, who said he received more phone calls about the 6-1, 233-pounder than any other player in the draft. There were several crossover points for Morris, including from Bertrand's trainer, former New York Jets safety Victor Green, and other linebackers Morris trained alongside.

After Atlanta selected Bertrand, familiar faces from outside the organization continued offering praise.

Falcons defensive coordinator Jimmy Lake received a call from one of Bertrand's college coaches at Notre Dame, who raved about his character both inside and outside of football. Fontenot received a text from former NFL standout linebacker James Laurinaitis, whom he worked with during the 2016 season as members of the New Orleans Saints.

Laurinaitis's text was full of praise - fueled by several years of work that have helped Bertrand reach the heights of Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

"He's been unbelievable," Bertrand said about Laurinaitis. "He's one of the coolest coaches I've had. Just being able to have that player perspective - he almost can describe what he's seeing as a coach and how he's teaching it basically through my eyes, what I'm seeing out there.

"So, it's a really unique experience, and (Falcons linebacker) coach (Barrett) Ruud has a similar experience, so I'm really excited to be able to work with him."

Laurinaitis, a natural contact as a former college teammate of Notre Dame head coach Marcus Freeman, is one of several mentors to Bertrand.

One of the biggest turning points of Bertrand's career - and path to being named Captain America - came when he met Laurinaitis. Bertrand asked Laurinaitis and Notre Dame defensive coordinator Al Golden which player he closest resembled, and they told him for Dallas Cowboys linebacker Sean Lee.

With his eight-year NFL career, Laurinaitis developed an expansive list of contacts, and he forwarded Bertrand the phone number of both Lee and former Carolina Panthers star linebacker Luke Kuechly.

Bertrand capitalized on the wealth of resources suddenly put into the palm of his hand, applying little details into a lifestyle that bred the opportunity he now holds.

"It started with phone calls. 'Hey, how do you watch film? What do you do on bye weeks?'" Bertrand said. "It's kind of evolved from there. It's sit down on the phone and Sean Lee will talk me through, 'Hey, here's how I play Cover 1, here's how I play Cover 3.'

"And the nice thing is, you're able to get through really technical stuff that is kind of hard to learn without actually doing it."

The 24-year-old Bertrand said he's pulled different pieces of information from his various sources to form his process, which reached a new level of tidiness within the last two years.

Now, Bertrand said his schedule is almost minute-to-minute. He occasionally gaps it, creating, for instance, a two-hour window with a description of what he wants to do during that period.

This process emerged on Bertrand's first day of practice in Flowery Branch: May 10 for rookie minicamp. The Falcons provided a schedule that began at 8 a.m., but before then, Bertrand stuck to the morning routine he has in the Notes app on his iPhone.

After waking up, he meditated, went into the facility, ate breakfast, took care of his body and did prep work for practice. He had his own personal schedule planned out the day before.

Bertrand's thorough preparation process was near the top of Atlanta's scouting report. So were his list of mentors, with their effect radiating onto his name on the Falcons' draft board.

"This guy, he eats, breathes, sleeps football," Fontenot said. "It's all about football with him. That was so exciting when we spent time with him, sitting down, going through it, and talking through the process. We're very excited about him."

Bertrand spoke with Atlanta's decision makers during the team's local pro day April 12 and made an immediate impression.

Morris said the Falcons have a trio of linebackers in Kaden Elliss, Nate Landman and Troy Andersen that create an "awesome problem" regarding who to play. Bertrand recognized this, and instead of setting his sights on a defensive role, took his attention elsewhere.

Aided by the advice of his mentors, Bertrand arrived in Flowery Branch with an advanced understanding of the necessary steps to carve out a role as a Day 3 pick - a process that includes playing the long game and finding any way possible onto the field.

"He has that type of approach, and we immediately came down here and talked about special teams with him because of his mindset," Morris said. "He is an adult; he's an already-made veteran to come in here and help us win and earn those stripes he’s going to earn on special teams in order to put himself in position to play for us."

After the draft, Fontenot declined to reveal whether Bertrand will play on special teams, but such versatility was a central part in his evaluation and appears to be a likely path to the field this fall.

Still, Bertrand has three years of proven production in the middle of Notre Dame's defense. He broke through in 2021, posting 101 tackles and seven tackles for loss while starting all 13 games. The year after, he recorded 82 stops and 8.5 tackles for loss. In 2023, he logged 76 tackles, 7.5 tackles for loss and 2.5 sacks.

And the Falcons feel Bertrand, no matter how far down the road, will eventually be able to impact games defensively.

"You talk about a smart, instinctive football player, the character, the makeup," Fontenot said. "He's a four-down player because what he can do as a run defender in coverage and also in the kicking game, which is critical.

"When we're drafting everybody, we have a vision - have to have a vision for them and how they're going to contribute in that area. We're excited about him contributing all those areas."

The Falcons' excitement about Bertrand isn't just wordplay - Morris left one of his biggest boxes unchecked during Bertrand's evaluation, but it ultimately proved indifferent.

During the offseason a few years back, Morris and former Falcons assistant turned New York Jets defensive coordinator Jeff Ulbrich did a study on the variables of arm length.

For linebackers, Morris and Ulbrich found length was important to shedding off blocks and correlated well to Morris's defense. Throughout all positions, length led to fewer missed tackles and became what Morris described as a "major factor that we really fell in love with" and wanted to emphasize within his scheme.

The Falcons put a high value on length this draft, and Morris said the team achieved that feat - apart from Bertrand. Bertrand's arms measured just 30 5/8" at the NFL Combine.

"Bypassed that because I liked him so much," Morris said. "And I told him that when he was here, so I'm not talking bad about him."

Morris's affinity for Bertrand stems in large part from his mindset - the Captain America approach and process. There's also the aspect of Morris having more cross-references on Bertrand than the usual rookie.

The pre-draft process led Morris to have as deep of an understanding on Bertrand as anyone - to the extent Morris predicted before rookie minicamp he'd have to pull Bertrand back, so he didn't re-injure the foot that limited his workout availability this spring.

"That guy is the definition of the makeup," Morris said. "Captain America himself is going to be able to come here and contribute in all types of ways, just who he's been and what he's been throughout his career. I'm sure you'll see him on any phase we ask him to play, whether that be kicking or defense.

"And this guy might volunteer for offense, who knows. He might give (Falcons offensive line and running game coordinator Dwayne) Led(ford) a couple of fullback snaps - one of those types of guys."

The week after he was drafted, Bertrand ate lunch with his high school coach, Tim McFarlin. The two took a picture on their way out, followed by McFarlin telling another person that Bertrand played for the Falcons.

It's a microcosm of the enthusiasm surrounding Bertrand, be it from his family members, coaching staff or front office. He described his homecoming as an unbelievable opportunity, expressing gratitude that his parents live just 45 minutes away after having to drive 10 hours to Notre Dame.

Whether it be the familial energy or the fact he's been mentally prepared for this moment - returning to Flowery Branch on July 24 for his first training camp - for several years, Bertrand feels confident.

And with a nickname like Captain America, it's not difficult to understand why.

Daniel Flick


Daniel Flick is an accredited NFL writer for Sports Illustrated's FanNation. Daniel has provided boots-on-ground coverage at the NFL Combine and from the Atlanta Falcons' headquarters, among other destinations, and contributed to the annual Lindy's Sports Magazine ahead of the 2023 offseason. Daniel is a co-host on the 404TheFalcon podcast and previously wrote for the Around the Block Network and Georgia Sports Hospitality Media.