Counting down the top five moments of Kansas City's candidate
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By Pete Sweeney
About 20 to 30 Chiefs gather on the field in a huddle before a game. The scene is all too familiar to the diehards of Kansas City. One of the Chiefs stands in the center, aggressively waving his hands at the rest.
He is wearing the number 29 and he is screaming.
''Ya’ll boys ready?''
They answer in unison, ''Hell yeah!''
Not loud enough. He screams again.
''Ya’ll boys ready?''
They answer, ''Hell yeah!''
Still not loud enough.
''Ya’ll boys ready?''
Eric Berry has done his part, as he does every Sunday. Now, the team is ready. Now, he feels they are poised to leave it all out on the field, and they feel it too.
When Hodgkin’s lymphoma took Berry away from the Chiefs on November 24 of last season, it didn’t only take a man. It robbed Kansas City of their spirit, their vigor and their inspiration.
Berry, a former first-team All Pro (2013), could make the Chiefs a better football team without even taking the field. Those intangibles that you can’t exactly describe on paper, you know, the ones that football scouts talk about? Those are what Berry is made up of, and even in this dire situation, they reigned true down to the moment he was informed of his diagnosis.
Berry reacted to hearing he had Hodgkin’s lymphoma by asking head trainer Rick Burkholder if he could play through treatment. He asked Andy Reid as well.
Once they and the rest of the medical staff explained to him that was not an option, he accepted what lay before him.
Adversity wasn’t something completely unfamiliar to Berry at that moment, as he had seen it in his own experience.
In 2010, knowing he would be drafted to the NFL, he began a life of community involvement.
We purchased medical vans with doctors and provided health care for the people there. The village actually had only two latrines for 250 people. Now we're working to get 10 latrines."
- S, Eric Berry
"I wanted to give back because that's just what my family did,” he said. “That's what they always talked about, my parents, and I just decided to start with Fairburn because that's my home.”
Berry revitalized Clarence Duncan Park in Fairburn, Georgia, and with it, began Eric Berry Youth Football Camps.
He started a project in Uganda in 2012 and 2013.
"We purchased medical vans with doctors and provided health care for the people there,” he said. "The village actually had only two latrines for 250 people. Now we're working to get 10 latrines.”
Before leaving to undergo cancer treatment, Berry stood in front of his teammates inside the locker room.
According to defensive coordinator Bob Sutton, he “said it beautifully.”
“I’ve got a new opponent, and that’s what I’ve got to deal with.”
Then he left for Atlanta to fight for his life.
Nearly a year after making his locker room speech, Berry stands as Kansas City’s 2015 nomination for the Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year Award.
Presented annually since 1970, the award is granted to the player who demonstrates outstanding contributions to society off the field while handling himself in an exemplary fashion in uniform. The award's panel of judges includes NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, former NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue, Connie Payton, Pro Football Hall of Fame member Anthony Muñoz, Sports Illustrated football writer Peter King and Thomas Davis, last year’s recipient of the award.
The Chiefs, in their history, have had a league-high (tie-Bears) five winners of the Walter Payton Man of the Year Award: Willie Lanier (1972), Len Dawson (1973), Derrick Thomas (1993), Will Shields (2003) and Brian Waters (2010).
If Berry were to win, the Chiefs will stand alone as having more winners than any franchise in the NFL.
NO. 5 - THE PICKS
With the way things have gone for Berry’s Chiefs over the last five games, it can be difficult to remember the feeling of before—the 1-5 hole and the uncertainty that came with it.
The 4-2 Pittsburgh Steelers showed up to Arrowhead Stadium in Week 7 to face a Kansas City team that had lost five straight games.
The first half predominantly became a story of defense—347 net yards and four field goals between the two teams—and at half, the Chiefs led, 9-3. Berry had 4 combined tackles.
The Chiefs and Steelers exchanged two possessions apiece to begin the third quarter, and then the Steelers began their third drive of the half with good field position on their own 38-yard line.
A Martavis Bryant reverse went 13 yards for a first down on the very first play. Berry was barely a part of it.
With a new set of downs on the Kansas City 49-yard line, Landry Jones set up in the shotgun and dropped back to pass. Berry watched him.
Antonio Brown, arguably the best wide receiver in the NFL, ran inside on a slant. Chiefs linebacker Derrick Johnson tipped the pass, which then hit Brown in the hands. But Brown had a problem—he was in the midst of getting tackled by Ron Parker.
As Brown fell to the ground, he lost the grasp of the ball, and in trying to get it back, he inadvertently flung it up in the air.
“We’ve got to get those,” Berry said after the game. “That’s what we always talk about – tips and overthrows – we’ve got to get those. Any time we have an opportunity to make plays, our mentality is to make it.”
Berry, who had 8 career interceptions but not one since December 15, 2013, dove, caught the ball clean and returned it for 15 yards.
Tackled right in front of the Chiefs bench, he stood up with the ball, threw in in the air and shot it with an imaginary arrow. That must be what one does when picking off a pass for the first time in 679 days.
To me, it was just a matter of time. I went to him after the play, like ‘That's yours.’ I've been expecting it. I know he can do that. I know who he is, so it was only a matter of time for me to see him get one. I know he has plenty more coming."
- LB, Justin Houston
“Oh yeah, yeah,” he said when reporters asked about his celebration. “I’ve been planning that out for a long time. I’m just glad I could actually use it. It was pretty cool.”
Justin Houston, who on off days in 2014 flew to Atlanta to visit Berry as he went through treatment, had been waiting a long time for this moment.
"To me, it was just a matter of time,” Houston said. “I went to him after the play, like ‘That's yours.’ I've been expecting it. I know he can do that. I know who he is, so it was only a matter of time for me to see him get one. I know he has plenty more coming.”
The Chiefs scored a touchdown on the ensuing possession in a game they ultimately won, 23-13. The win simultaneously snapped a five-game losing streak and marked the beginning of the current five-game winning streak.
Berry had talked about checkpoints as he recovered and made his return to the league. This, he confirmed, was another one.
“Especially because we got the win,” he explained. “I mean it would have been a big play if we didn’t get the win, but getting the pick and helping the team get the win, I think that was the big part of it. So we’ll just keep moving forward and keep seeing what we can come up with.”
Move forward two games later to the road game against the Denver Broncos. The Chiefs were up 22-0 in the third quarter after intercepting Peyton Manning 4 times.
Manning now watched from the sideline as Brock Osweiler ran the offense.
Osweiler, starting at the Broncos own 1-yard line, appeared to be giving the team some late life. There was a buzz at Mile High as the crowd could sense it.
Osweiler’s first play of the drive was a first down, and then he followed that play with another. Four first downs and 13 plays later, and he faced third-and-2 at Kansas City’s 12-yard line.
Osweiler tried to fool the Chiefs defense with a play action pass, but Houston, who had predicted “many more” interceptions for Berry, sacked Osweiler for a loss of 8 yards.
Facing fourth-and-10, Osweiler threw in Berry’s direction in the end zone on the very next play.
Lined up in the shotgun, the Broncos quarterback intended to find what he thought was an open Demaryius Thomas, but Chiefs cornerback Sean Smith tipped the pass.
Berry cradled the ball for his second interception of the season, but that was not the end of the play. In a situation in which he probably should have kneeled the ball for a touchback, he dashed out of the end zone.
“I told [CB] Marcus [Cooper] in the second quarter and the third quarter: ‘When I get my pick, I’m trying to score.’ So it was premeditated already.”
Berry didn’t score, but just like in Pittsburgh, the Chiefs offense did on the next drive, taking a 29-0 lead in Denver.
The Broncos had won seven straight games against the Chiefs. Another streak snapped.
NO. 4 - A SON AND HIS MOM
Berry’s initial on-the-field competition upon returning to the team came in Kansas City’s first preseason game away against the Arizona Cardinals on Saturday night, August 15, 2015.
Eric Berry embraces his mother before his first game following his diagnosis.
While he had scrimmaged his teammates at training camp in St. Joseph, he hadn’t played against an opposing team since November 20, 2014.
This moment of being on the field once again was a milestone for Berry, one he had discussed with his mother, Carol, during some of his worst days as he underwent chemotherapy treatment.
Carol was on the sideline as Berry took the field at University of Phoenix Stadium.
"Having my mom on the sideline, that was just great because she was there from day one and we went through a lot,” he said. “She saw me at my worst and we talked about this moment and I think that's why she came to tears like that because we talked about it a long time ago. I told her I would be back.”
Right before the game began, Eric ran over to Carol, and the two embraced. After months of talking about that exact moment, which at times probably felt inconceivable, it was happening.
He was back, healthy and on the playing field.
Dreams were reality.
"So much, so much,” Eric said when asked after the game how much the embrace meant to him. “My mom, she's seen me at my worst. She's seen me at my best and that's something we talked about when I was laying in the hospital bed or when I was in her room up at 4 o' clock in the morning and she was telling me everything was going to be OK because I just couldn't stop crying and she was just telling me, 'You'll be back. Everything will be OK.'
“She comforted me in a time when I needed comforting and she was very strong. A lot of people talk about the person actually going through the situation, but they don't actually talk about the caretaker, and I could see how it was very stressful for her and how much it weighed on her and she was going through a lot of other things aside of my deal that I was going through, so for her to put everything to the side and just deal with me, it was just a blessing to have someone like that."
NO. 3 - THE OPEN-FIELD TACKLE
Berry has continued to look sharper and sharper as the weeks have carried on this season, and though the 2 interceptions were statistically great, his best play of the year came against the San Diego Chargers in Week 11.
The Chiefs held a 6-3 lead over the Chargers as San Diego began the second quarter with the ball.
Philip Rivers lined up in the shotgun on second-and-10 at the Kansas City 40-yard line, and he threw a quick screen to wide receiver Stevie Johnson.
The play, at first glance, showed plenty of room for Johnson to work with, but Berry quickly evaded his blocker and made an outstanding diving tackle.
That's one of the best plays I've seen since I've been in the NFL"
- DC, Bob Sutton
"That's one of the best plays I've seen since I've been in the NFL,” Sutton said. “That was a great play. It's one of those plays nobody really sees, but when you're standing on the side, you say 'Holy smokes.’
“He came under the lineman, got up, made the play and that's Eric Berry. That's the guy we were looking for and he's back.”
Reid called Berry “ninja-esque” on the conference call the next day.
"That tackle he made on the quick screen I thought was a superior play,” he said. “You just don't see that very often where he goes underneath an offensive lineman, pops up and makes a tackle on a screen. I mean that was ninja-esque."
Reid also recounted Berry’s progress and how far he had come after the game.
"I kind of joked about it, but it's true. When he first came to us, he didn't have a lot of hair on his head. I mean, no eyebrows, no hair. Progressively, as the hair grew back, his game got better. I mean I'm serious about this and it's a tribute to him for just working through it. Now he's got a full head of hair, he's got the eyebrows and he's playing well, but I think that's what's taken place.
“He went through something that was traumatic, no matter how you cut it, it was brutal and he fought through that and now he's playing tremendous football. It's a tribute to the kid."
A coach Reid post-game acknowledgement—another checkpoint in the books.
NO. 2 - THURSDAY NIGHT FOOTBALL
The preseason return in Arizona was the first step for Berry, but there are few better moments than running out on the field on opening night at Arrowhead Stadium.
With the world watching on a national telecast, Berry made a triumphant return to the field. Through Hodgkin’s lymphoma, the safety could now officially say he had only missed five regular season games.
Preseason introductions at Arrowhead Stadium for the Chiefs typically feature either the offense or the defense. The 11 starters on whichever unit is chosen are who is announced to the crowd.
At the time of Thursday Night Football in Week 2, Berry had yet to return to the starting lineup. But the Chiefs made a rare exception on this particular night, and it made for a worthy thunderous reception.
Berry, when introduced in the past, ran out, pounded his chest and saluted his mentor, Inky Johnson. But this wasn’t an ordinary entrance for Berry.
This time, Berry walked, spread his arms out wide and seemed to hug the fans back for their ovation and months of support. Then he pointed at the sky.
He later explained the following week that during that introduction, he was overcome with so much feeling, he could barely recall running out on the field.
“I don’t know, I blacked out,” he said. “I don’t even remember it, it was just so much emotion – I can’t even really remember it.”
Berry’s parents were in attendance and his nurses from Emory Hospital surprised him before the game.
“A lot of people that were with me throughout the process [were at the game],” he said. “I wanted them to be there, just because they were with me through the struggle, I wanted them to actually be there to see the game and see the outcome.”
This became the story of the evening.
NO. 1 - THE RETURN IN ST. JOSEPH, MO
It has been a long road back for Berry, but through all the accolades and “checkpoints” that he crossed off in 2015, the most amazing feat of all was just how quickly he returned to the field.
Reid had visited Berry in Atlanta at his very worst, and while he was there, Berry, frail and free of hair, told him that he’d be back and stronger than ever.
Reid truthfully didn’t know what to think.
“About 2 o' clock, he ran out of juice. It was just like, 'I need a nap.' That's going to open your eyes a little bit,” Reid later said. “You're looking at him and he's telling you 'I'm going to play. I'm going to be back and I'm going to do this.' And you're looking at him and going 'Alright, well, we'll see. I'm looking at this and you're telling me you're going to be this,' but he battled. He gave you that confidence that he was going to get there.”
On July 29, Chiefs trainer Rick Burkholder stood at a podium as he did eight months prior.
If you remember, I sat before you back on November 24 and disclosed that Eric Berry had a mass on his chest, and amazingly, 247 days later, I’m standing before you and telling you that he’s practicing."
- Head Athletic Trainer, Rick Burkholder
“If you remember, I sat before you back on November 24 and disclosed that Eric Berry had a mass on his chest, and amazingly, 247 days later, I’m standing before you and telling you that he’s practicing.”
Remember, back when he was diagnosed, Berry’s first question to Burkholder was whether or not he could play through the treatment. This was a man whose primary concern was to get back on the football field as fast as humanly possible.
With that in mind, Berry opted for a special type of chemotherapy, one that used an IV in his arm rather than his chest.
That form of chemo was more painful, but it allowed him to work out while undergoing treatment.
When treatment was over, Berry came out a full pound heavier than when he started, so in shape that he passed all of Burkholder’s tests when he arrived to St. Joe.
Berry later lightheartedly tried to explain the phenomenon.
“Eating good, baby,” he joked. “Pops’ cooking—that was one of the big things that helped me. Any request I had, because one of the side effects is that your taste buds go and you don’t have a taste for anything. Some of the foods don’t sit well with you, so my dad did a great job of, ‘What do you feel like eating today?’
“He would go to the store, whip it up, and I had three meals a day. Three meals a day. I think that’s how I kept on the weight.”
James, Eric’s father, spoke about how he and Carol handled taking care of their son.
“We just banded together and we decided we were going to attack this thing head on,” he said. “Everything we did was for Eric, it was no longer about us or anybody else, it was strictly about him. As we banded together, we just got positive influence from so many people, friends and family like he said. We just took it head-on and said we were going to beat it.”
More than 50 people filled a press conference room on the campus of Missouri Western State University in St. Joseph on July 29, and that group included Andy Reid, John Dorsey and Alex Smith.
The collective feeling of those in the room, including Smith, was that what was taking place was something they would never forget.
It’s all a blessing, whether it’s meetings, whether it’s running gassers, whether it’s lifting, it’s an opportunity. The best thing to do is just to be thankful for it and just move along with it."
- S, Eric Berry
“To be honest, I really felt like I didn’t even deserve to be in the room, that’s the truth,” Smith later said. “I felt like I was undeserving to even be in there.”
Berry sat at the podium, in between his two parents, Carol and James, and he poured out eight months of feelings.
“My whole thing was, it’s going to be what it’s going to be,” he said. “At that point I’m going to control what I can control and the two things that I could control were my attitude and my effort. I just tried to go out and wake up every day and try and build off of what I did the day before. In that situation with anybody going through something like that, that’s the only thing you can do is take it day by day.”
Berry thanked his parents, his family and his coaching staff. He thanked his teammates and Chiefs personnel.
The sickness changed who many thought was already an upstanding man into, in his opinion, an even better man.
“My thing is, I’m not really big on meetings,” he said, for instance. “I love being out on the field, I love walk-throughs, but meetings, that’s something that I just, I’m not a fan of. But now, I’ve learned to just embrace the process, it’s not bad. Just focus in, lock in for however long we’ll be in there. I just take a lot of notes while I’m doing it, too.
“It’s all a blessing, whether it’s meetings, whether it’s running gassers, whether it’s lifting, it’s an opportunity. The best thing to do is just to be thankful for it and just move along with it.”
Berry said the process of healing gave him a wisdom he would not have had otherwise.
“Everything is a process,” he explained. “It doesn’t happen over night. Everything is preparation – don’t overlook anything. Coach (Andy Reid) always talks about eliminating distractions and I would like to thank you guys for respecting me not wanting to do interviews or doing things like that, but I wanted to eliminate the distractions and focus on what I needed to focus on.
“Fear nothing, attack everything. That’s how I kind of did the things.”
From sickness to health, Berry has earned Kansas City’s 2015 Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year nomination.
The road he traveled was long and going at it one step at a time is what allowed him to find its end.
"The challenges that Eric went through a year ago, first with the injuries and then taking on cancer, I think really shows what kind of individual he is, what kind of competitor he is, what kind of belief system he has and I think it’s a real tribute to him and the people really close to him that have supported him through this whole thing to get to this position,” Sutton said of Berry recently.
“From a football standpoint, I think he's playing as well as he's ever played here in the past two or three weeks. It's been exciting and fun for all of us to watch, because as we said way back when it started, none of us had ever been involved with anything like this and didn't really know where it was going to go.
“I think probably rightfully so, he kind of just willed it and I think he's been a great inspiration to not only players, but also coaches, everybody around him."
During the final five games last season, Berry, the person, wasn’t around.
But a logo was, and it was plastered around the building, on T-shirts and on warm-ups.
The players collectively came up with the slogan, “Be Bold. Be Brave. Be Berry.” to remember.
Houston showed the number 29 under his jersey after each of his last 9 sacks so that fans couldn’t forget.
But the truth was, how could they? Kansas City missed one of its own. The signs at Arrowhead Stadium week after week proved so.
No matter how the NFL Man of the Year selection process shakes out, Berry is without a doubt Kansas City’s man of the year, and through his trials and tribulations and work with his Eric Berry Foundation, it's deservedly so.
Through his battle with cancer, more than $100,000 has been donated to the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society in his name.
His presence back with the team is an inspiration. The spirit and vigor of the Kansas City Chiefs and their community has returned.
As he stands back where he belongs, in the center of the player huddle before games, the question he asks means more now.
The teammates he asks it to know never to take him, or more so, each other, for granted.
Life is precious and so is their time together, and as they are about to play, there lies no certainty that they’ll get to do it again tomorrow.