words // W. Keith Roerdink
images// Andi Stempniak
The book on Kansas City safety Eric Berry says he’s a defender that does it all. Bone-rattling hits? Check. Quarterback sacks? Count ‘em. Game-changing interceptions? Flip on SportsCenter. In his first four years in the league, he’s been named to three Pro Bowls and earned first team All Pro honors last season. But it was an unexpected plot twist during his second season that’s defined his success as much as anything.
In Week 1 of the 2011 season, the former No. 5 overall draft pick from Tennessee was cut blocked during the first quarter of Kansas City’s opener against Buffalo. The ACL in Berry’s left knee was torn. Suddenly, unexpectedly, his season was over before it even began.
“It was a tough time,” Berry said. “It was very difficult to come back from. It was very draining mentally. But it made me stronger and it made me a better person.”
When he needed to unplug from the physical grind of rehab, Berry flexed his creativity and immersed himself in a childhood passion –writing. All told, Berry wrote more than 200 poems, along with songs, stories, and screenplays.
“I always liked to write,” Berry said. “I have a pretty rare imagination and I like to exercise that. And that’s one thing my dad always told me was to never limit your imagination. I just let it run wild and that’s the way I express myself.”
Berry got imaginative when it came to compensating for his knee, too. Extra film study sessions that he might’ve bypassed when he was at his physical peak became a key part of his weekly routine. He dialed down for any detail he could exploit. Any edge he could gain. He self-scouted his own play and refined his technique. Physically, he pushed himself to the point of exhaustion. And then pushed some more.
“There’s a lot of times back before I was hurt where I was like, ‘Oh well, I know I’ll catch up. I’ve got enough speed to catch up. Or I know I’m strong enough to do this and I know I’m explosive enough to do this so I won’t even worry about it,” Berry said. “But I couldn’t do that when I came off my injury. I had to be more like, ‘Okay, just in case they do this, I need to make sure ‘this.’ So I was prepared instead of just reacting. Now that I’ve got my extra step back, it’s like my talent is back to where it was, but I still work like I don’t have that talent.”
He can thank his father James for that talent – and the drive to maximize it. James Berry was a former captain of Tennessee’s football team back in the 1980s. Football is in Eric’s genes – and in his younger brothers’, too. Evan and Elliott Berry just accepted scholarships of their own to UT. But it’s the elder Berry’s work ethic as much as anything that has helped his oldest son become one of the premier defensive backs in the NFL.
“The only person I say I look up to is my father,” Berry said. “He was the type of guy that worked the third shift, from 8 pm to 8 am. Then he would take like a little quick shower, a quick nap, and then get up probably around 11. He did interior and exterior painting and was a carpenter, as well. He coached me in little league and when I wasn’t playing, he coached my brothers. So I took that work ethic that he had towards his job and providing for his family and I put it into football. I saw when he painted houses how intricate he was and how he paid attention to detail for what the people wanted and he did very good work and worked hard at it. I feel like it rubbed off on me in a sense, so that’s why I go as hard as I do with football.”
With Berry’s formula for elevating his own performance locked in, the challenge ahead is helping a Kansas City team that went from two wins in 2012 to 11 wins in 2013 get deeper into the postseason, after a crushing defeat at Indianapolis last January.
“If I make Pro Bowls, and make plays, and I’m at my best, that’s helping the team. But the thing is to make others around me come together so we can be a tight team and get that ring.” Berry said.
Those poems and plays penned during his rehab may yet get published. But right now, Berry’s football story is still being written. And if he has his way, the next chapter will include a championship.