In the aftermath of the Chiefs’ season-opening win over San Diego on Sunday, there was really only one word that could describe how safety Eric Berry felt.
“Sore,” Berry said with a grin . “Very sore.”
It was not unexpected. After skipping the entirety of training camp — he reported a few days before their last preseason game after the team failed to sign him to a long-term deal this summer — the Chargers game marked the first time Berry hit another human being in eight months.
“That was my first contact since the Pro Bowl, and I really didn’t get any contact then,” Berry said. “Monday was rough, Tuesday was rough, Wednesday was rough. I’m just now feeling better today.”
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Berry followed this with a laugh Friday, and it was clear he didn’t mind. You’d have a hard time finding a player on the roster who loves football as much as the 28-year-old safety, so imagine how he felt midway through the third quarter, when he was finally back on the field — after all these months — and the Chiefs were getting walloped at home by 21 points.
It was at this point, teammates say, that No. 29 — the man who beat lymphoma in eight months and inspired his teammates by somehow returning in time for training camp last summer — re-established why his presence was so valuable, as the NFL’s reigning comeback player of the year started chirping at his teammates before defensive series with prodding, but positive, verbal reinforcement.
“When we got down, knowing what he’d been through off the field kind of ignited us,” inside linebacker Derrick Johnson said. “To have his presence, when we were down trying to get back up, it was perfect.”
Johnson said Berry helped hold the entire defense accountable Sunday, even the secondary — which includes himself. In Berry’s inherent eagerness to make a big play, he was beat on a stutter-and-go early in the fourth quarter by Travis Benjamin and had to grab the speedy receiver to prevent a touchdown.
“That’s just something I have to work on — not getting too greedy, losing technique,” Berry said. “This time, I felt like I could have done it better, but at least I was in position to keep him from getting an easy score.”
The Chargers settled for a field goal and took a 27-10 lead, but they never scored again as the Chiefs rallied to score 23 unanswered points in the biggest second-half comeback in team history.
“The thing we just kept reminding ourselves of was we’ve been there before, and we fought back then,’” Berry said, referring to the Chiefs’ 1-5 start a year ago, which was followed by an 11-game winning streak. “It’s just an experience thing, going through those different situations and knowing what it takes to come back ... we had no room for B.S.”
Berry finished with six tackles, the third-most on the team, and while the Chiefs’ run defense was generally porous, Berry had a few occasions in which he showed his trademark instincts and aggressiveness against the run and dropped back for a short gain that should have gone for more yardage.
There was also a very impressive play on a screen pass to running back Danny Woodhead in which the Chargers caught the Chiefs clean on the play, Woodhead had all sorts of acreage in front of him and Berry fought through a block and knocked him out of bounds despite all the pasture.
Berry jokingly attributed his ability to make that play to “a lot of backyard football,” and defensive coordinator Bob Sutton was certainly happy to have him back.
“I thought he was good,” Sutton said. “He played hard, he played the entire game. I didn’t notice a lot of difference in him.”
Chiefs coach Andy Reid said he thought Berry “kind of got into the swing (of it) as it went,” and teammates could see that Berry wants to improve his reaction time and tackling.
“He’s hard on himself,” Johnson said. “He came up and made some big hits but on a couple of them, he was like ‘I’ve got to make those (plays) ... we put that pressure on him because he’s one of our best players.”
One who could not have been more thrilled to be back on the gridiron.
“They were happy I was back,” Berry said of his fellow Chiefs, “and I’m happy to be back.”