When Eric Berry was told that he’d effectively wrapped up a six-year, $78 million extension with the Chiefs a week ago, the first call he made was to his parents, James and Carol. They were the ones who had been there with him through it all — the cancer, the recovery, the redemption — and he wanted them to share in his latest triumph.
James just smiled. His son was going to have an opportunity to get what he wanted from the beginning, which was to play in one place his entire career. They’d talked about that before, and he was happy for Eric.
Carol, meanwhile, began to cry. She could not help it. She started to think about the last time she came to Kansas City for a non-football visit: December 2014, when the family arrived to take Eric back to Atlanta so he could begin his treatment for Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
To go from that moment, when there was so much uncertainty about their son’s future, to the scene on Tuesday, when she and James flanked Eric at the Chiefs’ practice facility, it was almost too much to bear.
“I can’t even put into words how he has inspired me,” Carol said, voice starting to tremble with emotion. “I can’t even put into words how proud I am and how happy I am for it to be with Kansas City.”
One thing that became clear as Berry, 28, spoke about the long-term deal that will keep him a Chief throughout his prime is how much he enjoys this team, and how he didn’t want to leave. He mentioned multiple times the sense of community he feels around the Chiefs’ facility, and how he appreciates the support he’s had from fans, teammates and other employees of the franchise.
“I feel like I had so much support, so much love at home, in the building, everywhere — that goes a long way,” Berry said. “I was talking to my parents and uncle, and nobody ever accounts for chemistry. A lot of people don’t take that into consideration. Having my family and this organization behind me, it meant a lot because you don’t get that everywhere. I know that from talking to guys around the league. I’m thankful for that.”
So much so that at the end of the day, had he been allowed to hit free agency, Berry thinks chemistry would have trumped everything else anyway — even money.
“Somebody could have offered me more money somewhere else, and less money here, and I would have stayed here,” Berry said.
But that never came to pass, as the Chiefs elected to make the heart and soul of their defense the highest-paid defensive back of all time.
For a while, this big payday looked less than likely. The Chiefs applied a $10.8 million franchise tag to Berry last year; negotiations toward a long-term deal were going absolutely nowhere at the time.
Berry was disappointed then, but after skipping training camp in St. Joseph, he returned to work before the 2016 season and resumed his role as team leader and defensive stalwart.
He did it with a smile, too, rationalizing why team officials had failed to lock him up long-term and resolving to prove why they should’ve.
“I put myself in their shoes and realized I would want Eric Berry to prove it to me,” Berry said. “When you look at it that way, you kind of take your feelings out of it.”
Berry proceeded to give the Chiefs another Pro Bowl, all-pro season, racking up 77 tackles, four interceptions and nine pass breakups while producing a handful of iconic moments in memorable victories at Carolina and Atlanta.
Don’t expect the money to change Berry. He’s already made a lot of it in his career, and while he plans to do some good things with this additional wealth — such as starting an educational program in his hometown of Fairburn, Ga., that will give kids an outlet to express themselves artistically — he said he feels no added pressure to live up to the extension. He has always put more pressure on himself than anyone else can, and that doesn’t figure to change anytime soon.
But with this new deal behind him, Berry can now focus fully on the only thing he has never accomplished professionally: winning a Super Bowl. The Chiefs have made progress toward that goal since coach Andy Reid and general manager John Dorsey arrived in 2013, going from an infamous wild-card playoff loss at Indianapolis in 2013 to finally winning a playoff game in 2015 and earning a 12-4 record and AFC West crown in 2016.
Playoff experience is crucial to building a Super Bowl winner, but Berry said Tuesday that it’s on the players to hold each other accountable and raise their level of play.
“The coaches can’t hold our hands through every situation,” Berry said. “Progress has been made, but it’s about taking the next step to get over the hump.”
If that’s to happen, Berry will play a large role. He has emerged as the Chiefs’ alpha dog in the locker room, someone whose resilience, work ethic and passion for football gives him tremendous sway with his teammates. He knows that and has their best interest at heart, even when he cajoles them to get the most out of their talents.
“I can’t talk to (young defensive lineman) Chris Jones the way I talk to (veteran linebacker) Justin (Houston), just because they have different personalities,” Berry said. “Everybody is willing to win, so once you establish that, it’s like, ‘All right, he’s telling me this because he’s trying to win as well.’ If you just understand we’re all willing to win, you know they truly have their best interest at heart.”
That goes for Berry’s position coaches, too. Berry said Al Harris and Emmitt Thomas do a great job of pushing him.
“They showed no sympathy — they pushed me every day about technique, good eyes ...” Berry said. “They wanted to make sure I was feeling all right, but having that accountability was important.”
After the Pro Bowl, for instance, Berry received a text from Harris asking him what he thinks he needs to work on.
“I was like, ‘(I was) all-pro, Pro Bowl (this year); what do you think?’” Berry said with a laugh.
Berry talks a lot about focusing on the process and eliminating distractions. That’s how he beat cancer; how he found the strength to work out when he could barely stand; how he learned the importance of being humble enough to ask for help, and why you should never, ever give up, no matter what personal battle you’re facing.
If there’s anything Berry wants others to take from his story, it’s that. He believes this formula, while easier talked about than lived, is how you win at life.
“Just because you’re going through something, don’t let the circumstances alter your dream,” he said. “You might have to change the route you take or adjust on the fly, but you don’t have to compromise the dream.
“A lot of people go through things, but they’re afraid to ask for help. That’s the biggest thing I had to learn — you can’t do it yourself. You’ve got to have people. There were days I couldn’t do anything and I had to rely on other people. It forced me to trust other people.
“Life is hard; life is difficult. But you (have to) keep good people around you and stay consistent day in and day out.”
When asked Tuesday what the last three years of his son’s life have been like, James thought of Eric and smiled.
“It was a great journey to see him come back from a place that was sort of dark and dingy,” James said. “But there was a lot of hope; there was a lot of light at the end of tunnel. And to see him fight his way back to where he is today, words can’t say it. He’s a warrior and dedicated to the game. He has a winning spirit.
“It was a great journey.”