The beard is thick now, about as long as it’s ever been since the star safety became a Chief six years ago. The same can be said for his reddish-brown hair, which is sticking out under his red ball cap as he walks through radio row during the run-up to Super Bowl 50.
“I just haven’t had time to get to the barber shop yet,” Eric Berry said with an easy laugh.
Berry said he might cut the full beard, because he’s not necessarily married to it. But after everything he’s been through over the past year — when he fast-tracked several chemotherapy treatments to beat Hodgkin lymphoma and lead the Chiefs to their first playoff win in over two decades — he feels like he’s earned every thick strand of hair on his head.
“I was excited about that — we came a long way,” Berry said of thick head of hair, which he was growing out before his cancer diagnosis. “There was a point in time when I didn’t even have eyebrows, you know? So it’s pretty cool.”
So is the fact that Berry came back and racked up 55 tackles, two interceptions and 10 pass deflections during a season in which he not only earned his fourth Pro Bowl nod, but also his second first-team All-Pro selection.
Berry also emerged as the emotional leader of the Chiefs, along with outside linebacker and fellow Georgia native Justin Houston, as several teammates and coaches mentioned that the way Berry dealt with his cancer ordeal served as a galvanizing force as they rebounded from a 1-5 start to finish 11-5.
“Ever since I was younger, my dad always talked about (how) having the respect of your teammates is one of the biggest things you’ll always appreciate in your life,” Berry said. “I don’t just demand it from people — I give respect to others, and I think that carried us a long way.”
Houston and Berry, both 27, are young and talented enough to lead the Chiefs for the next several years. The thing is, while Houston is under contract through 2020, Berry is set to become a free agent for the first time in his career in March.
That means that barring a franchise tag, he’ll be allowed to test the free market, where many teams that could certainly use a defensive star with Berry’s Pro Bowl pedigree will have money to spend.
“Right now, it’s in my agent’s hands,” Berry said, when asked about his contract situation. “With everything that went on this past year, I just want to kick it for a little bit, get the season off me, get all that off me, and then I think we’ll go from there.”
Berry said he’s been told the Chiefs have had preliminary discussions with his representative, something general manager John Dorsey revealed during a conference call with reporters a few weeks ago.
“I’ve had various discussions with his representatives, and we will continue to have conversations with his representatives,” Dorsey said on Jan. 21.
But on Friday, team chairman Clark Hunt wasn’t shy about explaining how much Berry means to the Chiefs.
“Certainly, Eric is somebody that’s very important to the franchise,” Hunt said. “Coach (Andy) Reid and his staff think highly of him. They appreciate the leader that he’s become, and obviously personally, he had the amazing year overcoming cancer. We’ll do everything we can to try to bring him back.”
That would probably mean giving Berry a contract that eclipses the four-year, $40 million extension that star Seattle safety Earl Thomas received in April 2014, a deal that included $27.75 million in guaranteed money and set the market for elite players at the position.
“There’s no way that anybody who is involved in professional sports wouldn’t appreciate what he did this year and overcoming what he did and what it took to do that,” Hunt said. “You just add that to his natural leadership abilities, and he certainly was important to the team.”
Berry learned over the course of his career that there are different ways to lead.
“The biggest way is just by example and understanding who is on your team,” Berry said. “You can’t get in certain guys’ faces — they might not respond to that. Sometimes you’ve got to pull guys to the side and tell them this is what we need to get it done. Some of them, you might have to get in their face. Sometimes you might have to have somebody else go up to them. There’s different ways to do it, you know what I mean?”
Of course, Berry isn’t the only leader in the organization. And he expressed gratitude for the way the people above him — such as the coaching staff, team executives and front office — handled his cancer scare.
For instance, when the Chiefs placed Berry on the non-football illness list late in the 2014 season, they had the option to not pay him. Some teams have exercised that right in the past, but the Chiefs never did.
“It doesn’t always work out like that,” Berry said. “Like I said, it’s a great place. They’ve got great people in place, and even with (team chairman Clark) Hunt, man. What other owner would you want to have? He came and visited me while I was going through my chemo, and I got numerous messages from him and his family, all the way down from Dorsey to coach Reid, the coaching staff, the teammates. Top down, it’s an A-1 program.”
And while his contract situation has not been resolved — and it’s unclear how, or when it will be — Berry can say that after six years in Kansas City, he has a fondness for the city and organization.
“Love it, love it,” Berry said. “Love the fan base, love the staff that’s in place, love my teammates. It’s a wonderful place to be.”