In the moments following one of the most emotional moments of his life, Chiefs safety Eric Berry was happy, reflective, and most of all, grateful.
This was Feb. 6, the night of the NFL Honors show in San Francisco, where Berry was presented with the league’s comeback player of the year award after beating Hodgkin lymphoma, which he received a diagnosis of in December 2014.
In front of a crowd of thousands, Berry spoke candidly about having the courage to follow your dreams, and never giving up. He thanked the litany of friends, family and teammates who helped him through his recovery — which included six energy-zapping chemotherapy treatments — and when he spoke in the hallway afterward, he explained how all the love and support he received changed his life.
“Throughout that situation, I kind of found out the power of an interaction between somebody, even if it’s five or 10 seconds,” Berry said. “There were times I didn’t feel like doing anything. I was down, but just five seconds or a nugget from somebody helped me push on throughout the process. So I just try to embrace everything.”
But Berry, 27, also made it clear he was already thinking about next season. He served as the emotional leader of a team that went 11-5 and won its first playoff game in 22 years. But the Chiefs’ 27-20 AFC Divisional round loss to New England left a bad taste in his mouth, one that remains even though he is set to become an restricted free agent on March 9.
“It’s hard not to think about next year to be honest with you,” Berry said with a laugh. “But the thing about it is just giving my body rest. And that’s the part I’ve changed up. Usually, I’d take two weeks off and get right back to it.”
That’s not all Berry is changing up, either. After spending most of the first five offseasons of his career looking to get bigger and stronger, Berry said he is now comfortable with his 2015 playing weight of 210 pounds, which he said was about five pounds less than his 2014 weight, and might even shed some weight this offseason.
“The offseason plan is, I like my weight, I like where it was at,” Berry said. “If I can cut my weight and still perform at a high level, I’ll do that because the way the game is going, you don’t really need to be bulky like that.”
The results were noticeable this season, too, as Berry — who also weighed 210 pounds in college — seemed quicker, especially in coverage. So Berry said he plans to focus on eating right and keeping his weight down, just like running back Jamaal Charles, who has a reputation for keeping himself in tremendous shape.
“That’s one thing Jamaal does, too, throughout the season — he cuts weight,” Berry said. “While everybody is getting bulkier, he cuts weight and gets faster.”
ESPN analyst Louis Riddick thinks this is a good idea. Riddick noticed how much swifter Berry looked in 2015, when he returned from lymphoma to rack up 61 tackles, 10 pass break ups and two interceptions while making his fourth Pro Bowl appearance and second first-team all-pro selection.
“I think you saw, because of what he was dealing with from a health perspective, he wound up trimming his body down and started to look more like he did coming out of Tennessee, when he was really one of the best defensive backs you’ve seen come into this league in a long time because he could play corner, nickel, either safety position,” Riddick said.
Riddick, however, said he understood why Berry decided to bulk up a few years ago though.
“There’s a natural tendency for players, when they come into the league, to one, just mature automatically,” Riddick said. “Your body gets bigger, you’re lifting better, you’re eating better. In college, you don’t have as much money and access to stuff like you do in the pros, when it’s your full-time job. So people get bigger, and everything becomes about being bigger, stronger, faster, bigger, stronger, faster.
“Well, stronger and faster is good — bigger is not always good, especially when you’re talking about DBs. And Eric just got wound too tight. And a lot of the things that made him one of the most coveted DBs ever, he lost it. Now he’s got them back, and this year, you saw.”
Riddick added that he heard positive reviews of Berry’s 2015 performance from people who would know, too.
“People down there told me he looks like he did when he came out of Tennessee,” Riddick said. “He knows it, we know it, and it kind of results in him having one of the best years of his career, which is awesome.”
In fact, Berry had such a nice season that Riddick said you can safely remove the “box safety” label from him.
“I wouldn’t call him a box safety,” Riddick said. “Now, you’re talking about a multi-dimensional safety that can do whatever you want.”
Riddick said a player like that, for sure, could command a hefty sum on the open market, which could 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.
“Free agency is about money — that’s No. 1,” Hall of Fame general manager Bill Polian said. “Fans need to understand that.”
Speaking generally, Polian said that when deciding whether to spend big money on a free agent, teams need to make sure players can make plays on their own and can change the game because of their ability, intensity and football IQ.
“You say to yourself — if the player is that guy, if he’s a gamechanger, then he’s worth the money,” Polian said. “The other parts of it, whether it be human interest or fan interest or whatever, play a very small role.”
In the absence of a new deal, the Chiefs have until 3 p.m. Tuesday, March 1, to use the franchise tag on Berry, a tender that should roughly be worth $11 million. If they don’t, Berry will hit the market as an unrestricted free agent.
At the combine, Chiefs general manager John Dorsey said he has had good discussions with Berry’s agent the past couple of weeks, but wouldn’t rule out a tag.
“I’ve used a franchise tag in the past, and it’s not out of the possibility I could use it again,” Dorsey said. “It all depends on how certain things go in the process, but you always want to have something in your pocket, and I could use that.”
To that end, however, Riddick thinks the decision to pay Berry, one way or another, is a no brainer.
“You’d have to find reasons not to that probably wouldn’t be very genuine — let me just put it that way,” Riddick said. “You have to take care of the middle of your football team, the signal-callers. When you have a guy who is special like that … guys who are talking to the team automatically, in the huddle, in the classroom, like Eric does — and he’s young, and he’s productive, and he’s a good player — then you have to find reasons not to sign him, unless the market dictates that you just can’t swing it financially.
“You’d be playing with fire to go ahead and mess with the chemistry of your football team like that because that sends a message to other players. Man look, if Eric Berry can’t get his money, then who can?”
It’s a good question, one that Berry — to his credit — didn’t seem concerned at all about at the NFL Honors show. Since the end of the season, Berry has consistently said he plans on leaving his contract situation in his agent’s hands, though it’s safe to say the prospect of continuing what he’s built in Kansas City is, at the very least, an appealing option.
“God willing, everything just stays how it is and we can build off of where we got,” Berry said. “Hopefully we can still build something great in that secondary. So I’m excited for it.”