When Eric Berry last returned to the Atlanta area during a football season, he was anguished and scared.
It was to be in the loving embrace of his family as he embarked on chemotherapy two years ago this week.
That made simply staying composed a task on Sunday as he played his first NFL regular-season game just miles from where he grew up, with maybe 80 friends and family in the Georgia Dome on a day he was wearing custom purple cleats to promote Hodgkin lymphoma awareness as part of the league’s “My Cause, My Cleats” program.
“I shed a few tears before the game, I shed a few during the game and I shed a few after,” Berry said.
In between all that, the resolute Berry uncorked two stupefying returns that won this game 29-28 over Atlanta for the Chiefs to improve to 9-3.
And maybe it was just right that the Chiefs burnished their “find a way” resume with the team’s ultimate testament to that spirit of resolve.
“Eric is the heart and soul of this team, the embodiment of what we’re about,” quarterback Alex Smith said. “That’s selflessness, hard work, giving it up for the guy next to you. That’s all Eric talks about, and it’s real, it’s sincere … and it’s from the heart.
“I think that really does echo throughout the locker room because of who he is and how he plays.”
Expecting to win in that locker room, linebacker Derrick Johnson said, explains a lot about these Chiefs.
So consider how this epitomizes that:
Berry made up his mind before the game that he was going to give the ball to his mother, Carol, when he returned one for a touchdown. Not if, but when.
That was just what he did from 37 yards out late in the first half.
Not that he was content.
As he left his mother, Berry remembered actually saying he’d “be back.”
It was unclear if he meant just that he’d see her after the game … or be coming back with the ball again.
Sure enough, it was with the ball again.
And when it mattered most: Berry plucked Matt Ryan’s pass on a two-point conversion attempt with 4 minutes 32 seconds left to give the Chiefs their meager margin of victory — their sixth of the season by six points or fewer.
Berry gave the second ball to his father, James — as could be seen in a Facebook photo of the couple each holding a ball after the game.
Naturally, it was nice to be able to share that with his parents, Berry said.
In virtually the same breath, though, he reiterated something he’s stressed all along:
Many people focus on the person who’s ill or needs treatment.
But don’t forget about the caretaker.
“I can try to give her whatever … (but) it won’t amount to the things she’s given me. And my dad as well,” he said. “So many nights I just was crying on their shoulder(s), trying to make sense of everything that was going on.
“And they just kept telling me to, ‘Keep pressing, keep pressing, you’ll be back, you’ll be able to play the game the way you want to play the game.’
“And for it to happen … I can’t thank them enough. I can’t do enough to show my appreciation. So I just keep pushing and keep trying.”
To be sure, Berry’s impassioned work ethic was and remains the key to his return.
The man is a living, breathing muscle who hits with absurd abandon and always expects to score when he gets the ball.
If this is a mentality he always had, well, safe to say he has it all the more since undergoing the painstaking treatment.
It so depleted him at times that he thought he was in the process of dying. Just getting out of bed was a profound achievement.
“I take pride in a lot of things that people take for granted,” he said. “So when opportunities come my way, I just cherish them and try to make the most of them.”
That’s through not just the physical but the mental part of the game, which enhances his instincts.
Even among a group of dedicated professionals, what he does to prepare is on a tier of its own.
“EB watches so much film, it’s ridiculous,” linebacker Tamba Hali said, smiling. “It’s sickening.”
Make your way around the Chiefs locker room, though, and you’ll pick up on another theme of belief about Berry — one that suggests an almost mystical sense of him.
In one corner of the room, tight end Travis Kelce said, “He’s not human out there.”
On the other side of the room, Johnson said “it’s not fair” ... but such stuff has come to be expected from Berry now.
A few lockers down, Hali said the Chiefs will continue to “rally around him; that’s our leader.”
Nearby, linebacker Justin Houston smiled at the mention of Berry.
“Y’all know who Eric is,” said Houston, a close friend of his. “ … God’s working through him in a mighty way: He’s beaten cancer and came back playing like a maniac.”
Across the way, cornerback Marcus Peters offered a more earthly but similarly telling perspective of Berry’s impact on those around him.
“A person who’s been through a lot like he’s been, he’s got a big heart — you feel me?” he said. “And that’s what people should always go back to. It’s always about heart in this game.
“It ain’t about the physical attributes and all that; it’s about who’s got the biggest heart and who’s willing to fight to the end.”
He thought another moment about Berry and added, “This is something that’s in you naturally since you were born. It’s something … that’s in our souls, that’s passed down through our souls.”
Something you see in Berry’s flesh and blood … and in his tears on Sunday.
“It was a lot of emotions,” he said, “so I just tried to contain them and let it show through my plays.”