Unless you are auditioning for a job, evaluating people who are or just happen to be a football geek, NFL preseason games generally are numbing trivialities.
But there was a thrilling exception to this Saturday night at University of Phoenix Stadium, where the unfathomable return of Chiefs safety Eric Berry to action nine months after being diagnosed with Hodgkin lymphoma brought meaning to the mundane.
That significance was evident long before Berry took the field on the fourth play from scrimmage in what in a sense was the biggest game of his life.
That’s why Berry broke down crying on the Chiefs flight to Arizona.
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“It just all hit me,” he said after their 34-19 victory over the Cardinals. “I don’t think anybody could really understand the road I took, the sacrifices I had to make, the feelings I had going through those times.”
So he savored every moment of this: the smell of the grass and the food at the stadium, the sounds within and even the routine parts of a road trip like greeting security people at the airport.
It all washed over him on the field before the game as he hugged his weeping mother, Carol, and looked close to losing it himself.
This was, after all, the moment that pulled them through so much.
“She’s seen me at my worst; she’s seen me at my best,” he said. “And (getting back on the field) is something we talked about when I was (lying) in the hospital bed.
“Or when I was just up in her room at 4 o’clock in the morning, and she was telling me everything would be OK because I just couldn’t stop crying.”
So she’d tell him, “You’ll be back, everything will be OK” and somehow comforted him and helped him believe what couldn’t be known.
He thought about all that as they embraced, and he thought about how much she had absorbed for him and needed comforting herself.
“A lot of people always talk about the person actually going through the situation,” he said, “but they don’t actually talk about the caretaker. I could see how it was very stressful for her.”
Now it was a special breakthrough … not just for them but for so many others this touches.
You could see it on the scoreboard, which flashed “WELCOME BACK ERIC BERRY!” and zoomed in on him on the sideline just before the playing of the national anthem.
You could feel it in a crowd sprinkled with Berry’s No. 29 jerseys or T-shirts honoring him.
“Isn’t it crazy that, like, eight months ago he was diagnosed, and now he’s here playing?” said Chiefs fan Steve Valencia, 34, clad in a Berry jersey. “It’s got to be a fantastic boost for everybody that’s out here.”
Nearby, Scott Montgomery, wearing a “Be Bold, Be Strong, Be Berry” T-shirt said: “It seemed like something that he might never return from.”
Among those waiting to see Berry emerge from the tunnel before the game were Chiefs fan Brad Caviar, 38, and son Payton, 14.
“Cancer affects everybody, obviously; it’s awful,” said Caviar, wearing a jersey he said was from Berry’s rookie year. “But football players are warriors; they’re supposed to be the biggest and strongest. And then you see something like that?
“For him to come back from that in such a short period of time is quite a remarkable story.”
So remarkable that even the Chiefs couldn’t have anticipated this when Berry returned late last month.
Although he had been cleared medically, the Chiefs still were more focused on Berry continuing to get better than they were on the idea of him playing anytime soon.
Great that he could be in camp, they figured, because that would help lift his morale.
Now, suddenly, Berry is the one lifting the morale of countless others, personified by Alyssa Crabtree, 24, of Platte City.
Contending with lymphoma herself, Crabtree and her family recently met Berry at Chiefs camp in St. Joseph, where she held a sign that read, “FUTURE LYMPHOMA SURVIVOR (JUST LIKE BERRY).
On Saturday back home as her treatments continue, Crabtree and her family were riveted to the game.
“I know he has to be playing with a lot of emotion right now,” she said via text message. “I know Chiefs Nation, me included, are proud of how far he has come! It is truly amazing … because he truly beat lymphoma.
“He is back to living life and doing what he loves. I aspire to that.”
And that’s the thread, the common denominator, that makes Berry resonate.
He’s not the first to come so far back so fast, but he’s among the most visible to have done anything like this — particularly in a sport with the grueling requirements of football.
Thus, he’s a living, breathing testament to hope for about anyone.
Because how many degrees of separation is any of us away from knowing anyone suffering from cancer — or any severe illness that can lead to despair?
Berry knows this, of course, and it’s already part of what’s driving him.
“I’ve been running into a lot of people, people who don’t even know about football, telling me their (relatives) just got diagnosed with cancer …,” he said. “They just tell me they have hope because they see me out on the field, so that means a lot to me …
“It just does so much for them, so I’ve got to go hard. I’ve got to give everything I’ve got just so other people have hope.”
That’s true even among the Chiefs, who it turns out are mortal beings.
Berry’s return surged through them, particularly in his surprising first few days of camp, and maybe it moved some even more than others.
Some who have more in common with Berry than you might think.
Four summers ago, receiver Jeremy Maclin suddenly began suffering from night sweats, chills, loss of appetite and weight.
“It was just classic lymphoma symptoms,” Jeff Parres, a surrogate father to Maclin and a St. Louis-area urologist, said in the stadium concourse on Saturday. “They did initial testing, and it came back abnormal and I just kind of knew he had lymphoma.”
The biopsy of Maclin’s lymph nodes went on slides to nine different institutions, including the Mayo Clinic and the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center.
Whatever was going on with Maclin never was precisely reconciled.
One of the final pathology reports, Parres said, came back saying Maclin had “abnormal looking lymph nodes” and that they “don’t know what it is.”
The symptoms receded rapidly, though, and vague and murky as it all was there has been no reason for concern since.
But maybe that explains why one of the first things Maclin did after taking his physical with the Chiefs was go to the team store and buy an Eric Berry T-shirt.
“I think it especially hit home with Jeremy,” Parres said.
Among infinite others who could feel the same sense of kinship and inspiration from Berry on Saturday.
And so what if the game won’t count in the NFL standings?
“Everything counts,” Berry said, smiling. “Practices count, meetings count, walk-throughs count …
“Everything is a blessing.”