When Eric Berry reported to the Chiefs last August, he did so — to the surprise of many — without the long-term security he sought.
Granted, his $10.8 million salary for 2016 via the franchise tender was certainly nothing to sneeze at. But he would again be forced to play for his money, like friend and outside linebacker Justin Houston was forced to in 2014.
And while some players would have sulked at an uncertain financial future — in football, a career-ending injury is only a hit away — Berry plastered a smile on his face, prepared like a maniac and again served as the heart and soul of a team that not only went 12-4, but won the AFC West for the first time since 2010.
And for that, Berry — who delivered a second consecutive all-pro season with shades of dominance unlike the 22-sack contract season that helped Houston earn a $101 million extension — was announced as the Derrick Thomas Team MVP at the 101 Awards on Sunday night.
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This marks the second time Berry, 28, has won the award during his seven-year career with the Chiefs. Last season, he shared it with quarterback Alex Smith. But this time, Berry earned it all on his own, winning the award — which is voted on by Chiefs players — unanimously, something Chiefs chairman Clark Hunt couldn’t remember happening recently.
“Very few” have done that, “if ever,” Hunt said.
But Berry did, not only by racking up 77 tackles, nine pass deflections and four interceptions, but also delivering some iconic moments in thrilling victories. He made a game-winning “pick-two” in his return to his hometown of Atlanta, and his pick-six against Carolina changed the game as the Chiefs mounted a 17-point comeback.
What’s more, Berry served as a respected figure in the locker room, one who emerged as the alpha dog in the room. His victory over lymphoma in 2015 gave him all sorts of cachet with his teammates, who roundly respect how he approaches his craft and could not believe how quickly he beat the disease and returned to All-Pro form.
Berry said he did it by adopting a simple philosophy, though it is one that is easier said than done: Make the most of each day, and stack good days one on top of another. Stay focused on the goal, and eliminate distractions.
“There’s so many distractions, so many things going on outside the building,” Berry explained. “I just tried to help them along the way, and they do the same for me, so I guess that’s probably one of the reasons they voted for me.”
But even he didn’t think he’d be a unanimous selection as team MVP.
“It makes me feel good,” Berry said. “My dad always told me; there’s nothing like having the respect of your teammates, and it’s a wonderful feeling. There’s so many different types of people on this team, and I think the thing about it is I think we all put our differences aside to make each other better. And that’s great; a beautiful thing to see.”
Berry’s presence was a big reason for the Chiefs’ success, but he wasn’t the only reason. Dave Toub’s special teams ranked as one of the best in the league, and for that, fifth-round rookie Tyreek Hill deserves credit. Hill was a unanimous All-Pro selection after returning two punts and a kick for touchdowns, and on Sunday, he was the recipient of the Mack Lee Hill Award as the club’s rookie of the year.
“I did not know anything about this award until midseason, when guys started filling my head with ‘Oh, you’re gonna win the Mack Lee,’ ” said Hill, who tied Abner Haynes’ rookie club record with 12 total touchdowns.
The Chiefs were roundly criticized for their selection of Hill, who pleaded guilty to domestic abuse by strangulation of his then-pregnant girlfriend in 2015. But Hill has apologized for his actions, and since then he’s spoken often about his desire to be a good role model for his son, a notion he repeated Sunday.
The Chiefs, meanwhile, have maintained that Hill has done the right things off the field since then, meaning he’s presumably participated in court-mandated, anger-management classes while completing a year-long batterer’s intervention program. Hunt indicated Sunday that the club is pleased with Hill’s growth over the last year.
“His play on the field sort of speaks for itself, but he was a model teammate and did everything that we asked him to do to grow professionally,” Hunt said. “We’re just very excited about that and optimistic about the future.”
So is Hill, who is already turning his attention to building on his dynamic rookie year, with the help of veteran receiver Jeremy Maclin.
“I’ve just got to keep positive people around me, whether it’s teammates, family,” Hill said. “Jeremy Maclin has been a big part of my life in football. He’s been guiding me, showing me the right things, how to be a man in the NFL … I’ve already started training with Jeremy here in KC.”
New York Giants safety Landon Collins was chosen the NFC defensive player of the year, while Oakland Raiders defensive end Khalil Mack was voted AFC defensive player of the year. Dallas Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott was picked as NFC offensive player of the year, while New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady was voted AFC offensive player of the year. The NFC coach of the year is Dallas’ Jason Garrett while the AFC coach of the year is Oakland’s Jack Del Rio. ABC broadcaster Al Michaels won the Lamar Hunt Award for Professional Football, which recognizes a person or group that has contributed to the NFL in a significant way.