With the support of Chiefs’ ‘family,’ Eric Berry back to being himself

Kansas City Chiefs head coach Andy Reid and safety Eric Berry.
Kansas City Chiefs head coach Andy Reid and safety Eric Berry.

Nearly 12 months after Eric Berry’s scary Hodgkin lymphoma diagnosis, the reddish-brown hair is back on his head now, and so is the speed and playmaking ability that helped him earn three Pro Bowl berths in his first five years in the league.

Any doubt that remained about that was answered on one play he made Sunday, during the Chiefs’ 33-3 win over the San Diego Chargers, when he sniffed out a quick screen, dived underneath a 330-pound offensive lineman and took out the legs of receiver Stevie Johnson to rack up an impressive solo tackle.

“That was a superior play,” said Chiefs coach Andy Reid, who rarely uses such superlatives when describing anything his players do. “You just don’t see that very often where he goes underneath an offensive lineman, pops up and makes a tackle on a screen — it was ninja-esque.”

It was the kind of play that has defensive coordinator Bob Sutton thinking that Berry, who has 41 tackles and two interceptions this season, is playing “as good as he’s played” since the current staff arrived in 2013.

Sutton says Berry is playing faster than he did last year. He doesn’t think Berry has lost weight, either. Instead, Sutton suspects the cancer ordeal — which Berry beat in under nine months — taught him to play looser.

“I think he’s free,” Sutton said. “It’s really exciting to see him like that. He’s playing great football right now.”

Berry’s recent play is a reason the Chiefs have bounced back to win their last four games and pull to 5-5 after a miserable 1-5 start. But so is their team camaraderie.

After their 33-3 win over the San Diego Chargers on Sunday, multiple Chiefs credited their locker-room character — in essence, their team unity — for keeping them from turning on one another during their 1-5 start, which certainly isn’t always a given in the NFL.

Teams, of course, often talk about being a family. But with so many dollars on the line, few actually mean it.

“I think it’s a family — everybody’s close,” outside linebacker Justin Houston said earlier this season. “You can go in there and sit at any table at any time and talk to anybody at any time about anything … I think it’s very rare. My first couple years, we didn’t have that. You couldn’t go to sit at the lunch table with anybody and have a good conversation.

“I think this is the first year I’m able to do that. I think the coaches, the GM, did a great job putting a good staff together and getting the right group of guys together.”

Reid echoed those thoughts on Monday, crediting general manager John Dorsey for putting together a group of players with “good souls.”

But some of this also falls on the players, and when it comes to leadership, few have been more influential than Houston, whose supportive acts during Berry’s cancer fight — he stayed with him intermittently and was always there for his friend — are examples of the type of tight-knit group the Chiefs have become.

“Justin’s a big part of that, you really saw him take over the leadership position last year of that defense,” Reid said. “And he and Eric are so close, not only do they live kind of close to each other, but they’re close from a player standpoint.

“And Justin comes from a family — like a huge family — so he understands family. If anybody on this team understands family, it’s him.”

It didn’t not take long for Houston and Berry to bond. When Houston arrived in Kansas City as a third-round pick in 2011 — one year after Berry arrived as a first-round pick — the two found plenty of common ground.

First, they were Georgia kids — Houston is from Statesboro while Berry is from Fairburn, which is about 3  1/2 hours away. And second, they were competitors committed to winning.

“Since I came in, he accepted me with open arms,” Houston said. “He was never hesitant about anything. I could go to him about anything, ask questions. Just being around him and being who he is, he’s a cool guy — you’d like to be around him.

The two even found common ground in shared tragedy. When Berry’s childhood home burned down in 2013, Houston could relate — the same happened to him in 2003, when he was just a ninth-grader.

“Eric did share with me that Justin’s house burned down, and they bonded off that,” said Berry’s mother, Carol.

So when Berry found out that he likely had Hodgkin lymphoma late last November, Houston was one of the first people to know, along with Berry’s family, of course.

“He called me and told me,” Houston said. “But I had a positive mind-set — I said it wasn’t what he thought it was, it would be alright, it would be cool.”

But in the meantime, Berry would need chemotherapy treatment. He opted to do it in Atlanta, so he could fight it with the support of family, and on the Monday following his last game in 2014 — the Chiefs’ 24-20 loss to the Oakland Raiders — Berry left Kansas City to return home, with Houston right there to send him off.

“Every time I think about it, when we left (that Monday), Justin was there,” Carol Berry said. “It broke my heart. It’s such a great story.”

But that was not the last the Berry family would see of Justin Houston. Since that day, Berry has thanked many people for supporting him in his recovery, but few were more supportive than Houston.

“Before that, we were tight, we were real good friends,” Berry said. “But after that, it did a lot for me because it was a rough point, a rough spot that I was in, and he was taking his off days to come down and visit me. It meant a lot and I really do appreciate it.”

In the month following Berry’s lymphoma diagnosis, the Chiefs’ organization stood behind him. BerryStrong became a hashtag, and decals were added to team apparel. A Berry sign was even hung outside the locker room.

But on the field, no player expressed more support for his teammate than Houston, who started lifting his jersey after every sack to reveal a T-shirt with Berry’s number written on it, which was first written in marker and ultimately screen-printed.

It was a very visible show of support, but it didn’t stop there. For most of the following month, Houston would quietly fly from Kansas City to Atlanta every Monday — the Chiefs’ off day is Tuesday — to visit Berry and return before the practice week started on Wednesday.

Carol Berry remembers the first time Houston visited their home; she thought he was just coming to Georgia to see his family, first, and then drop by to see Berry. Nope.

“When Justin showed up at the door, I thought ‘Oh, how sweet is that,’ ” she said. “I did not know he was staying with us.”

But he did. When we came to visit, Houston would spend the night in a guest room and return to Kansas City the next day. Carol remembers Houston loving the cooking of Eric’s father, James; Houston remembers watching television with Berry and his family.

“I was just there for support,” Houston said. “Me being around him … I never saw a point where he was down, so I couldn’t tell if I was helping him or not. But I just knew me being around him, I felt like that was a good thing to do.”

It was, Carol Berry said.

“They ate, James cooked, and they had a great time,” said Carol Berry , who added that the value of a friendship like Houston’s can’t be measured. “It made Eric feel good.”

Houston, however, was just one of many people to stand in Berry’s corner during his recovery. Cornerback Sean Smith also visited, and Berry worked out with tight end Travis Kelce as he fought his way back.

Berry also thanked two of his longtime friends, Savion Frazier and Jason Stanley, for pushing him through his intense training as he worked his way through energy-sapping chemotherapy treatments.

And when Berry improbably returned to the team in time for training camp in July — somehow weighing a pound more than he did when he went into the grueling process — he was grateful for everyone who stood with him through tough times, including Houston.

“Houston, he was pushing me when I got back (to the team), saying ‘Come on man, let’s go, let’s go … we talked about this on your couch back when you were taking chemo, we’re on a mission, we’ve got to get this done,’ ” Berry said.

“Just having people like that in your corner and helping you strive for greatness is good.”

By the time the regular season started in September, there was a notable change in the Chiefs’ locker room setup. Berry was back in his usual spot, surrounded by all the defensive backs, but to his left — in a locker that is typically occupied by a defensive back — was Houston.

For the first four years of Houston’s career, he’d sat across the room, directly next to his mentor, Tamba Hali. Derrick Johnson, however, wasn’t surprised by Houston’s move next to Berry.

“They’re real tight,” Johnson said, “and (Justin) wanted to move away from Tamba. Tamba’s a little messy, so that’s part of the reason, too.”

Johnson was joking, obviously, and Hali played along when asked about it later.

“I was offended,” Hali joked. “I really thought, like, I did something to Justin and, like, he didn’t want to sit next to me anymore.”

But in all seriousness, both Hali and Johnson knew what prompted the move.

“I know they’re cool, and last year, when Eric was battling cancer, it really hit Justin hard,” Hali said.

Like it did everyone, for that matter.

“Eric,” Johnson said, “means a lot to everybody.”

To Houston, Berry is somebody he always wants to be around, because the cancer ordeal proves tomorrow isn’t promised to anybody. On this Thanksgiving, Berry definitely understands this more than most.

Almost one year to the day after receiving the scariest news of his life, Eric Berry is now healthy, playing the best football of his career and surrounded by a locker room that has his back and a family that loves him.

Berry is looking forward to celebrating the holiday with all of them, too. When he was a child, he used to spend the night before Thanksgiving with his grandma, helping her prepare the food. He did this until he went to college at Tennessee, but with a smile, he noted Sunday that his grandma would be coming back to Kansas City this week so they could revive the tradition.

“We’re going to get down like we used to,” Berry said with a grin.

And his teammates are invited, too — including Houston, of course.

“He can ask me for anything,” Berry said, “and I’ll be there for him.”

And vice versa.

“Through tough times, you’ll find out who your true friends are,” Houston said. “Most guys, during tough times, they turn their back on you. I just wanted to show I was a true friend.”