There is no wrong way to fight cancer. Not if your mind is right, anyway. Eric Berry, one of the Chiefs’ and NFL’s best young players, knows this now.
That wasn’t always true, of course. In the beginning, in those strange and foggy first days when the cancer diagnosis still felt like someone else’s reality, Berry wasn’t sure he had this fight in him. He didn’t know where to start.
Berry learned by error. In the beginning, he thought about it all wrong. How do you fight for your life when you’re not sure you can get out of bed? You can’t, not really, which is why he ended up in tears over breakfast with his dad one day.
James Berry told his son it was OK, that he didn’t need to be strong every day, and that more than anything else, he just needed to get a little better today. Then a little better again tomorrow. Athletes aren’t made in a day. Cancer survivors aren’t, either.
“Without them,” Berry said of his parents, “I don’t know how I would have pushed through.”
One of the great recent stories in sports took a significant step here Wednesday, when Berry — just 247 days after being diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a cancer that attacks the immune system — went through limited training camp practice with his Chiefs teammates.
Berry is now one of an estimated 14.5 million cancer survivors alive in the United States. His path to recovery was smoother than most, rougher than some, and an inspiration to children and professional football stars and everyone in between.
“That’s part of me now,” Berry said. “I have two cancer survivors in my family as well, my aunties. They are some warriors; they are fighters. I feel like I had to do it, regardless of this football thing. I felt like I had to just come back the best way I could.”
Anyone who has fought or seen a loved one fight cancer up close can nod their heads with one of life’s most difficult common experiences.
Chemotherapy is a nasty treatment, one Berry said “literally feels like you’re dying.” That kind of thing can’t help but change a man. Berry says he learned patience, because one of the worst fits of tears came with his father over breakfast that day when he wondered if he had it in him to beat this.
Sports gave Berry an advantage, and not just because he entered this fight in elite physical shape. There is a certain stubbornness, a relentlessness, a belief in people who compete for a living. Their minds are already trained to break down goals into manageable parts, so Berry learned to see himself not as battling chemotherapy, but battling himself.
Some days, he felt like he could conquer the world. Some days, his goal was merely to get out of bed. Fear nothing, attack everything isn’t just a line coaches use during practice. As it turns out, it is also a heck of a way to fight cancer.
Berry seems to have come out of the fight of his life with a remarkable perspective. He drew inspiration not just from friends and peers around the NFL showing love, but from studying how others had approached what Berry knew were tougher fights than his. His chemo treatments were every other Wednesday. He points out that some have to go to chemo 10 straight days, sometimes more.
Tears ran down the cheeks of Berry’s mother, Carol, during their news conference Wednesday. She and James Berry put their lives to the side to focus entirely on their son’s recovery. James cooked three meals a day, which Eric joked is how he kept his weight up. Carol printed and framed signs around the house warning people not to walk in if they carried any negative energy.
Berry did not hear from everyone, of course, and he says that’s OK, too. We all deal with things differently. Some people call too much. Others don’t have it in them to even text, or don’t want to be a bother.
It’s a heck of a thing when a man can be pushed toward death, fight back, and come out of it with a smile.
“I wouldn’t change it for the world,” he said.
Maybe it’s all a matter of perspective, and Berry would almost certainly disagree, but there is a long way between where he is now and playing at his old Pro Bowl level. The Chiefs want to err on the side of caution but have so far seen no reason to doubt.
Hodgkin’s lymphoma is considered to be highly curable, but there is no such thing as a routine cancer recovery. Berry passed on traditional chemotherapy treatments in favor of a method that would allow him to work out. He finished six phases of chemo weighing 1 pound more than when he started, and the other day he bench-pressed 275 pounds five times as part of a strength test.
Berry doesn’t need to keep playing and knows that those who love him do not need him to play. He is a son, a brother, a friend and a mentor to many. Those things are more important than his life as one of the NFL’s most respected safeties.
He had already made more than $40 million and has always been active with charities, including Big Brothers Big Sisters. On the same day he went back to practice, his foundation was hosting some sick kids in Kansas City. Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce, who spent part of his offseason working out with Berry, went in his friend’s stead.
But Berry can do some good through football, too, and not just by solidifying the Chiefs’ secondary as the franchise attempts to win a playoff game for the first time in more than two decades.
Sports provide platforms. Those platforms can be used for good or bad, and far too often, they’re used for bad. We care a little too much about sports, and sometimes that means we excuse or ignore a little too much ugliness — from simple rudeness or entitlement, all the way up to broken laws and affected lives.
Berry is different. Always has been. He was a college All-American at Tennessee and a good football fit for the Chiefs anyway, but club officials fell in love while getting to know him before the NFL Draft.
The story of him sneaking out on Friday nights to help the equipment guys shine helmets became symbolic of a humble, engaging, intelligent young man who happened to be a terrific football player.
Berry’s specific form of cancer has a better prognosis than some others. It is believed that 200,000 or more Americans have been diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma and are now living cancer-free. Hockey great Mario Lemieux beat Hodgkin’s lymphoma and returned to lead the NHL in scoring.
Berry may be the most visible of these success stories now, and this is a part of his story that he embraces. He is not fully recovered. Not yet, and not quite. The Chiefs’ training staff will watch him particularly closely and put him through extra tests. His body has been rocked, and there is a big difference between cancer-free and strong enough to play in the NFL.
Berry says he’s ready for that, and proud — not just of how far he’s come but by what his experience can do for others. He fought for his life. He beat cancer. Now he’s playing football again.
There is no telling what can happen from here.
“I still feel like I have work to do,” he said. “This is just a checkpoint.”