Sam Mellinger

Chiefs safety Eric Berry gets support from his ‘hero’

Last year, Eric Berry (right) befriended double leukemia patient Brice Eidson, who attended last season’s Chiefs-Broncos game at Arrowhead Stadium.
Last year, Eric Berry (right) befriended double leukemia patient Brice Eidson, who attended last season’s Chiefs-Broncos game at Arrowhead Stadium. Submitted photo

Brice Eidson likes basketball. He’s the tallest boy in his seventh-grade class, but plays point guard and on the wing. He likes his dogs, particularly Tater, a chubby rat terrier. Brice has a friend down the gravel road in this rural area that’s about a 90-minute drive south of Kansas City. Brice and this other boy go riding together, Brice in his dune buggy and his friend on a dirt bike.

Brice used to like Peyton Manning, but then the star quarterback left Indianapolis and, Brice’s words here, “got old.”

Besides, Brice has a new favorite football player. Eric Berry. Brice and Eric are friends, actually. When Brice’s mother, Tina, told him this week that the Chiefs star was seeing a doctor in Atlanta about a mass in his chest that they suspected to be lymphoma, Brice was shocked but took the news with more understanding than any 12-year-old should.

He doesn’t have a cell phone, so he asked his mom to text Eric.

I want him to know he’s my hero and I’m behind him in this fight. You got this because losing is not an option.

Brice has been through his own fight, with the help of both Eric and the message behind that last sentence in the text message: losing is not an option. Brice feels in his heart that Eric will come through this, whatever it is. Doctors are still trying to solve this. There are so many types of lymphoma, from the highly curable to the highly deadly.

Nobody knows exactly what Eric’s path will be, but Brice knows a lot about what his friend will need in the fight of his life.

“Eric helped me,” Brice told his mom. “So now I want to help Eric.”

The football star wore a Royals hat, a sweatshirt, brown pants and white sneakers as he walked into the boy’s hospital room. Eric Berry will wear his Chiefs jersey for photo shoots or team-organized appearances, but this one was personal.

Emily McNeill, Berry’s personal assistant, helped set up the meeting and knew that Berry didn’t want any media attention for it. He didn’t want anyone to know. This was last October, and he had heard about this boy with a double leukemia that doctors at Children’s Mercy had never seen before. He heard the boy was tough, but had been feeling down. He wanted to help.

“Hi Brice, how are you doing?” he said. “I’m Eric Berry.”

The truth is that Brice didn’t recognize the face. Maybe it was seeing an All-Pro safety so out of context, street clothes instead of shoulder pads, and in a hospital instead of on a football field.

Tina Eidson didn’t tell her son that a famous football player was coming to visit that day. Part of her wanted it to be a surprise, but she had also heard that athletes don’t always show up to these things. She heard that Berry was different, but you can’t be too sure. And wasn’t Berry in the middle of the season?

“Mom,” Brice told Tina. “You should’ve told me. I’d have brought my Xbox!”

There isn’t a lot you can do while fighting cancer. Brice was getting a blood transfusion on this day, which meant that tubes connected him to a machine. He was going to pass the time on the Wii, but had only the basic games that come with the console, plus Mario Kart.

Brice is a quiet kid, at least until you get to know him, and Berry isn’t much of an extrovert, either. So the conversation was a bit slow at first. Berry asked Brice what the tubes did, and how the treatments made him feel.

After a short while, they put the boxing game on, which is basically choreographed shadow boxing and Brice said he was getting tired.

“Oh, c’mon,” Tina remembers Berry saying. “You can do it.”

That seemed to break the ice. After that, it was more like one kid and one bigger kid playing video games together than a famous athlete trying to bring some light into a stranger’s day.

Berry asked a few more questions about what double leukemia is, what the doctors told him, and all the different ways he was fighting. Between video games, Brice answered all the questions, with no sense of bitterness.

This was 12 months after Brice’s diagnosis. He had been sick for years, but the relief of finally having an answer was washed away by a lot of scary sounding talk from doctors. Brice’s double leukemia was so rare that doctors couldn’t even guess as to his chances of survival.

His bone marrow was 86 percent full of leukemia cells, so they had to act quickly. Chemotherapy, steroids, lots of pills and liquid meds. It’s a brutal, draining, evil process to get cancer out of a body. Once, he felt alone and asked his grandmother to bring Tater for a visit. Another time, he felt like his body was emptying and asked the doctors if he was dying.

Tina always said her only child was a fighter. Brice was born seven weeks early, and weighed just two pounds. He came into this world battling, and he’s still here because he hasn’t stopped. It’s what he does. Berry picked up on this, and quickly.

“You’re a hero to me,” he told Brice.

Berry stayed with Brice in that hospital room for about two hours, maybe more, until he had to leave for a meeting. Berry had noticed an orange rubber bracelet on Brice’s wrist. Brice’s parents had those made. Orange is the color for leukemia awareness, and they had “TEAM BRICE” printed on them.

“Would you be offended I wore one of those in games?” Berry asked.

Offended? Of course not. If you look closely at pictures of Berry, both on the field and off, you will notice an orange rubber bracelet on his wrist. Something about Brice’s spirit touched Berry. Something about Berry’s energy inspired Brice.

In May, Berry invited Brice and his parents to a Royals game. Berry and Eric Hosmer have become good friends, and the Royals star had given him some great seats. Berry was even going to put them up in a hotel room and take them out to lunch the next day if they’d like.

A day or so before the game, Eric came down with a cold. Brice wasn’t feeling great, either, and with the treatments have to be super careful with these types of things. No worries, they agreed. They’d heckle Hosmer together some other time.

Berry did all of this long before discovering a mass on his chest last week, then running through a playbook of tests and screens, and hearing doctors tell him they think it’s lymphoma.

Cancer.


It’s worth pointing out that nobody — not Berry, not Brice, not anyone in Brice’s family — sought media attention here. Berry has more important things to deal with, obviously, and Tina didn’t want to violate his privacy. She didn’t return a call about the story until clearing it with McNeill.

Tina hopes the story helps people understand why Berry has received so much support this week, and maybe it can provide hope to others fighting their own cancer battles. In the past two years, Brice has met so many. Sometimes, it helps to know others are with you.

Brice is doing well. His hair is back, and his energy. Doctors haven’t told him he’s beaten it — not yet — but every sign is positive. His body responded very well to the chemo, and he takes all his medications. He played on his school’s basketball team this fall. They finished third in the conference tournament.

“It’s mostly mental,” Brice says. “If you can get through the mental part of it, you can get through any part of it.”

Brice wants to help. Berry’s message that morning in the hospital room — an NFL star calling Brice a hero — helped pull him out of some dark times.

Everyone’s fight is their own, of course, but Brice has a pretty good idea of what his friend is in for. You get sad at the diagnosis. You get mad. There is usually some depression, but with the right attitude and support, eventually an acceptance of the challenge. Like Brice said in that text message, losing is not an option.

By all accounts, Berry is preparing to attack whatever the doctors find with the same aggression and stubbornness he’s used his whole life. He talks to friends about when he returns to football, not if. It’s the attitude Brice knew his friend would have.

When Brice sent that text message, Berry was on an airplane, on his way to Atlanta to see that specialist.

Thanks a billion times, Berry wrote back.

Then another text came through.

he actually has “eric b” in his name.

If Brice can fight so hard, then Eric B. can, too.

To reach Sam Mellinger, call 816-234-4365 or send email to smellinger@kcstar.com. Follow him on Twitter: @mellinger. For previous columns, go to KansasCity.com.

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