The sign still stands on a table in the hallway of Carol and James Berry’s suburban home.
“AS YOU ENTER THIS HOUSE, PLEASE LEAVE YOUR SADNESS AND UNCERTAINTY OUTSIDE THE DOOR. IF YOU HAVE FEAR, AND ANXIETY, THROW THEM AWAY.
“POSITIVE ENERGY ONLY! LOVE, WELL WISHES, AND ENCOURAGEMENT ARE KEYS!”
That was the environment they sought to cultivate around their son, Eric, when they brought the Chiefs safety home from Kansas City two years ago to nurture him through a battle with cancer.
Scared as they were, this would be part of their new normal.
Never mind that Carol cried most of the flight home as she sat apart from James and Eric. By the time they arrived in Atlanta, she took a selfie of all three smiling as they ascended an escalator. The moment typified their approach to what lie ahead.
“Fake it until you make it,” as she put it.
But some things didn’t lend themselves to a formula.
On the morning after his first chemo treatment, Carol had gotten Eric some oatmeal and was getting ready for a hair appointment when Eric started crying inconsolably at the kitchen counter.
As his parents saw it, Eric’s combination of trying to stay tough but wondering what he had done to deserve this suddenly converged and broke at once.
To show him it was OK to mourn and weep, James let go himself.
In the basement, James and Eric cried together so hard that Carol turned around and went back upstairs to leave them alone.
“You don’t have to be strong for everybody,” James told him as he held him. “Let somebody be strong for you. Let us be strong for you.”
This was what James considered a defining moment in Eric’s recovery — the prologue to what made Berry’s game Sunday in Atlanta the stuff of legend.
In his first in-season trip home since his treatments, in his first regular-season NFL game near his hometown, Berry returned one interception 37 yards for a touchdown and went 100 yards with another on a two-point conversion attempt for the winning margin as the Chiefs beat the Falcons 29-28.
What made the performance all the more indelible was what Berry did with each ball after a game in which he said he shed tears before, during and after.
He handed the first ball to his mother a few rows into the stands, and later recalled uttering a “Terminator”-esque “I’ll be back.”
Sure enough, he returned to give the second to his father.
After the game, Carol and James would pose, beaming, with the footballs, new twins for the parents of Eric and actual twins Evan and Elliott. The whole scene was “epic,” James said.
“That’s the way you come home!” he said, smiling.
To Carol, it was “like a movie” — probably all the more so because of the bond she has with an oldest child who wore No. 14 at Tennessee because that was the number of hours she was in labor with him.
As the Chiefs (9-3) prepare for to take on Oakland (10-2) in their most meaningful regular-season game in years on Thursday at Arrowhead Stadium, their Thursday night game two years ago at Oakland still resonates.
On TV back home that night, Carol was puzzled to see her son unable to catch up to a Raider she thought he’d normally have brought down.
He later left the game with what initially seemed like nothing troubling. With her sister facing surgery the next day, Carol didn’t linger on it much ... until she got a text from Eric Saturday morning.
When she asked how he was, he responded roughly like this:
“I’m good. I’m at the doctor now. They basically found a mass in my chest.”
“‘Mass on your chest?’” she shot back, not knowing precisely what that meant but sensing the mystery was something to fear.
She was on her way to Knoxville to see Eric’s brothers play at Tennessee, where they followed not only in the footsteps of Eric but of James, who rushed for 1,781 yards and 18 touchdowns from 1978 to 1981.
Turning around wasn’t an option, because the twins needed to hear about Eric from her, in person. But that meant James would get the news over the phone. He was administering a youth football tournament that morning when brother-in-law Bernard called.
“My first thought was, like, ‘What is a mass?’” James remembered saying. Bernard solemnly answered, “‘It’s cancer.’”
James abruptly retreated home to be alone, needing “a moment to try to think about what I was just told.”
This was the time of his greatest despair, he knows now.
Just as his wife’s “biggest fear was fear,” his was the vast unknown that so many face: What type of cancer? How far along is it? What’s the prognosis? How can it be treated?
Even in the throes of that anguish, he told Carol to stay in Knoxville that night.
“‘We need to think this out rationally about what we’re going to do,’” he remembered saying.
The diagnosis was Hodgkin lymphoma.
No one can be prepared for this sort of news, but the Berry family perhaps was better equipped and more nimble in the face of it than many of us might be.
Part of that was a matter of their devout Christian faith. And part of it was a series of adverse times in their lives through which they’d not only survived, but thrived.
“It was always, ‘Something else, something else, something else,’” Eric said, smiling. “To where you couldn’t really focus on the little stuff, because if you focused on the little stuff, the big thing would eat you alive. Our family just comes from survivors.”
The Berrys just have to do things the hard way, Carol said.
When they wanted another child, well, they had twins — who arrived eight weeks early weighing well under 4 pounds apiece. “They looked like stick babies, so small and fragile,” James said.
When Eric sprang for a major remodel of the family’s house in 2013, it caught fire. A dangling floodlight ignited wood and insulation.
This was a traumatic thing in many ways. The fire and water damage destroyed irreplaceable personal items, including photos and jewelry and Eric’s baby shoes. Also lost were almost all essentials, such as clothes and furniture.
But when the Berrys think about the fire that kept them out of their home for six months, they can laugh now about how many times James would ask about something and Carol would say, “Do you happen to know I lost it in the fire?”
What they realize most now about the fire is how lucky they were. It engulfed their bedroom at a time of day when James was coaching and Carol normally takes a nap.
On that particular day, she had left the house after taking a call from a young lady she was mentoring, asking if she could help her with a project.
“It would have come down on me,” Carol said.
The first rational step upon receiving Eric’s diagnosis was to clear the decks of everything else.
Taking care of their oldest son would become James and Carol’s full-time jobs, and that meant he was coming home for treatment at Emory University.
When they arrived in Kansas City that Sunday, James felt great relief just to be able to hug Eric and look at him and reassure him.
It was a long time before they could feel encouraged, but they were determined to create the right environment for that attitude to take root.
When they got home to Atlanta, several close friends soon arrived. They prayed and ate chicken wings, to keep things as normal as possible. The next day, they were bolstered by their meeting with Dr. Christopher Flowers.
“Because I knew he was in good hands,” James said, “and I knew he was going to be taken care of.”
Even so, staying positive would be a huge challenge for Eric, a world-class athlete suddenly rendered mortal. It was disconcerting to see him so drained and sleeping all around the house like an infant again.
When it was “time to have a breakdown,” as she put it, Carol would go to another room or try to distract herself with music or crocheting.
She would spend her days cleaning and fixing smoothies and making sure Eric took his medicine. James would accompany Eric to all his treatments and cook whatever it took to keep their son nourished … and then some.
“If Eric wanted a MoonPie from the moon,” Carol said, “go find it.”
In the middle of it all, she stayed level on the outside — even when she was asked to come in for a follow-up on a mammogram.
“That’d be real fun if we were both sitting up there doing chemo,” she said, smiling. “But everything was fine.”
James and Carol know it took many things for Eric to become fine and, incredibly, return to the Chiefs last season.
They credit his tremendous medical care, their faith and the constant support of “Chiefs Kingdom” and “Vol Nation,” not to mention family and friends and neighbors. Carol said those about their hometown felt Eric’s diagnosis as if it were their own.
Something else kept Berry going, too, through the nights when he wondered if he’d wake up if he let himself close his eyes, and the days where it was all he could do to simply get out of bed.
Football itself was an incentive in the healing.
For all the other sports he loved, there was something about football that had forever gripped him.
At his second birthday party, Berry got a cake with two football helmets on it and picked up the helmets and smacked them together.
“‘I want to do it again,’” he said, and so he did it another six times or so.
Before he was 5, he’d run back and forth in the hallway over and over when the intro music to Monday Night Football came on.
“We’d just get out of the way,” said James, who for years worked 12-hour overnight shifts for Owens-Corning and as a painting contractor. “He would just run through stuff.”
The athleticism to go with Eric’s enthusiasm was evident soon enough, sometimes in ways that startled his parents.
One day on a swing, around age 8, Eric kept going back and forth so high that the chain was getting slack in it as it came down. Then he said, “Watch this, Daddy,” and he jumped out at its peak, turned a flip, landed on his feet and said, “Ta-da!”
“Son, you almost gave me a heart attack,” James told him. “Don’t you ever in your life do anything like that again.”
Instead, Berry would do things of that nature so often he’d become known as “Stuntman,” as in his Twitter handle, “Stuntman1429.”
“For a while, it was ‘The Eric Berry show, starring Eric Berry, featuring and written by Eric Berry,’” Carol said.
His zeal for performing, in fact, needed to be “put in check” some by his parents, and so it was with the occasional spanking by James. Once, Carol may or may not have thrown a shoe from her bedroom that curved away as it hurtled toward Eric.
But Eric grew up into an honor roll student and the kind of kid who spoke with everyone, cultivating friendships with fans and custodians and student managers at Tennessee, where he was known to help clean helmets for game days.
Even before cancer struck, Eric also grew into the kind of man who had an unquenchable dedication to the game.
“I’ve never seen anybody work as hard as him to master his craft,” James said. “He said when new ideas come to engineers, they embrace them … in their craft. ‘Now I take care of my body; that’s what I do because I want to master my craft.’”
That’s never been as true as it is today, as evidenced by the way cancer-free Berry hits people now.
“‘Dad, when I go back, I ain’t taking no prisoners,’” James membered Eric telling him.
Because now he’s able to be strong for himself again … with something more, too.
“At any moment, this can be taken away from you,” James said. “So when you’re in that moment, you have to savor it. You have to take advantage of it. And I think that is what he’s doing.
“He’s not looking for tomorrow. He’s trying to be the best he can be. And just live off of that.”
This is the new normal that’s stayed with Eric Berry.