Vahe Gregorian

The emotional reasons Eric Berry’s return could make the Chiefs special

Kansas City Chiefs safety Eric Berry returns to practice

Kansas City Chiefs safety Eric Berry returned to the practice field to take part in workouts on Wednesday, November 28, 2018, for the first time during the regular season, ending his nearly four-month absence.
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Kansas City Chiefs safety Eric Berry returned to the practice field to take part in workouts on Wednesday, November 28, 2018, for the first time during the regular season, ending his nearly four-month absence.

Exhilarated Chiefs fans seeking deeper faith in this 9-2 team got just that on Wednesday with the news that star safety Eric Berry had returned to practice for the first time since Aug. 11.

It also was welcome news for those of us in the media, pleased both for Berry’s sake and to learn that his team-reported status as “day-to-day” for nearly four months actually was finite after all.

And the fact that Berry was the subject of the first eight questions at coach Andy Reid’s cautiously optimistic news conference reflected the sense of this being a potentially momentous development for a team with legitimate Super Bowl ambitions but gaps in its defensive backfield.

But nowhere did the news resonate more than where it matters most: in the Chiefs locker room.

Because no one has more currency than Berry, a borderline spiritual force between his fierce, shrewd play and the admiration that comes with him being a cancer survivor.

“Who isn’t open arms wanting him back?” said punter Dustin Colquitt, who, like Berry, played at Tennessee and goes back as far with him as anyone here.

Answer: Exactly no one. And for reasons that go well beyond his skill set. It’s also about a tone he sets and a state of mind he spreads.

Speaking at the news conference, quarterback Patrick Mahomes, who says he speaks with Berry almost every day, raved about the infectious passion that has stood out even when Berry was sidelined and encouraging teammates. Right tackle Mitchell Schwartz talked about Berry’s energy and charisma that can’t be taught.

Within, no two lockers are farther apart than those of Colquitt and cornerback Steven Nelson, and their sentiments served to frame a roomful that expects a physical and psychological charge from Berry.

His return “would be very meaningful,” Nelson said. “He’s the leader not only of our secondary but of our defense, and he’s a major part of our team.”

That’s the practical part about a three-time All-Pro who was the 2015 NFL Comeback Player of the Year. And that’s enough in itself to be pivotal for the Chiefs if Berry indeed returns to form after effectively being out more than a year since a season-ending ruptured Achilles’ in the 2017 opener at New England and then being waylaid with a different heel injury during training camp. There is much to be said about just that aspect of this.

But there’s something more to Berry, whom Reid said has been a presence in meetings and practices and often can be seen exhorting the team during its final pregame huddle on the field.

“Filling their confidence,” as Colquitt put it.

“He has a voice for a lot of different reasons, not just his play on the field,” said Colquitt, a 2005 draft pick who is the longest-tenured Chief. “When you’re a seasoned vet like he is and you have overcome adversity in so many different areas of your life, people want to listen. Because, they’re like, ‘I want what he has.’ ”

Colquitt knew about those qualities in Berry when he was at Tennessee, where Berry was a teammate of Colquitt’s brother Britton and a favorite of “team mom” Anne Colquitt (Colquitt once told me Berry was “a brother to us” and that his mother took to delivering Berry peanut butter and honey sandwiches before games and, somehow, at halftimes.).

Still, he didn’t necessarily know what Berry’s presence would be in an NFL locker room until Berry joined the Chiefs in 2010. As it happened, though …

“From the very beginning,” Colquitt said, “he had a voice.”

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It became amplified through his stellar play, before and after injuries and his battle with cancer and perhaps all distilled in one incredible day: the Chiefs’ 29-28 win at Atlanta in 2016, not far from where he grew up.

Clad in custom purple cleats to promote Hodgkin lymphoma awareness as part of the NFL’s “My Cause, My Cleats” program, Berry scored on a pick-six and delivered the ball to his mother in the stands. Then he told her he’d be back. Sure enough, he was, returning a two-point conversion for the game-winning points and handing that ball to his father.

For more of a sense of how his teammates perceive him, consider what some had to say that day.

“God’s working through him in a mighty way,” said linebacker Justin Houston, a close friend of Berry’s. “He’s beaten cancer and came back playing like a maniac.”

Said former Chiefs cornerback Marcus Peters: “This is something that’s in you naturally since you were born. It’s something … that’s in our souls, that’s passed down through our souls.”

Even as he’s sat out the last 27 games, Berry is in the very pores of this team, too, one that has designs on playing in Atlanta again for the 2019 Super Bowl.

Now that Berry no longer is day-to-day, Reid says his readiness to play will be evaluated “play-by-play.”

While Berry seems unlikely to play Sunday at Oakland, although perhaps will in some limited capacity, there would be something fitting about that being the scene of his latest comeback.

Colquitt remembers the “gut-punch” that night in 2014 when Berry got knocked out of a game, remembers that even before that Berry seemed to be laboring.

He reckons that the hit Berry sustained was the reason a mass on the right side of his chest was revealed soon enough to allow a diagnosis that saved his life.

“So I think it’s a beautiful thing: I look at it as God’s will that was good that day,” Colquitt said, adding that when such traumas happen “you can either put your sword away or you can let it get sharpened.”

With the never-ending help of his doctors and parents, Berry came back steeled a year later, offering an inspiring daily example of the power of resolve and urgency that became part of his identity.

“I think it puts life in perspective, that it’s fleeting,” Colquitt said.

Berry appreciates that and has remained driven to maximize every moment. Including those on the field, where virtually everyone wants to follow his lead.

“I’m looking forward,” Colquitt said, “to having that happen again.”

Just like every teammate and Chiefs fan.

Vahe Gregorian

Vahe Gregorian is a Kansas City Star sports columnist.

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