With the Chiefs playing at Oakland the Thursday before Thanksgiving one year ago, Carol Berry was at home in Creekside, Ga.
Her son, Chiefs safety Eric Berry, “never wants us to go to Oakland,” she said, laughing in reference to the inhospitable crowd apt to greet Chiefs’ faithful there.
Still, he couldn’t keep her from watching, even if she had to break from routine by recording “Scandal” to watch later.
As she watched the unsightly 24-20 loss to a Raiders team that had lost 16 in a row, she noticed something that she shrugged off then but would later strike her as telling.
“He was running after a guy and the first thing I thought was, ‘He could have caught him,’ ” Carol Berry said Thursday at St. John Boutique on the Country Club Plaza, where she was host of a meet-and-greet to raise cancer awareness and funds for the Eric Berry Foundation.
Occupied by her sister’s surgery the next day, Carol didn’t think more about it until she received a jarring text from her son Saturday morning as she sat in a fast-food drive-through line.
“I’m like, ‘Huh? … Mass on your chest?’ ”
Thus started a journey like no other for the Berry family, which a day later would pretty well know that their then-25-year-old son had cancer. In the days to come, that would be confirmed with certainty.
Amid the mysteries and fears of the moment, they had no way to know that his story would become one of hope and inspiration for months now as the Chiefs prepare to play today at San Diego.
That never was more movingly on display than in the hug shared between mother and son on the sideline at University of Phoenix Stadium as he made his return for the Chiefs exhibition opener against the Cardinals.
Initially, not wanting to disrupt his routine, she was reluctant to use the sideline pass the Chiefs provided her.
But down on the field she went, staying out of the way but looking around for him.
Then a Chiefs administrator called out to Eric as he was trotting by, and Carol started crying before he even reached her.
“He hugged me so hard,” said Carol Berry, who also had been tearfully at his side at his return news conference weeks before. “It was almost like if I could have just sat down and cried, I would have. But it was won-der-ful.”
Afterward, Eric Berry talked about all that went into that moment.
“She’s seen me at my worst; she’s seen me at my best,” he said. “And (getting back on the field) is something we talked about when I was (lying) in the hospital bed.
“Or when I was just up in her room at 4 o’clock in the morning, and she was telling me everything would be OK because I just couldn’t stop crying.”
Sometimes, Carol acknowledged Thursday, she would say that and then retreat so he couldn’t see the anguish on her face.
But he knew what she and the family were absorbing to keep up his spirits.
“A lot of people always talk about the person actually going through the situation,” Eric said that night. “But they don’t actually talk about the caretaker. I could see how it was very stressful for her.”
Whether it was before or after she saw her son fail to make up ground he normally would against Oakland, Carol Berry hadn’t quite noticed the moment that set all this in motion.
Midway through the fourth quarter, Berry and teammate Husain Abdullah collided as they converged on Oakland’s Marcel Reese.
The unremarkable replay shows Abdullah hitting Berry’s shoulder. But Berry soon was clutching his chest, then had trouble raising his right arm even as he stayed in the game.
Ultimately that led to Berry telling assistant coach Emmitt Thomas he was experiencing chest discomfort and being examined after the game.
That, in fact, proved the first of many blessings in all this.
Because of that collision, because of his uncharacteristic complaint about being hurt, medical staff kept probing even after an X-ray revealed nothing.
“Otherwise,” Carol said, “they wouldn’t have found it.”
Emotionally crushed after receiving the ominous text that Saturday, but striving to maintain normalcy, Carol and husband James still drove the 230 miles to Knoxville, Tenn., that day to see their twins, Elliott and Evan — then freshmen at Tennessee — play.
Carol needed time to compose herself, after all, and they didn’t want the twins to worry something was wrong on game day.
By the time they got to their hotel room that night, though, signs were suggesting the mass was, in fact, Hodgkin lymphoma.
So Carol Berry wasn’t expecting what she saw when they arrived in Kansas City on the Sunday before Thanksgiving a year ago.
“ ‘Mom, it’s going to be OK. … I’m good: It’s God’s plan,’ “ her son said when they first came eye-to-eye. “What was so powerful was that he set the tone for everybody else.”
Not that it took immediately with everybody else, and not that there weren’t infinite ups and downs through it all.
As he absorbed six chemotherapy treatments, there were times Berry would later say he felt like he was dying.
There were days when just getting out of bed was a major goal as he found himself thinking he was battling himself every day, too.
Maybe the sheer duality of emotions for all was best embodied in the reaction of the twins.
“The twin that I thought was going to be the emotional one was fine. He just kept asking me, ‘Is it true? You sure? Really?’ ” Carol Berry said, without specifying which was which. “The other twin, the one who’s so tough, he broke down.”
As those opposing sentiments pulled at her, Carol kept turning to her religious faith and kept telling herself, “You can’t fall apart in a crisis.”
At least not all the time.
“I know people do,” she said, “but you’ve got to keep it going.”
So she’d reach back and do things like print and frame signs around the house banning negative energy. And she’d turn to friends and other NFL mothers for support.
It helped, too, to feel “the Chiefs Kingdom and the Vol Nation,” she said, covering and protecting them.
“We had to stay positive,” she said, “because so many people were looking to him for encouragement.”
It was one thing for Eric Berry to emerge from chemo a pound heavier than he had been, apparently bolstered by James Berry cooking him three meals a day.
It was another to be declared cancer-free on June 22.
It was quite another to be ready to play as fast as he was.
“I knew he’d be back in time for this year,” Carol Berry said, “but for training camp?!”
And showing ever since that he still has it in him to overtake about any opponent he encounters.