The routine was the same. A fresh face on the Tennessee Volunteers coaching staff, graduate assistant Raasaan Haralson meticulously did his behind-the-scenes duties, crafting breakdowns of personnel and down-and-distance in passing charts. He had a frequent visitor. Every Monday, without fail, Eric Berry stopped by his office, first to ask for explanations, then to request a personal copy of Haralsonâ€™s charts. He wanted the details, and he wanted them as early in the week as possible. He wanted to understand as much as he could. He wanted to be like a coach on the field.
This was 2007. Eric Berry was not like any other freshman.”
I can remember playing LSU in the SEC Championship Game,” said Larry Slade, Tennesseeâ€™s defensive backs coach at the time, “and one of their veteran receivers came out to block Eric, and Eric just got after him, knocked him on his butt, and he gets up and screams at our senior and says, ‘TELL THIS FRESHMAN TO CHILL, MAN.'”
Safety can be a thankless position, and sometimes a difficult one in terms of public perception, because most of the time fans only notice the mistakes, the blown coverages. Otherwise, thereâ€™s little focus on the position while the ball is in play. Theyâ€™re off the screen, or away from the line. Unless, that is, the safety is known as a big hitter, or unless heâ€™s known as a ball hawk capable of making plays — or unless heâ€™s known for both. Then a safety can become a cult hero, like Brian Dawkins in Philly or Ronnie Lott in San Francisco. Berry has started becoming that with the Chiefs, and he certainly became that at Tennessee, making him not only one of the best college players of the 21st century, but also one of the most beloved players in the history of one of college footballâ€™s most storied programs.
“Eric, coming into Tennessee, was one of those guys if you didnâ€™t know it, you would not know that he was a freshman,” Slade said. “Heâ€™s a confident guy; heâ€™s got great work ethic. Sometimes you go out and find guys that can maybe run fast, jump high, and have a lot of athletic qualities, but they lack some of the character skills. Eric was one of the guys who was character-first. Heâ€™s the kind of guy who was going to show up early and leave late. He was a leader.”
Itâ€™s why the outpouring of support has been so quick, so substantial and so genuine for Berry since it was revealed that a mass was found in his chest after a game against the Raiders two weeks ago, and that the leading possible explanation is lymphoma, a form of cancer. The Chiefs placed Berry on the NFLâ€™s season-ending non-football injury list, and he is undergoing tests at Emory University Hospital in Atlanta.
Last week, in their first game without their Pro Bowl safety, Chiefs players wore T-shirts that read “Be Bold Be Brave Be Berry.” At Tennessee (multiple coaching regimes removed from when Berry starred from 2007-09) Vols players wore “29 Strong” helmet decals to support him, along with the letters VFL, which stands for “Vol for Life.”
At that game, technically a road game at Vanderbilt, Tennessee fans took over the stadium with loud chants in support of Berry, five years after his last college game:
“He was probably the best player that I have been privileged to be around,” said Haralson, who followed then-Tennessee defensive coordinator John Chavis to LSU when Lane Kiffin was brought in as coach for Berryâ€™s junior year. “I have been blessed: Patrick Peterson, Mo Claiborne, Drake Nevis, some great guys, some first-round guys. Patrick Peterson was a great player, donâ€™t get me wrong. But again I think Eric had the presence, and Iâ€™m not going to say like [Michael] Jordan, but thatâ€™s what he brought. He made guys around him better. They played up to his level. Patrick is a great ballplayer, a freak of nature, but he did not elevate everyone elseâ€™s play around him, at least not at LSU. Itâ€™s two different types of players, and both are great ballplayers, but in terms of what Eric did there, man it was tremendous. He did things Jordan-like. He made guys around him better. Heâ€™s a great guy. Heâ€™s just as humble as you can imagine.”
One play can never summarize the career of a player like Berry, but there is a moment that comes close. He was a freshman starter at Tennessee in 2007, playing both cornerback and safety. In his third game, against rival Florida, he jumped a route and intercepted Tim Tebow at the four-yard line, leading to CBS broadcaster Verne Lundquist to immediately exclaim, “Seee-Ya!” There was nearly the entire length of the field still to run, but there was no doubt. Lundquistâ€™s early call was right on the money. Berry read the play perfectly, and 96 yards later he had the first interception and first touchdown of his college career. It was the first of five interceptions as a freshman, seven as a sophomore and two as a junior, and the first of three defensive touchdowns over two seasons, which placed him second all-time in career FBS interception return yards with 494 yards.
He didnâ€™t just get his hands on the ball, he intercepted it. He didnâ€™t just intercept it, he made a big play out of it. The Florida game, in September 2007, was the first time he made a big play that everyone saw. Within Tennessee, his impact was already well known, because it wasnâ€™t just the absurd raw talent as a five-star recruit out of Fairburn, Ga., that stood out. Slade remembers seeing it the first game of Berryâ€™s career, in a road game at California that wasnâ€™t going particularly well for the Vols. An emotional Berry got into the faces of teammates, taking charge from the start.
Not surprisingly, he was a team captain by the start of his sophomore season in 2008.
“Just seeing him every day at practice, it was like, ‘Wow, he was a different dude,'” Slade said. “You donâ€™t want to show up in a room with Eric Berry where youâ€™re loafing. The biggest thing with leaders is people start imitating them. A lot of players donâ€™t do it naturally, but they start doing it because they saw Eric doing. Itâ€™s contagious, and it really had a big-time positive impact on our team.”
The positive impacts have happened immediately, both at the pro and college levels. As a rookie, drafted with the fifth overall pick by the Chiefs in 2010, he made the Pro Bowl, and heâ€™s done that in each of his three full seasons (he tore his ACL in 2011). At Tennessee, he was named to countless freshman All-America teams as an immediate starter, as well as an All-SEC performer, before becoming a unanimous All-American as a sophomore and junior and the winner of the 2009 Thorpe Award as the nationâ€™s best defensive back.
While players who have early success often hit a slump as sophomores, it didnâ€™t happen for Berry. Haralson said that Berry came to him immediately after the 2007 season to ask what he needed to work on in the offseason, and when Haralson said footwork, Berry spent time working with the womenâ€™s soccer team to improve, something that Haralson said was immediately noticed — even after his big freshman season.
“Heâ€™s a gifted ballplayer, and there were gifted ballplayers around him, but to see that big of a change in his coverage skills in that short amount of time was just a testament to what sort of ballplayer he is,” Haralson said. “Itâ€™s not a surprise to see what heâ€™s doing in the league.”
For now, that great NFL career is unfortunately on hold. Berry faces a different, much more important sort of challenge off the field. Slade, the position coach at the beginning of his rise to stardom, regularly keeps in touch with Berry and said he has spoken with him since the diagnosis.
“We texted,” Slade said. “Eric is strong, and we talked and I shared a verse with him.” The Bible verse was Jeremiah 29:11, which says, “For I know the plans I have for you,â€™ declares the Lord, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.â€™
“When you ask me how he was,” Slade said, “I think heâ€™s doing OK. Obviously itâ€™s traumatic. I just know Eric, and I know how heâ€™s going to fight and compete and get through this.”
The sentiment is genuine, and it is shared. When I called Haralson, I asked a general question to start, and by the time I asked my second question, I looked at my phone and realized that 14 minutes had already passed since the first. Talking about Berry is easy for his former coaches. There is no shortage of things for them to say about him, because there are not many players who make the impact of Eric Berry.