When we realized that Eric Berry was actually likely to resume practicing for the Kansas City Chiefs in a matter of days — or days-to-days, if you prefer — my editor Pete Sweeney gave me an assignment: write about Eric Berry’s return.
“I am thinking a rapid reaction on what it means,” Pete explained. “Any angle come to mind for you?” I thought about it for a second. “The same one the fans have,” I said. “How can he make a difference when he’s been out for so long?”
I’ve thought about it quite a bit. I’ve thought about re-framing all the arguments Chiefs fans have had about Berry since September of 2017 — the last time he played in a Chiefs game.
You know these arguments.
How he hasn’t played in 27 straight games.
How the six-year, $78 million contract he signed 20 months ago — at the time, the largest ever given to an NFL defensive back — might have been a mistake, because Berry has yet to finish playing a single game under the deal.
How the Chiefs erred in handling Berry’s situation coming out of training camp, describing his availability from a “sore heel” as “day to day” for more than 100 days.
How Berry has perhaps outlived his usefulness to the Chiefs, and it might be time for the team to cut its losses and move on — even though it would be salary cap madness to do so.
But then I remembered how all of this began.
It was just over four years ago — November 20, 2014. Oakland Raiders running back Latavius Murray broke a routine running play for a 90-yard touchdown against the Chiefs in Oakland. The last man who could have caught him was Eric Berry — and Berry couldn’t keep up.
It’s painful to watch this play again, but it’s instructive.
Even while watching this play unfold in real time, many thought Berry didn’t seem to be himself. Watching replays later, it was clear that Berry had been completely fooled by the Raiders’ misdirection on the play — something that would be totally out of character for the three-time Pro Bowler.
After the game, Berry complained to team doctors about chest pains. After tests were conducted, the Chiefs knew that Berry had a mass in his chest; this was more than a football injury. By December 8, the diagnosis was official: the 25-year-old Berry was diagnosed with Hodgkins’ lymphoma — a form of cancer.
Doctors were confident that Berry could recover fully — thankfully, the disease had been detected early — but his treatment would require chemotherapy. It wasn’t just a question of whether he could be back for the following NFL season. It was a question of whether he would ever play again.
But Berry never doubted he would be back, “I’ve got something I’ve got to take care of,” Berry told his teammates before leaving for Emory University in Atlanta to confirm what team doctors suspected. “I’ll be back. I’ll be fine. You guys have to take care of business.”
On July 28, 2015 — less than eight months after his diagnosis at Emory — the Chiefs announced that Berry was not only fully recovered, but had been cleared to play football again.
And then this happened. (Warning: the video has a NSFW music track)
I’m not going to let you off the hook on this one. You’re not allowed to just skip over the video and keep reading. If the embed doesn’t work, watch the video on YouTube. If you made it this far in the article, you have the four minutes to spare.
While you’re watching, remember that every spectacular play in this compilation took place after Berry underwent chemotherapy. Most of us have had someone in our lives who has had to face this kind of trial, so you’ve probably seen first hand how difficult it is. Most people can barely function. Eric Berry had chemotherapy and continued to work out.
When he returned, he wasn’t just the Associated Press Comeback Player of the Year in 2015. He was a first-team All-Pro player in 2015 and 2016.
So... I’m sorry, Pete. I can’t re-frame all the arguments.
I can’t explain how we can reasonably expect Berry will be an effective player after spending nearly all of last season recovering from a ruptured Achilles tendon, and most of the season dealing with an extremely painful condition that affects his other Achilles tendon. I can’t say that when Berry finally takes off his helmet for the last time, we’ll be able to see that he earned his contract extension.
Here’s all I know: if it can be done, Eric Berry will do it.