KANSAS CITY, Mo. — On one of the good days between treatments, Alyssa Crane made the 45-minute drive from her apartment in Parkville, Missouri, to the Kansas City Chiefs‘ training camp in the summer of 2015. She had just been diagnosed with cancer a few months earlier, was 24 years old and was scared.
Her friends and family would try to talk to her about cancer, and no matter what they said, everything seemed depressing. Crane had an aggressive form of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and a large mass in her lung. She was told she’d probably never be able to have children.
The trip to camp was a way to escape for a moment, but what Crane really wanted was to meet Eric Berry. Just eight months earlier, the All-Pro safety had been diagnosed with Hodgkin lymphoma, and now he was back and cleared for practice. Crane wore a Chiefs ball cap over her bald head and held a sign that read: “FUTURE LYMPHOMA SURVIVOR (JUST LIKE BERRY).”
Berry walked up a hill to meet her, and gave her a hug. He talked about some of the symptoms he had, the numbness and the nausea, and “didn’t sugarcoat stuff,” she said. Most of all, he made her feel comfortable. If Eric Berry could come back from cancer to play football again, why couldn’t she beat this, too? He signed a football for her: “Fear nothing and attack everything.”
Three and a half years later, Crane is in remission, married and expecting her first child. She and her husband, Taylor, don’t know the baby’s gender because they want to be surprised. But Crane knows one thing for sure: One of the first things their kid will wear is an Eric Berry jersey.
Before one of the biggest games in the history of Kansas City football, Eric Berry stood in the snow this past Saturday, surrounded by a mass of frozen, sleeveless flesh, imploring the group to become the first Chiefs team to win a home playoff game in 25 years. Berry is not the loudest person on the team, and he has been known to use his blinding speed to dart in the opposite direction when media are present. He wasn’t even suited up to play.
“Y’all boys ready?” Berry asked.
“Hell yeah!” the group yelled back.
Berry has led the pregame defensive huddle for as long as most Chiefs can remember.
And he has played just three games in the past two seasons.
His teammates don’t think it’s the least bit unusual, that one of the quietest and seemingly unluckiest players is the one who delivers that weekly speech. “He’s Superman,” practice-squad safety Leon McQuay said.
Berry has torn an ACL, had his childhood home in Georgia burn down, fought cancer and ruptured an Achilles tendon (in the 2017 season opener against the New England Patriots). The heel injury has been particularly confounding because he was listed as day-to-day from September through December this season, played two games, then was sidelined again.
But he practiced this week, and there is speculation he might play in the AFC Championship Game against the Patriots on Sunday at Arrowhead Stadium. On a defense that has shown signs of improvement but still finished second to last in yards allowed this season, Berry would provide a much-needed boost. The five-time Pro Bowler has been a formidable challenge for Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski over the years, and, in their most recent meeting in ’17, helped hold him to just two catches for 33 yards.
Nearly two seasons later, Kansas City has grown restless. When it was announced that Berry was inactive last weekend, it prompted some typical reactions you’d expect from a rabid fan base typing away on anonymous keyboards — with some saying the 30-year-old, who signed a six-year, $78 million contract two years ago, was done and others suggesting he should be cut.
Eric Berry doesn’t talk about any frustrations he might have, publicly or even with his teammates. Instead, through nine hard years in the NFL, he has inspired those around him, at times without even playing a down. His influence goes beyond a team and a town, reaching into hospital wards and chemo rooms and school classrooms. It spreads to people he’s never met, and, in some cases, who have yet to be born.
She knew he was hurt that opening night of the 2017 season, but Eric Berry’s mother, Carol Berry, was not overly concerned. She was watching the Chiefs-Patriots game on TV, and her phone was blowing up with texts from people asking whether Eric was OK, but Carol watched her son’s face, and she knew he’d be OK because he looked at peace.
The Chiefs pulled off a stunner that night, beating the Patriots 42-27 in Foxborough, Massachusetts, but the excitement was quelled by the fact that Berry’s season was over before it really started. Most players, upon hearing that news, would hole themselves up in the training room until the team buses were ready to leave. But Berry hopped across the locker room and broke down the team huddle.
Derrick Johnson, a Chiefs linebacker from 2005 to ’17, was flabbergasted.
“I’ve never seen anybody pop their Achilles, and after the game be happy for us, limp over, break us down and tell us to keep going,” said Johnson, who blew out both of his Achilles during his time in K.C. “That was pretty cool.”
Maybe cancer does that. It makes everything else seem small. Nothing, not even the maddening feeling of not being able to move your foot, compares to December 2014, when Berry was diagnosed with cancer.
The stress of it was so intense that Carol’s hair started to fall out. Eric came back home to Atlanta for treatment at Emory University, and everything else stopped and James and Carol devoted the next nine months to their oldest son and anything he needed. Berry would come home exhausted from chemo and watch “Empire,” a TV show about a hip-hop mogul who is diagnosed with ALS. James would cook his son anything he could keep down; Carol would do the grocery shopping and watch “Home Alone” and “Scent of a Woman” with Eric in an attempt to put his mind on anything else but cancer. For weeks, he couldn’t watch football. Carol can laugh about this now: One Sunday night, they watched “The Sound of Music.”
Although chemo is traditionally administered through a port, Berry opted to use IVs instead so he could work out. The decision did not go over well with his mother, who fretted over the possible risks.
“There was a lot of stuff going on,” Carol said. “In my mind, I had to train myself not to go into mom mode. He was old enough to make his own decisions. I had to learn how to advise him and keep my mouth shut when I didn’t agree. When I didn’t agree with something … it all worked out.”
Berry was a five-star recruit at Creekside High, and had his pick of colleges. He made his mind up early that he’d go to Tennessee because that’s where his dad played, but he waited until the very end to announce his decision. He wanted the college scouts to still come to Fairburn, Georgia, and watch his teammates play.
“[James Berry] would probably kill me for saying this,” said former UT coach Phillip Fulmer, “but he wasn’t nearly as athletic as Eric.
“He’s just one of those guys who have a knack to make a play to win the game.”
Berry unseated a fifth-year senior for a starting job as a true freshman and was a captain by the time he was a sophomore. He decided to forgo his senior season to enter the 2010 NFL draft, and the Chiefs took him with the No. 5 pick, making him the highest-drafted defensive back since Sean Taylor in 2004.
Some of the Chiefs’ veterans had watched Berry on film and were eager for his arrival. He hit like a linebacker, with the speed and agility of an elite corner. But that summer in training camp, Berry approached veteran safety Jon McGraw and asked whether he could shadow him. In 10 years in the NFL, McGraw had never seen anyone do that.
Berry learned how to take care of his body from the veteran, with ice tubs and beat-up shoulder and hamstring workouts that probably looked silly to a 21-year-old. In a few weeks, Berry would earn a starting job.
A year later, McGraw replaced Berry in the lineup when Berry tore the ACL in his left knee. McGraw was struck by how Berry, despite being injured, remained so present on the team.
“I’ll tell you, the hardest thing that I ever tried to do, and probably didn’t do it very well, was maintain a connection with the team during an injury,” McGraw said. “It’s one of the hardest things for a player to stay mentally and emotionally engaged.
“It’s not because you don’t want to. It’s just so much of your role on the team is based on your utility, your ability to go out and execute the mission. And if you can’t do that, you just feel — every player I’ve ever known — you just feel ashamed, like you’re letting your teammates down, you’re letting your coaches down when you’re injured. It takes a high degree of mental toughness and emotional awareness to be able to weather and maintain a leadership impact.”
At Arrowhead Stadium, Berry has a nickname: Coach.
He has taken young players such as Leon McQuay under his wing. Berry tests them, and McQuay gets nervous, because it’s Eric Berry, and sometimes McQuay overthinks the questions. Berry watches film until 8 p.m. sometimes, and is in the building as long as the quarterbacks are.
“I would say it’s like ‘Karate Kid,'” McQuay said. “He asks you all this stuff, and you don’t really realize it, like the smaller questions. Then in the end he’ll explain the big picture and it’s like, ‘Wow, I never even thought about it.'”
Bolton Flint was starting first grade in 2017 when his mom, Angela, died of ovarian cancer. His teachers at Evoline C. West Elementary School were naturally worried about how a child who’d been through so much would be able to focus on school. But Bolton earned straight A’s, and soon Berry, an E.C. West alumnus, heard about him. Berry went to the school to meet him and gave Bolton an iPad to help with his studies.
Bolton said he was nervous, surprised and happy to meet Berry. He said the gesture made him feel loved.
Carol and James Berry taught their kids to pay it forward. They tried to have another child and ended up having twins in 1995. Money was paycheck-to-paycheck tight, and some of Carol’s co-workers must have known it. She’d go to work sometimes and find cans of baby formula on her desk.
“I don’t second-guess myself,” she said. “If you have something that pops in your spirit, just do it. That may be God’s way of saying, ‘Hey, this person or this family needs your help.'”
In high school, Eric used to collect leftovers and make a sack lunch for school. Carol couldn’t understand why he was doing it, because she gave him lunch money every day. She found out later that Eric had a friend who couldn’t afford lunch, so he gave the money to the friend and ate the leftovers.
Recently, Berry contacted his old grade school because he wanted to pay for all the students’ delinquent lunch bills. He also funded a game room for the school and spent a day last spring playing football with a group of boys.
Around Christmastime, Berry donates toys and money to Children’s Mercy Hospital in Kansas City. Berry doesn’t want to do interviews when he visits. (He declined to be interviewed for this story.) He just wants to see the kids. A few years ago, he spoke to a roomful of children facing possible transplants and dialysis. His hair was still gone from chemo, and, in street clothes, he almost looked like one of the young patients. He told them that many people have it worse than him.
“He didn’t come here with his uniform on or with an entourage with him,” said Dr. Bradley Warady, the director of dialysis and transplantation at Children’s Mercy. “It was just him and his mom. He was just a regular guy.”
Warady said Berry has been at the hospital “on a regular basis, but it’s really low profile.”
“When they can have someone like an Eric Berry, not only as a football player but as someone who [overcame] a medical challenge himself, that gives kids a boost that’s hard to quantify,” Warady said.
Alyssa Crane couldn’t wear her Eric Berry jersey as she watched the Chiefs’ 31-13 victory over the Colts on TV last weekend. She’s about halfway through her pregnancy now, and the shirt is too tight.
Crane thinks about the symmetry of the Chiefs possibly going to the Super Bowl the same year her first child is born. None of that seemed possible on that August day at training camp 3½ years ago, when Eric Berry stopped, in the middle of another comeback, and gave another person hope.
“I would just say thank you for just making me feel comfortable in a time when I didn’t know — It was one of my darkest times,” she said. “Thank you for shedding some light and showing you can bounce back from it. You can accomplish big things.”