One game away from coming back home to Atlanta to play in something of a large football game, Eric Berry remains as enigmatic as any five-time Pro Bowl player, cancer-surviving, Georgia high school legend can be.
This whole season has been an enigma for the Kansas City Chiefs safety who has worn out the “day-to-day” designation. Turned it into an unfortunate trademark. We’re all day-to-day, but this guy is, indisputably, the day-to-dayest.
And that seems to be holding right up to Sunday’s AFC Championship game. Having played in but two games this season – and listed day-to-day the rest of the time with a painful heel condition – Berry reportedly is positioned to face New England and Tom Brady with a Super Bowl at stake. That’s the mother of all rehab assignments.
The team said he has practiced at full speed this week. Berry himself declared Friday, “I feel pretty good.” But what is real, what is blind hope and what is possible misdirection – who knows?
As to the exact nature of his progress – what hurts, how much does it hurt now compared to then – that’s another of the universe’s great mysteries.
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“Hard to put a finger on it, hard for me to stand up here and explain it,” he said. “Right now, I just know it’s moving in the right direction and I want to get on the field on Sunday.”
If Berry’s able, and if he’s sound enough to play anywhere near his capabilities, that would figure to be a potentially significant development for the Chiefs.
As Kansas City defensive coordinator Bob Sutton put it: “First of all, Eric is a really talented football player. He’s extremely talented. He has great speed and range. I think he’s our most physical football player.
“So, when you have those qualities, you have playmaking ability, you have a chance to affect the game. The one thing about speed on defense is that it isn’t always the plays you make. It’s sometimes the plays you prevent. He has that ability in him. The other part of it that he brings is the players respond to him. They appreciate all he’s been through and what he’s done here and what kind of player he is. I obviously think it’s a great plus for us if we can have him.”
And if he and his team are able to throw off the shackles of the Patriots tyranny, what a great Atlanta-centric story Berry would be on Super Bowl week.
Atlanta is where he came of age as one of the nation’s top recruits in 2007 – and was also a state 200-meter champion in track. Fairburn, specifically, at Creekside High.
Atlanta is where his family still calls home. And Atlanta is where he returned in late 2014 to start treatment for Hodgkin’s lymphoma, at Emory.
“That puts a lot on (Sunday’s game),” he said, before quickly shifting to a wider focus.
They’re playing for the AFC championship trophy Sunday named after Lamar Hunt, founder of the old AFL and the Chiefs. He was the guy who coined the term “Super Bowl.” And it has been more than a minute since the Chiefs have been in this position – losing the AFC Championship game in the 1993 season, after splitting Super Bowls in the 1966 (loss) and ‘69 seasons (win).
“Just look at the history behind the trophy, look at the organization we’re playing for,” Berry said. “That’s great just to be in this position and have the opportunity. You don’t get these opportunities often – it’s my ninth year in the league and my first shot at it. I’m going to cherish every moment.
“It would mean a lot, not just for me and my family and my teammates but for the organization. It’s the Lamar Hunt Trophy. To bring it back where it started, that’s a great deal.”
Hobbled by the heel, Berry missed the first 13 weeks of the Chiefs season. Then popped back up for games No. 14 and 15. Then went back into medical protective custody until this week.
Even for one of the most inspirational figures in football – one who signs footballs to young cancer patients, “Fear nothing, and attack everything” – it’s a lot to ask of Berry to be a factor in Sunday’s game. There’s truly no way to know what he can bring until the game itself, so add that to Sunday’s list of intrigues.
Whatever his condition, Berry still would make for one of the more appealing tales on Super Bowl week, cutting through a lot of the silliness. And not just for the hometown Atlanta audience, but for all precincts.
The guy has ruptured his Achilles, blown out a knee and come back from cancer. And he is still considered a leader of the Chiefs defense. Even if he’d be a day-to-day question mark to play in Atlanta, think of the Super Bowl seminars he could give that week on taking nothing for granted.