My first response to Eric Berry being named to the College Football Hall of Fame wasn’t even a full word. It was simple.
There are three elite, tried-and-true, I-can-argue-against-any-takers elite players in the history of Tennessee football. Eric Berry is one of those players, alongside former quarterback Peyton Manning and defensive lineman Doug Atkins. We’re talking about players that were transcendent, not just very, very good. Everyone else gets a parting prize. Those are the three. No argument.
The thing about Berry that even separates him from the Tennessee trio of elite is that he was such an incredible person. That’s not saying that either Manning nor Atkins weren’t great people, but they didn’t have to answer countless questions about Volunteer uncertainty nor were they robbed of an NFL Hall of Fame career. Berry faced both of those bumps in the road and survived.
Berry is the stuff of legend really. He survived a torn ACL and a ruptured Achilles tendon, which are the two worst injuries that an athlete can endure and was still a standout NFL player. Oh, and he also had cancer. Fortunately, Berry beat cancer. Well, actually he beat cancer down like a one of Mike Tyson’s earlier foes.
Berry was the only person that I’ve ever heard of to keep in elite shape while beating cancer. Chemotherapy was just a bump in the road when he missed a few games because of a mass in his chest. Berry didn’t miss a season, just a few games. Berry was back in 2015 because he trained throughout his treatment. Some days Berry trained his upper body. Some days he trained his lower body. Most everyday he was sick.
Berry had a song made about him when he was in college and was so good that former Tennessee coach Lane Kiffin said that Berry needed to go onto the NFL instead of returning for another season in college. And that’s exactly what Berry did.
In the NFL, Berry became one of the most versatile players in recent memory, playing linebacker, nickel back and both safety positions. He’s still beloved by Kansas City Chiefs fans even though he admitted his was afraid of horses.
Berry was a unanimous All-American at UT twice. Yes, twice. He’s the only player in school history to do that. Berry won all the defensive back awards during his career. Jim Thorpe? Jack Tatum? Got them both. Freshman All-American? SEC Freshman of the Year in 2007? Got those too. However, there’s something else to remember Berry for. His willingness to be the voice of the program in 2008.
Without an entrenched quarterback that season, Berry became the face of the program that season. A defensive back, yes a defensive back, had to answer questions about a program that was swirling out of control under former Tennessee football coach Phillip Fulmer, who would be fired that season.
Did I notice times in which Berry was annoyed by the spotlight? Absolutely. Did he ever complain? Not to my knowledge.
Berry’s teams didn’t win a lot of games, but he did. His decision to attend Tennessee was a statement that the Vols weren’t done under Fulmer even if they were headed that way. How many prospects felt more confident becoming a Vol when Berry turned down every school in the country to sign up – even though it may not have been the best business decision.
Business decisions are all the rage nowadays. Berry’s decision was made with his heart. That was readily apparent after his Tennessee career when he gave his father, former UT running back James Berry, a blue tick hound or, as Eric called it, a “Smokey” dog.
Berry tends to lay low now. He’s not one to seek the spotlight. After that 2008 season, who could blame him.