Eric Berry: The Fifth Dimension

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Eric Berry: The Fifth Dimension
Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

He runs like a gazelle, hits like a semi-truck, and knows football better than some coaches.

Eric Berry has already proven to be an amazing player on field, and best Safety prospect since the great Sean Taylor in 2004.

But what a lot of people don't know, is Eric Berry, the person.

University of Tennessee managers would always wash, clean, paint and apply logos to helmets before games on Saturday. The managers with the most seniority would apply the decals, while the newest would have to scrub and paint over any scratches on the helmet. Eric Berry said he wanted to give back to the guys that do so much for the players, therefore he would be found washing and painting the Tennessee helmets before game day because he didn't feel like he deserved to jump their hierarchy.

Little things like that have kept Berry grounded and humble throughout his football career. The fact is, he's had many of reasons to get cocky, and showboat his way to superstardom.

At Creekside High school in Fairburn, Georgia, he was a standout in not only football, but also track. It wasn't always that way. One Friday night, early in Berry's high school career, the opposing offense was driving the ball downfield on the Creekside defense. Berry quickly picked off a pass from his own end zone and began returning it down the sideline for a score. Despite being the most talented athlete on the field, Berry was dragged down at the one-yard line.

He vowed to never allow that to happen again. "I just didn't know how to run" Berry said.

Berry knew exactly what he had to do. He decided to join the track team, where his talents shined. In 2005 Berry was the AAAA state champion in the 200m, and was the anchor leg of the 2006 AAAA state champion 4X400 relay team.

Although Berry has always played ruthlessly on the field, he has stuck to his softhearted ways off the field. One of his high school friends, Rokevious Watkins, a 6'4", 340-pound tackle at South Carolina, grinds his teeth when he thinks about where he would be without Berry. Watkins and his father jumped around high schools and cities. "We were living in the streets" Watkins says.

"I was close to going the wrong way-to jail, killing somebody, things associated with street life. Eric snatched me up and told me there was a better way."

Watkins' father died of lung cancer just six days before his teammates and Creekside High school graduated. Watkins had fallen just a quarter of a credit shy of graduating with his classmates.

Berry continued to motivate him to not fall back into his old ways. "I can't thank him enough," Watkins says, "We talk everyday, and he still keeps me going."

Berry was loyal to his football teammates at Creekside. He always knew he wanted to go to Tennessee though. After all, it was in his family history. His dad James was a running back at UT, and now a running backs coach for the program.

Despite knowing where he was going to play football, Berry delayed his commitment to Tennessee to allow his friends and teammates at Creekside to stand out and get noticed by one of the top programs in attendance to all of his games.

Berry's selfless attitude has always stood out among his peers.

Berry grew up a huge Deion Sanders fan. He loved his playmaking ability with the ball in his hands. He wanted to be just like Deion. Or so he thought.

One day he spotted Deion at a social gathering. Berry's eyes lit up. He walked over to his idol, and asked politely for an autograph. Sanders then ignored Berry and denied his request. Berry felt betrayed, like he had been punched in the gut.

He then made a promise to himself, that if he ever got famous one day, he would never, ever deny any of his fans an autograph. "I just wanted an autograph." Berry says wide-eyed, almost in disbelief. "I grew up, looking up to him." Yet, Berry stays humble and does his best to find reasoning. "He could have been having a bad day, so I can't hold that against him." Berry says, "But I wouldn't do that to a high school player going to college. I just learned how to treat others." Berry says with a smile.

Ranked not only the best football prospect in Georgia, but the #3 prospect in the entire country by rivals.com, Berry joined Tennessee and his record-breaking career was off and running.

Upon entering college Berry chose number 14. A number that represents the amount of hours his mother was in labor before finally having him.

In 2007, Berry started immediately as a true freshman, making plays from day one. He managed to rack up 86 tackles and 5 Interceptions, returned for a total of 222 yards, in his 14 games played.

SEC Quarterbacks soon realized that facing Berry was no laughing matter. The freshman phenom went on to earn accolades that only the very elite could manage to achieve.

Berry was the 2007, All-SEC freshman of the year in numerous categories. As well as all-SEC freshman honor roll and national defensive freshman of the year.

By the time his sophomore season rolled around, Berry was named team captain, and teams began developing a game plan to take Berry out of the equation on defense.

Despite their attempts, Berry still managed to put up even more impressive numbers. This time 7 interceptions, with an incredible 265 yards returned. That is 40 yards per touch on average over his first two years of college football.

Berry was officially the face of Tennessee, and the most heralded icon since Peyton Manning. He once again set the bar for what a safety was capable of. He quarterbacked the defense, and was the only spark the team could always count on to keep them in the game.

In 2009 Tennessee hired the master of the "Tampa-2" defense, Monte Kiffin as the defensive coordinator. Monte quickly fell in love with his new toy, claiming Berry as the player that learned his defense the fastest, of any he had coached.

Kiffin was determined to make the most out of Eric Berry. He lined him up at free safety, strong safety, nickelback, and even as an extra linebacker in specific situations.

One morning during an early Tennessee practice, Kiffin began yelling at Berry for not being deep enough in the secondary on one particular play.

"We just went over this in film!" Kiffin said, with a scowling voice.

"But coach," Berry pleaded. "I'm the strong safety in this one."

"Eric," the 69-year old coach said. "That's my bad."

"Sometimes, they forget what position I'm in." Berry later stated.

During spring drills, Kiffin called for one of Berry's teammates to blitz. The offense came out in an empty backfield set. Berry, realizing that a receiver would be left open, used his genius football I.Q. to quickly audible out of that play.

Kiffin yelled out, "No, no, no!" One big play from the offense later, and Kiffin figured out that his star player had been correct.

"He's the complete package," Kiffin says, "He can run, he can hit. He's very smart. And his teammates hang on every word he says. They just feed off him."  After all, Berry was flagged only once in his career at Tennessee.

Tennessee was extremely focused on making Berry the 2009 Heisman trophy winner, an award given to college football's best player. They launched an all out " Heisman campaign" that the school spent $10,000 on. Hoping it would pay off, they made him three youtube videos, including a full song all about Eric Berry, written by another student.

"Eric Berry for Heisman" was a common billboard found in the Tennessee area.

By the end of the 2009 season, he didn't win the Heisman, but Berry had gone through another top notch season, earning multiple awards, including the Jim Thorpe award, Jack Tatum award, and first team All-SEC.

Although he only pulled down two interceptions in 2009, he patrolled the defense at nearly every single position at some point during the season, and was the vital key to Tennessee's defensive success. A defense that ranked 12th in the NCAA against the pass.

When decision time came as to whether or not, declare for the NFL draft, Monte Kiffin said it was a "no-brainer" for Berry to turn pro.

Berry's choice was easy, but a well thought out one. His mother Carol had just lost her job at a mortgage company, and his father James had heart surgery last summer.

He wanted to do whatever it took to help his parents' living situation. The first deed Berry set out to do after declaring for the draft was to buy his mom a black Range Rover, and a box of grits set against the passengers seat. James always told Eric that he would be a grown man, when he could buy his own grits.

Eric then attended the NFL scouting combine, where he was put through drills that poked and prodded every little part of his body including his brain.

During his combine interview with Buccaneers head coach Raheem Morris, Berry was attacked with questions about Monte's Tampa-2 defense. After all, Tampa Bay is where the "Tampa-2" defense began, under Monte Kiffin.

Berry was handed a piece of chalk, and told to draw up various Tampa-2 formations and explain what every player’s job was supposed to be on each play. Berry drew up the formations and answered questions with ease. It was like asking a mathematician what 2 plus 2 is.

One NFL GM said about Berry "I know teams don't typically take safeties high in the first round, but this is a guy that you can make an exception for". 

"The way that he moves, the fluidity in his hips, the way he breaks on the ball, it's second to none. It's really impressive and very eye-catching. And you talk about changing the prototype at that position-we've started to move away from the big, in-the-box, downhill, 235-pound guy to ideally having interchangeable safeties. He's that type of guy. He's the complete package"

When draft time came around, the Kansas City Chiefs made the easy selection, taking Berry with the fifth overall pick, to shore up a weak Safety position.

Because punters, kickers and quarterbacks could only wear the No.14 in the NFL, Berry was forced to chose a different number. Eric picked number 29. A number that means a lot to him, and a former Volunteer.

Former Tennessee defensive back, Inky Johnson's career was ended in 2006 after a lethal shoulder injury. His arm is almost completely paralyzed today, and he never got another chance to play football.

In a way, Eric is going to represent Inky in the NFL.

In his little time with the Chiefs, Berry has already made an incredible impact on the practice field, and with the fans.During a hot day at training camp, practice finished up, as the rest of the Chiefs team piled into locker rooms in St. Joesph, Berry was going to stick to his word.

He made a straight line towards the autograph area in 100-degree heat. Signing every piece of clothing, merchandise, and mini-footballs shoved his way. What he did next was unquestionably one of the most thoughtful things a Chiefs player has done in the last five years.

A couple of kids asked if they could have his gloves. Berry, sadly let the kids know he had already given away his gloves to a previous autograph getter. What he did next will stick in the minds of these kids until they are long gone.

Berry reached down, took off his cleats, signed them both and handed them over to the kids with a giant smile on his face.

He was truly giving back to his fans, and understanding what got him to where he is today. His humble personality, and soft-spoken demeanor off the field has trumped his aggressive, ball crushing traits on the field.

Later during camp, the Chiefs were working on "Red Zone" drills in practice. Chiefs head coach Todd Haley stopped the scrimmage, and shouted over to rookie Tight End Tony Moeaki. "Where are you supposed to be, Tony?"

Moeaki pointed to a spot that was very wrong based on Haley's reaction. "Eric!" Haley said, in a disheartened voice, "Where should Tony have been?"

Eric Berry replied, "He should have been closer to the left side of the end zone, and near the pylon."

Eric was right on the money. And he earned himself brownie points in the Chiefs coaching staff, especially considering it was only the third practice of training camp. "The film room is my best friend," Berry says.

He mimics his playing style after Baltimore's Ed Reed, and Pittsburgh's Troy Polamalu."I used Ed Reed's tactics at free safety and (mimic) his ball instincts, and I used Troy Polamalu's aggressiveness — I love the way he brings players down," says Berry, who's drawn comparisons to both all-pros.

In conclusion, Eric Berry has proved throughout his career that he is twice the person off the field, as he is, on the field. And that says a lot.

The sky is the limit for Eric, and he knows it. He's a person that parents can point their children to, and say, "Play like him, and be like him off the field."

Lord knows football could use more Eric Berry's, and Walter Payton's and maybe a few less Larry Johnsons.

Berry is going to anchor the Chiefs secondary for many years to come, and will likely be the best defensive addition since the drafting of pass rusher Derrick Thomas in 1989.

He will be used all over the field, much like his junior season at Tennessee. The Chiefs are trying to build a foundation based on high character players that know how to make plays. Eric Berry is the poster child for a "high character" player.

You can see the passion he burns with, in his hazel-brown eyes. It runs deeper than the average college star.

 

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