Timeline of Eric Berry's Journey from Cancer to NFL Return

Michelle Bruton@@michelle_nflFeatured ColumnistSeptember 12, 2015

Kansas City Chiefs strong safety Eric Berry lines up against the Arizona Cardinals during the first half of an NFL preseason football game, Saturday, Aug. 15, 2015, in Glendale, Ariz. (AP Photo/Rick Scuteri)
B/R via Getty Images

In early January 2015, Kansas City Chiefs safety Eric Berry posted the following quote on his Facebook page: "'You beat cancer by how you live, why you live, and in the manner in which you live' ~Stuart Scott."  

ESPN sportscaster and anchor Stuart Scott had passed away Jan. 4 after succumbing to a longtime fight against appendiceal cancer. 

It was clear why the quote resonated with Berry: He himself was undergoing chemotherapy treatments for the cancerous mass that was discovered in his chest the previous month. 

On Sunday, Sept. 13, 2015, Berry, whose career has been marked by achievements, will have his greatest one yet: He will take the field in an NFL game after successfully beating cancer.

Berry's journey from diagnosis to returning to the field hasn't been especially longunfolding in less than a yearbut it has been emotional.

Berry is the heart and soul of the Chiefs, a locker room leader who is one of the league's best players at his position. Since his rookie season in 2010, his presence on the field has made the team more competitive. 

But in late 2014, Berry had to step away from football to face his greatest opponent to date: Hodgkin's lymphoma. 

What follows is a complete timeline beginning not with Berry's diagnosis, but the start of his exceptional NFL career: Berry's ascension from starting rookie to Pro Bowler in his first season, to overcoming a season-ending ACL tear in 2011 and, ultimately, his fight back to the field in 2015. 

A Pro Bowl Career Begins

On Apr. 22, 2010, the player who would come to earn the nickname "The Fifth Dimension" was drafted fifth overall by the Chiefs to fill an immediate starting role at strong safety. 

There is no question that Berry, who won the 2009 Jim Thorpe Award, was the best defensive back entering the 2010 draft. "Berry has a supreme blend of strength and athleticism for a defensive back," Berry's NFL.com draft profile reads. "Has the leadership qualities to mold into a future team captain."

Over time, Kansas City's decision to draft Berry has only looked better. He leads all defensive backs taken in the 2010 class in solo tackle percentage, per B/R Insights. 

Defensive Backs Taken in 1st Round of 2010 NFL Draft
Player (Pick)GamesSnapsSolo Tackle Pct.SacksINT
Eric Berry (5)543,5197.05.58
Joe Haden (7)724,7125.3216
Earl Thomas (14)805,2416.2016
Kareem Jackson (20)744,0875.9010
Devin McCourty (27)775,1445.8117
Kyle Wilson (29)802,6925.313
Patrick Robinson (32)582,7815.419
B/R Insights

The Chiefs coaching staff named Berry a captain for the Dec. 26, 2010, game against the Tennessee Titans. In that matchup, which Kansas City won 34-14, Berry nabbed the fourth interception of his rookie season, which he returned for a touchdown.  

Berry added 77 total tackles, two sacks and nine passes defensed to those four interceptions. He was the only Chiefs defender to play every snap in 2010, per the team's official website.

Those numbers, combined with Berry's overall effect on a Chiefs defense that went from 30th in 2009 to 14th in 2010, earned him the honor of being the first Chiefs rookie named to the Pro Bowl since linebacker Derrick Thomas after the 1989 season on Jan. 23, 2011.

Josh Looney @JoshLooney

Eric Berry (@berry1429) is the first #Chiefs rookie to make the Pro Bowl since Derrick Thomas in 1989

In 2011, Berry looked to build on an outstanding rookie showing in which he ranked as the league's 14th-best safety among 185 players, per Pro Football Focus. It was a season in which the Chiefs finished with a 10-6 record, their best since 2005, largely due to their improved defense. 

Berry had a strong preseason in 2011 and took the field on Sept. 11, 2011, against the Buffalo Bills in the Chiefs' home opener. On the third play of the first series, Berry injured his left knee on a block by Bills receiver Stevie Johnson. He went to the sideline, and then lined up the next time the Chiefs defense took the field.

Berry went down instantly. He had a torn ACL and was placed on season-ending injured reserve. 

"I know we just lost one of our best players and that hurts," former Chiefs head coach Todd Haley said at the time, per ESPN.com

On June 27, 2012, approximately nine months after he tore his ACL, Berry shared that his knee was "100 percent," and after being a full participant in training camp, he played a full 16-game season. Berry led all safeties in 2012 with 33 stops and was second on the Chiefs defense with 10 tackles for loss, per B/R Insights. 

Berry started 31 of 32 possible regular-season games in the 2012 and 2013 seasons, being voted to the Pro Bowl in both years. 

By the end of the 2013 season, Berry had battled his way back to dominance. Pro Football Focus had him rated as the league's second-best safety, with 66 total tackles, a career-high 3.5 sacks, 10 passes defensed and three interceptions, two of which he returned for touchdowns. 

Per B/R Insights, Berry led all safeties in the league in 2013 with 10 quarterback hurries and 17 pressures. His 17 pressures were five more than any other safety in the league.  

Berry was back. But his greatest obstacle was yet to come. 

2014: A Season of Challenges

The 2014 season began well enough for Berry. In the season opener against the Tennessee Titans on Sept. 7, 2014, Berry played 82 of 82 possible defensive snaps, per Pro Football Focus. He had a career-high 14 tackles and a pass defensed, but the Titans prevailed, 26-10. 

In Week 2 against the Denver Broncos on Sept. 14, 2014, however, Berry had only played 16 snaps before he left the game with an injury, initially believed to be a sprained ankle. But on Sept. 25, 2014, head coach Andy Reid revealed that Berry was dealing with a high ankle sprain, per BJ Kissel of Chiefs.com

Though Berry returned to practice on Oct. 13, 2014, he would not play in another game until Week 9, when the Chiefs faced the New York Jets on Nov. 2, 2014.

He eased his way back into action during his return, playing 52 of 70 total defensive snaps, per Pro Football Focus. Berry was back to full-go in Week 10 against the Buffalo Bills, playing every defensive snap, which he would continue to do through Week 12 against the Oakland Raiders

Berry's game had slowed in those weeks after he returned from his high ankle sprain; he averaged 4.5 tackles per game and had one more pass defensed against the Seattle Seahawks in Week 11. It appeared to just be Berry working back from his injury. 

But the Week 12 matchup against Oakland, which would prove to be the last game he played in the 2014 season, revealed something much worse was going on under the surface. 

Nov. 21, 2014: A Mass is Discovered 

He played every defensive snap, and to a casual observer, it may have appeared Berry was fully healthy during the Chiefs' loss to the Raiders on Thursday, Nov. 20, 2014, in Oakland. 

However, Berry knew something wasn't right. 

It was in that game he first began to experience discomfort in his chest, pain that persisted on his return to the team's practice facility in Kansas City the following day. 

Berry told the team's physicians about his symptoms and underwent a series of exams. Initially, an X-ray came back negative, as ESPN.com's Adam Teicher reported at the time. 

However, Friday night, physicians discovered the mass after subsequent testing, including an MRI and CT scan. 

On Saturday, Nov. 22, 2014, Berry was informed the mass could be lymphoma. His agent shared the news in an update on Twitter on Monday, Nov. 24, 2014

Chad Speck @a3Chad

Praying for my friend and client Eric Berry. Here are my thoughts right now... http://t.co/DdtF4Ap31t

That Monday, the Chiefs placed Berry on the non-football illness list, which sidelined him for the season as he sought treatment. The first step was returning to Atlanta, near his hometown of Fairburn, Georgia, and where his family still lives, for additional testing at Emory University. Berry planned to be treated by Christopher Flowers, a lymphoma specialist.

Before he left for Atlanta, Berry took the time to address the team himself to share the news with them. 

Needless to say, his teammates were shocked. 

Terez A. Paylor @TerezPaylor

Reid said Berry was upbeat and very positive this morning. Reid said there were some guys that were shocked. "These guys love him."

Berry also released a statement through the Chiefs on the team website before he left Kansas City. 

"I am truly thankful for all of the support from family, friends, coaches, teammates and the entire Chiefs kingdom," Berry began.

The statement continued: 

At first I was in shock with the diagnosis on Saturday and did not even want to miss a game, but I understand that right now I have to concentrate on a new opponent. I have great confidence in the doctors and the plan they are going to put in place for me to win this fight. I believe that I am in God's hands and I have great peace in that. I know my coaches and teammates will hold things down here the rest of the season and until I am back running out of the tunnel at Arrowhead. I am so thankful and appreciative of being a part of this franchise and playing in front of the best fans in the NFL. I will be back!

Berry made it clear in his statement that he planned to return to football. But at that point in time, no one had any idea how long that would take. 

As Berry prepared to begin a treatment plan, the news reached the rest of the league. One by one, trickling in and then in a steady stream, teams began to show their support.

Denver Broncos @Broncos

Safety Eric Berry and the @KCChiefs are in our thoughts today. Get well fast, @Stuntman1429!

Arizona Cardinals @AZCardinals

Our thoughts are with @KCChiefs S Eric Berry, his family & the #ChiefsKingdom. http://t.co/GOxIJgLO3K Get well soon! http://t.co/izXpgaPTgm


We may be rivals on the football field, but we’re all part of the @nfl family. Best wishes to Eric Berry.

Washington Redskins @Redskins

The #Redskins are sending our prayers and best wishes to @KCChiefs S Eric Berry (@Stuntman1429) and #ChiefsKingdom - #BeABeast #NFLFamily

The Raiders were the last team to play against Berry before his diagnosis. The Broncos were the Chiefs' next opponent, the first of five games they would play without their star safety to finish out the 2014 season.

But what was happening to Berry transcended game day. It transcended winning or losing. It was, quite literally, life or death.

Dec. 8, 2014: Diagnosis: Hodgkin's Lymphoma

Berry's official diagnosis came at the conclusion of a full medical workup by the team at Emory's Winship Cancer Institute. 

The diagnosis was at once a setback and a blessing. On one hand, it confirmed the mass in Berry's chest was indeed cancerous. On the other hand, Hodgkin's lymphoma is considered to be highly treatable, especially given recent advancements in the medical community regarding research and treatment. 

"The prognosis continues to improve for people with Hodgkin's lymphoma," states the Mayo Clinic website

Flowers gave a statement when he announced Berry's diagnosis, via the Chiefs' website.

"This is a diagnosis that is very treatable and potentially curable with standard chemotherapy approaches," Flowers said. "The goal of Mr. Berry's treatment is to cure his lymphoma and we are beginning that treatment now."

Berry, too, shared an update via the team website. 

My family and I are very grateful for the amount of support we have received over the last couple of weeks. I can't tell you enough how much I appreciate all the words of encouragement, the blessings and well wishes. I want to thank the Emory University School of Medicine, along with Dr. Flowers and his team, for all of their hard work and effort in diagnosing and creating a plan for me to battle this thing. I will embrace this process and attack it the same way I do everything else in life. God has more than prepared me for it. For everyone sharing similar struggles, I'm praying for you and keep fighting!

Berry may have been undergoing his chemotherapy treatments in Atlanta, but his presence was felt in Kansas City through the rest of the regular season.

On Dec. 21, 2014, the Chiefs faced the Steelers in Pittsburgh. They lost the game, but Chiefs linebacker Justin Houston had his 18th sack of the season, which was good for the most in the league. 

In an emotional moment, Houston lifted his jersey to reveal a T-shirt underneath boasting Berry's No. 29, dedicating the moment to his teammate. 

BJ Kissel @ChiefsReporter

#Chiefs LB Justin Houston picked up his NFL-leading 18th sack of season vs. PIT, then honored Eric Berry once again. http://t.co/SnqfWjkkvV

The Chiefs' season ended Dec. 28, 2014, commencing a period of time filled with uncertainty for any NFL player: the offseason. But unlike his teammates, Berry would not be wondering if he'd receive a contract extension, be allowed to walk in free agency or where he'd be listed on the depth chart during training camp. 

He'd be wondering if he'd even be taking the field in 2015 at all. 

Aftermath and Uncertainty

The NFL offseason got underway. The Chiefs placed the franchise tag on Houston. They signed safety Tyvon Branch on Mar. 10, 2015, and then, on Mar. 16, re-signed defensive back Ron Parker to a five-year deal. 

If Berry couldn't return by the start of the season, Parker would start at strong safety. 

In mid-May, however, as the team prepared to open OTAs, Reid shared the first in a series of positive updates about Berry's recovery: He had completed his treatments and was waiting on results. 

theScore @theScore

Chiefs' coach Andy Reid: Eric Berry is doing well in his recovery from Hodgkin's lymphoma. http://t.co/2xUDazRWp4 http://t.co/N0n4Gvw24D

"Eric is doing well," Reid told Terez A. Paylor of the Kansas City Star on May 26, 2015, the first day of organized team activities. "He's going to get his big end-of-the-school (year) exam down here. He's been through all the treatments, so now the doctor is going to sit down with him and go over exactly what the results of all that are."

The Chiefs' offseason program got underway without Berry. But, unbelievably, his return to the field was merely weeks away. 

Return to Football

It had taken Berry about nine months to return to the football field after he tore his ACL in 2011.

From his diagnosis on Dec. 8, 2014, to the day Berry received the news that he was cancer-free? A little less than seven months.

Berry had fought cancer—and won—faster than it takes a muscle to repair itself. 

June 22, 2015: Cancer-Free

The day Berry was declared cancer-free was not the final chapter in his struggle against lymphoma; it was the first chapter in the new life that would follow, a life that included returning to the football field. 

Adam Teicher @adamteicher

Berry learned on June 22 he was cancer free

The Berry family shared their reaction to learning that Eric's cancer had been eradicated during a press conference in July, and additional details about the process, during which Berry remained quiet, sending out periodic updates via the Chiefs. 

Just because Berry had been quiet during the treatment process, however, didn't mean that it wasn't trying. 

"When you add chemo into something, that's a whole different monster because it literally feels like you're dying," Berry said in the press conference, per Paylor. "You can't go around people, you get sick easily, you have no energy. Certain foods you can't eat. It just saps you for a good amount of time."

Berry also acknowledged that a large part of the battle wasn't physical, but mental. 

"And really when you look at it, you're not really battling chemo, you're battling yourself the whole time," he said. "It was to the point where I had to set goals. … 'Today I'm going to make sure I get out the bed, I'm not going to stay in the bed all day,' because I would literally stay in the bed all day."

But setting those small, achievable goals and "taking it one day at a time," as the axiom goes, were the small victories that eventually led to the ultimate victory of beating the disease. Berry also set a goal to do five pushups per day, per Paylor. 

Berry might have struggled to complete his five pushups each day, but the dedication paid off. As Chiefs reporter Pete Sweeney shared July 29, 2015, Berry actually gained weight during chemotherapy. 

Pete Sweeney @pgsween

Berry opted to have IVs during each chemotherapy in order for him to work out during the process. He came out of chemo a pound heavier.

The significance of receiving treatment through an IV is that it would allow Berry to continue working out. A PICC line, or peripherally inserted central catheter, is frequently used during chemotherapy treatments due to its long-term nature—but it would have prevented Berry from continuing his workouts. 

The hardest obstacle Berry had ever faced to that point was behind him: He had beaten cancer. But it was only, as he put it in the press conference, "a checkpoint." There was still work to be done.  

July 29, 2015: Berry Is Cleared to Practice

Eight months after he was diagnosed, Berry suited up and took the field with his teammates at Missouri Western State University for the first day of Kansas City's minicamp.

During the practice, the players did not wear pads, and there was no contact. Berry led the defensive backs through the position drills and was the starting strong safety in seven-on-seven drills. He stayed on the sideline during the 11-on-11 period, but the circumstances of the practice weren't important. 

Berry was in uniform, completing drills, months after cancer took up residence in the right wall of his chest. 

The extraordinary moment was not lost on Berry's teammates and coaching staff. 

"It's truly a remarkable thing in our business and in sport and in life," Kansas City's head athletic trainer Rick Burkholder said, per Teicher

"Seeing him out there today, it was touching. It was touching," Berry's father, James, said in a post-practice press conference. 

Berry had multiple tests with the Chiefs that he had to pass in order to be cleared to practice, which he finished July 28, 2015. 

"He sailed through every test we gave him," Burkholder said. "His doctors—I'll speak for them—they were very pleased with his numbers."

Those numbers included bench-pressing 275 pounds five times and squatting 325 pounds five times. 

By comparison, the safeties who participated in the 2015 NFL combine, presumably in the best shape of their lives to that point, bench-pressed 225 pounds. The average number of reps was 16.

Berry's return to practice was a crucial step forward in his journey to returning to the NFL for the 2015 season. But how would he fare when the pads went on, against full-contact NFL hits?

Aug. 15, 2015: Berry's First Game Back: Chiefs Preseason Opener

Ross D. Franklin/Associated Press

When draft analysts said prior to the 2010 NFL draft that Berry possessed the leadership qualities "to mold into a future team captain," none could have had any idea how true that statement would become on Aug. 15, 2015.

Berry walked to midfield at University of Phoenix Stadium for the pregame coin toss in his first game action since being diagnosed with Hodgkin's lymphoma, as a team captain for Kansas City's preseason opener against the Arizona Cardinals

Prior to taking the field, the cameras caught one of the most emotional moments in recent NFL history. As the Chiefs arrived at the stadium and filed onto the playing field, Berry found his mother, Carol, on the sideline, and embraced her. 

Berry described how the emotions of playing in his first preseason game since being declared cancer-free affected him.  

"It just all hit me," said Berry, per Teicher. He continued:

I don't think anyone can really understand the road I took, the sacrifices I had to make, the feelings I had going through those times, just to be able to experience the things I mentioned to you at the beginning. You take the little things, and you appreciate everything about the game and everything that surrounds the game. It's a blessing to be out here, and I'm going to take full advantage of the opportunity I have.

Berry's college team, Tennessee, also showed its support during his first game back with a post on its Facebook page.

Looking back, it's poignant that Berry decided on his jersey number, 29, to honor former Tennessee defensive back and Berry's mentor, Inky Johnson. Johnson's career ended prematurely in 2006 when a hit on a play during his junior season led to nerve damage in his right shoulder and, eventually, paralysis in his right arm.

Johnson made an impression on Berry because of his passion for the game that lived long after he wasn't able to play it anymore, as BJ Kissel described in a piece for Chiefs.com. So that Berry chose to wear Johnson's number and then too was faced with the prospect of never playing the game again is meaningful. 

"A lot of people don't get to run into people like that," Berry explained, per Kissel. "When you feel like you don't want to do it anymore, you push through it just because of a simple talk, a simple word of encouragement or a simple letter you get before a game describing why you should keep going or the opportunity you have. 

"I think you have to do something special when you run into an individual like that, there's a reason that happens."

Perhaps the reason Johnson came into Berry's life when he did was to give him the tools necessary to push through the biggest obstacle of his life, and succeed. 

Aug. 21, 2015: Emotional Return to Arrowhead

Walking back onto the field for an NFL preseason game for the first time since beating cancer was certainly an emotional moment for Berry, as his embrace with his mother on the sideline showed. 

But returning to Arrowhead for the first time in the Chiefs' preseason matchup against the Seattle Seahawks, and being inundated with the overwhelming support of his Chiefs family and the fanbase, was on an entirely different level for Berry. 

It started before Berry even entered the stadium.

"All those emotions you have just riding through that parking lot, you have to be part of the Kansas City Chiefs family to understand how that feels," Berry explained to Kissel

"Everyone is grilling out and having a good time. The kids are out there with jerseys on, throwing the football. But every time you come through, it's like they know when a player is coming. They stop and they wave, and they just give so many words of encouragement."

Nick Jacobs of TWC Sports Kansas City provided a glimpse at Berry preparing to take the field in his return home:

Nick Jacobs @Jacobs71

Eric Berry making his way onto the field at Arrowhead for the first time this season. #Chiefs http://t.co/v9KeaCnAsX

The Chiefs coaches continued to take it slow with Berry; he played 21 of 59 defensive snaps against Seattle, per Pro Football Focus. But even if he didn't pad his stat sheet, Berry's return meant so much not only to him, but also to his teammates. 

"Tonight was special for him," Chiefs linebacker Derrick Johnson said, per Kissel. "It was special for the whole team to see Eric and his courage and determination and everything he went through. He stands tall; I always say that. Eric Berry stands tall."

Berry also spoke about the close-knit bond he shares with his teammates. 

"I think we've all fed off each other," Berry said, per Kissel. "We're a close group. It's like we've all been together for our whole lives and it's not just a business for us. 

"We're a family. We come in as teammates and we leave a family."

Sept. 13, 2015: Regular-Season Return

BJ Kissel @ChiefsReporter

Eric Berry sees Sunday as checkpoint, not milestone. "I'm looking forward to everything." [http://t.co/cFkyc3gDKz] http://t.co/kOcGCe0epx

Berry has had multiple positive milestones since his cancer diagnosis in late 2014, including being declared cancer-free, playing in his first preseason game and taking the field again at Arrowhead Stadium. 

However, Sunday, Sept. 13, will prove to be emotional on a whole different level, as Berry returns to the field in a regular-season game for the first time since Nov. 20, 2014, in Oakland. 

It will be almost nine months to the day after he received the news that he had lymphoma.

Though Berry's regular-season return won't take place at Arrowhead, he'll nevertheless have not only his teammates, coaches and Chiefs fans who made the trip to Houston rallying behind him, but likely all of NRG Stadium. Berry's journey transcends game-day rivalries, and it's left an impact on those closest to him. 

Reid shared some thoughts on Berry's experience and its affect on the team on Mike & Mike on Sept. 4, via Sweeney:

Pete Sweeney @pgsween

This is #Chiefs head coach Andy Reid explaining what S Eric Berry went through to @MikeAndMike. http://t.co/DFY8Hzk6Fq

As Berry prepares for the season opener, he has the privilege of being able to do so not as a cancer survivor, but as a football player, plain and simple. After nine months of having to live with the day-to-day realities and mental weight of cancer, this season, for Berry, the focus is on football.  

"If you turn on the TV and you look at 29 on the field, you can say 'That guy right there plays football how it's supposed to be played,'" Berry said when describing his goal for the season to the media on Thursday, per Kissel

"That's all I want. That's where I want to be at."

When asked about the milestone of returning to the field Sunday, Berry indicated there's still more he wants to accomplish. 

"I have this little vision for myself on where I want to be and how I want to help the team," he said, per Kissel. "It's not necessarily a milestone; it's almost like a checkpoint."

Every new NFL season is filled with hope and possibility. Every team begins at 0-0, and optimism is high.

For Berry, the sense of possibility as the 2015 season opens is heightened in a new way. As he told the media Thursday when asked about what he's looking forward to upon waking up Monday after his return, he's just looking forward to waking up at all.  

Returning to the field signifies the beginning of a new chapter in Berry's life, but it's not the end of the journey he started in December 2014. It's just a checkpoint.  


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