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Eric Berry opens up about his Chiefs stardom, cancer, love for cars, and a NFL return

·14 min read

Not too long ago Eric Berry was among the most famous people in Kansas City — his No. 29 Chiefs jersey on the backs of kids and their parents, his picture on billboards, his name on three All-Pro teams.

Then one day, gone.

Old teammates who considered him a close friend had no idea what happened. Calls went to voicemail, texts unanswered. He was the All-American who turned into a football star and then beat cancer and went back to being a football star.

And then, gone.

And now — here he is on the phone for nearly an hour, the conversation stretching from football to family to a potential comeback and a deep love for cars. His words are alternately illuminating and vague, an earnest attempt to explain where he is with football juxtaposed with this answer when asked where he’s living now.

“I’m here, I’m there,” he said. “I’m where I’m at.”

You can actually buy one of his cars this week, which is part of why he’s talking now. We’ll get to that in a minute but first here’s a story he’s never told before.

This is 2018. You might remember that as Patrick Mahomes’ MVP season, the one that ended against the Patriots with the offsides and Tom Brady. Berry was neck deep in rehab back then, an Achilles tear keeping him off the field for virtually the entire season, but his credibility keeping him involved.

Berry preferred to do his rehab on his own. He believed that if he couldn’t help his team on the field he’d go out of state and work on his body until he could. But he also thought that team was special, and the Chiefs had lost all but one of six playoff games since he arrived, so he wanted to help where he could. Even while injured, he was the man asked to give the breakdown hype speech to the defense before games.

Anyway, he was focused primarily on football until the moment during the Broncos home game when a security guard tapped his shoulder.

“We need you to go in,” Berry remembers hearing. “Your family has been in a bad wreck and what we hear is that one of them is hurt pretty bad.”

The next 20 minutes felt like the longest of Berry’s life. His dad, his brothers and his uncle were in that car. His eyes went blank. The stadium silent. He got to the hospital and heard a wild story.

Berry did not know that the 1966 Chevy Impala he bought had a bypassed safety switch. That meant the car could be started in drive, which it did at the Marriott on the Country Club Plaza, slamming into a concrete wall. One of Eric’s brothers avoided the impact by jumping out of the car and landing on his feet.

The car spun, spilling James halfway out. Berry’s uncle, Bernard, took the worst of the force to his neck and throat. A nearby Uber driver volunteered to take them immediately to St. Luke’s so they wouldn’t have to wait for an ambulance.

Berry was rehabbing his own injury at the time, but along with his brothers and assistant Emily McNeill helped care for Bernard through a long hospital stay.

“He survived, I don’t want to cliffhang you,” Berry said. “But just hearing that during the season … I got caught up thinking too much … Not to say it’s not important, football is important, but sometimes (you forget) your family and telling people you love that you love them and hug them and making sure they’re good. Because you just never know. It happens so fast. It happens so, so fast. That feeling of, ‘Oh, none of this stuff matters.’ What matters is how are my people doing?”

Berry told that story to answer a question about what he remembered most from 2018. Think about that for a second. His talents had been let down by organizational dysfunction his first three years, and he’d lost seasons to an ACL tear, a cancer diagnosis, and an Achilles tear.

The Chiefs were finally — finally — good enough to win a Super Bowl with him, and if he’d just been able to get his body right by the AFC Championship Game that year there is a dang good chance that season has a much happier ending.

But that’s not what Berry remembers first.

“That is in there as well,” Berry said. “That is in there as well. But I think (the wreck) trumps (football), you know?”

Berry still has that car, even as it is mangled beyond salvation. He wants to make a couch out of the back seat.

He wants to remember.

‘I was just in go mode’

Now Eric Berry is remembering a stranger he met in Kansas City. These memories come through every so often, but this one is special. Berry even keeps a ring that he bought from the man.

“My name is Earl and I’m from St. Louis,” Berry remembers the man saying.

This was 2015, during perhaps the height of Berry’s football powers. He had just beaten Hodgkin’s lymphoma in a way that can be objectively described as insane — Berry did not pause his football training, lifting and working out and somehow actually gaining weight through chemotherapy treatments. He would make the second of his three All-Pro teams that season, and win the first playoff game of his career.

The story he’s telling happened one night at dinner that season. He took the defensive backs out every week, this time to a spot downtown. He and a teammate stepped outside for a minute. That’s when they saw Earl, a man Berry remembers as visibly down on his luck but still intentionally put together. Berry’s teammate complimented Earl’s hat. That sparked a conversation.

“He was like, ‘Young blood, I want you to demand respect from yourself to give it to others,’” Berry said. “You know what I mean? He didn’t mean demand respect from other people to give yourself. He said, ‘Make sure you demand respect from yourself to give to others.’ He said, ‘That’s going to set the tone for how things need to go. Because if they disrespect you after that, then that’s on them, because you always came from a place of respect.’”

Earl also told Berry to stay away from drugs (no problem there) and to always trust his instincts. He’s prioritized those lessons, which relates to the timing and purpose of a potential return to football, and we’ll get to all of that soon — promise — but for now let’s keep on Berry and Kansas City.

Berry’s father calls his son a nomad — that line about I’m here, I’m there is as much truth as it is deflection. But there are at least two places closer to Berry’s heart than anywhere else: Atlanta, where he grew up and still spends the holidays, and Kansas City, where he turned from prospect to star and became a man.

Berry is different. He made nearly $100 million in his career, but still shopped at the dollar store … so he’s frugal, but still has a collection of more than a dozen cars … so he’s a self-described hoarder, but still packs light enough that even close friends don’t always know where he is … so he’s private, but still takes life advice from strangers and keeps friends and family close through his most intimate struggles.

It’s a lot to take in, and when Berry was playing he thought he was on top of it. He’d cruise — this thing with cars is personal — for hours in Kansas City. He’d go down 39th Street, through Westport, wherever the car of the day took him.

“I just be riding,” he said. “Listening to music, catching the vibes. Just really reflect, thinking about things.”

But at some point — and to hear Berry tell it, this part happened after football — he realized there was so much more to process. Too much, really. Nobody had ever done what he did, between the diagnosis and the chemo and the fear and the training and then back to football, all of it, non-stop, no breaks, and the time away has been full of reflecting.

Berry was famously short in interviews when he played. A lot has changed.

“I was operating at a different frequency at the time,” he said. “When people were telling me things I would hear it and I would appreciate it but it was really about, ‘All right, back to what I’m supposed to be doing.’ I never really had time to just say, ‘Wow.’

“My dad sat me down and said, ‘Brother, do you really understand what you did?’ I didn’t, because I was just in go mode. I had a real close friend of mine, he was with me right along the way. That helped him grow spiritually. He felt like seeing me go through that transition from not really being able to do anything to this All-Pro player, he was right there with me while I was training and even before I got sick, the level I was at, he saw how chemo and cancer affected me.

“He saw how I fought back through that. I think he firsthand witnessed divine intervention, and that it definitely is a God and a higher power and that affected him. I was thankful for that, because it helped him on his journey, too.”

At this point in the conversation Berry is asked about how all this relates to a potential return to football.

We’ll get to that soon.

Kansas City Chiefs defensive back Eric Berry talks with players on the sideline in the second half of a game against the Denver Broncos on Oct. 1, 2018 at Mile High Stadium in Denver, Colorado.
Kansas City Chiefs defensive back Eric Berry talks with players on the sideline in the second half of a game against the Denver Broncos on Oct. 1, 2018 at Mile High Stadium in Denver, Colorado.

‘Car rides are the best thing’

Berry actually is not sure how many cars he owns. McNeill knows of 14, and she knows there are more. Berry knows it’s a curious hobby, but it’s personal to him.

This gets him talking about rides from Atlanta to his father’s family in Mississippi, long talks about old stories or the future, or listening to Otis Redding in one grandfather’s pickup truck or the smell of his other grandfather’s Cadillac Seville or riding with his brothers and mom and best friend to Tybee Island in a minivan.

“For me, car rides are the best thing,” he said. “It’s a feeling you don’t want to let go of, and it’s a feeling I love.”

Mozley Park changed Berry’s world. That’s a spot in Atlanta where people from all over the city brought old-school cars every Sunday. Berry remembers G Bodies, Bubbles, Trans-Ams, Box Chevys, old Impalas, all meticulously decked out with rims and refurbished interiors and sound systems that competed as hard as the engines.

He went with a group of guys older than him but younger than his dad. They brought him around more mature parties and events without letting him get in trouble, mostly because everyone in town respected Berry’s parents too much to have to explain something to them.

He remembers them identifying where people were simply by their cars — specific rims, specific models, specific interiors, specific everything.

“You’ve got cars that’s for show and you’ve got cars that’s for go,” Berry said. “That was the one day. The one day the whole city was just cool, you know, no beefs, no problems, no nothing.”

Cars probably would have been a big part of his life even if Berry ended up as a dentist (don’t laugh; he interned at a local dentist’s office in high school and thought it would have made for a nice career) but football stardom let him take it to a different level.

Berry wanted his mom to have a car with zero miles on it, so the first thing he bought with his first NFL contract was a new Range Rover. The second thing he bought was for him — a custom-built, 1,200-horsepower Camaro.

The collection took off from there, including three that he’s putting up for auction this week at the Mecum Auctions at the Kansas City Convention Center this week.

There’s a 1969 Chevy pickup with hydraulics and camel suede interior that’s been on a magazine cover, a 1972 Dodge Dart with a 440 CI V8, and a 1967 Camaro that Berry affectionately calls Butternut.

Berry and Butternut have been through it. There was the time she broke down at Southwest Boulevard and Broadway, at the height of Berry’s fame, with people driving by and waving and honking as Berry was just trying to get his baby started back up.

“To me, we’ve done what needs to be done,” Berry said. “Somebody else needs to experience that car.”

She’s on point now, but Berry has other projects. Car projects, yes, but maybe football, too.

Will he return to the NFL?

By now you know that Berry wants to remember important events, and keep them close. You also know he thinks a lot about his life beyond football. That he’s at his best when driven by purpose. This is where he’s talking about a potential return.

He thinks a lot about what he missed when he was playing. That he was so hyper-focused on football that he didn’t fully appreciate the impact his story had on people.

When he meets fans, they rarely bring up football, even though he was one of the league’s best defenders — he made the Hall of Fame’s All-2010s team. They are more likely to tell him their grandma felt lifted through her own cancer battle and watches his ESPY speech everyday, or that their nephew was inspired by Berry to get through his own specific adversity.

This is one of the points in the conversation where I stop Berry, to better understand him. I tell him it sounds like he would need to be in a place where he could better accept and feel those messages of inspiration before he decided to return to football. I ask: Am I getting it wrong?

“No, you’re not getting it wrong,” he said. “I feel like everything to me is artistic, when you really look at it. A lot of people look at a Basquiat or a Picasso painting, or a fashion designer and say, ‘Wow, they came out with a great piece of art or this great collection and they do it time and time again.’

“People always say ‘embrace the process,’ but included in that is the creative process. And to express yourself, that’s part of it. I’m an athlete and my art is football. There is a certain way I want to express my art and it has to be in a way that’s very particular. It needs to stand out and be with intent. People who really know the game, I really want them to acknowledge that and see it, to take that art for what it is.”

That’s a lot to unpack, and Berry said that some teams have reached out about playing again. To be sure, any potential employer would have their own questions before offering a contract. Berry says he’s “where I need to be” physically but teams would want to see that for themselves. He turns 33 this month, and hasn’t taken a snap in nearly three full years. It’s been five years since he played more than three games (including the playoffs).

Then again, he has a body with just five full NFL seasons worth of wear, and returning after three years off wouldn’t be the most impressive comeback of his career.

“It’s about timing with me,” he said. “It needs to have purpose. It needs to make sense to me on why I’m going somewhere or why I’m doing a certain thing. So once I feel that, then that’s when you’ll see me with a uniform on.”

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