‘He’ll Be Back Strong’
When the Chiefs gathered Monday morning for the start of an important week—Kansas City, a game behind the Broncos in the AFC West, hosts Denver on Sunday—they were summoned to a team meeting at their training complex. Coach Andy Reid told them safety Eric Berry, the three-time Pro Bowler, had something to talk to them about.
"I’ve got something I’ve got to take care of," Berry told them. “I’ll be back. I’ll be fine. You guys have to take care of business.”
There was more. After Kansas City’s game in Oakland on Thursday night, Berry felt discomfort in his chest and had X-rays, blood tests and an MRI taken over the weekend. Doctors found a mass, and club officials said Monday that it is suspected to be lymphoma, a type of cancer. After speaking to the team, Berry left for his hometown of Atlanta, the site of Emory University Hospital, where he'll be treated beginning this morning. The Chiefs expect a definitive diagnosis by week’s end, and perhaps as soon as today.
On Monday, Berry was placed on the team’s non-football illness list, putting him out for the season.
It’s a stunning development—an athlete in his prime, one of the best players at his position in football, suddenly fighting a disease that leaves his future uncertain.
“We’re glad they found it when they did," coach Andy Reid said Monday night from his office. “And he is handling it so well. Like a rock. The team needed to hear from him, and I’m glad they got to do that. He told them, Move on. You’ve got to move on. Hearing it from him was important, and he was crystal-clear about it."
Berry, a 25-year-old strong safety, played all 69 snaps in the Chiefs’ upset loss at Oakland on Thursday. He felt discomfort in his chest after the game, and it still hurt Friday when he reported to the team facility for treatment. “It just didn’t quite add up to an orthopedic injury," club trainer Rick Burkholder said at a news conference Monday.
After the battery of tests, Berry was told of the likely diagnosis on Saturday. “I was in shock," he said in a statement. “[But] 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."
Berry was due to begin his regimen at Emory today at 8 a.m.
“I really have confidence in his treatment and his approach," said Reid, who spoke with Berry multiple times over the weekend and on Monday. “He knows he’ll be back, probably not this year, but he’ll be back strong. His teammates have such respect for him. Every player on this team looks up to him, not just on the field but off too. He’s just a really good leader with a big heart."
The GM who drafted Berry in the first round in 2010, Scott Pioli, was emotional on Monday night speaking about him. “He’s one of the best human beings in the game who nobody knows," said Pioli, now the Falcons’ assistant GM. “He likes it that way. He’s an old-school football player in a new-age NFL, who’s never been about promoting the brand of Eric Berry. He just wants to be a football player and a good guy in the community."
"He told them, Move on. You’ve got to move on," Reid said of Berry. "Hearing it from him was important, and he was crystal-clear about it."
Pioli said one of his favorite memories of Berry, who played his college ball at Tennessee, is of seeing him in the equipment room at the Vols facility, helping the staff clean helmets and repair the stickers on them. “That was him—all team," Pioli said.
Berry’s presence, as a person, a leader and a player, will be missed by his teammates. His words to them helped, to be sure. But teammates are teammates. Friends are friends. How well will they move on? No one knows. And the schedule is unforgiving: Peyton Manning and Denver (8-3) await Sunday night, and the Chiefs travel to 9-2 Arizona the following week. Kansas City faces Ben Roethlisberger and Philip Rivers in the final two games.
On Monday night, the Chiefs weren’t concerned about the schedule. They were concerned about a teammate, a friend, a trusted locker-room presence.
“We love that guy," Reid said. “We need him to get well.”
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