Kansas City Chiefs free safety Eric Berry, center, pushes Baltimore Ravens wide receiver Kamar Aiken out of bounds as teammate Sean Smith (21) watches in the first half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Dec. 20, 2015, in Baltimore. (AP Photo/Nick Wass)
Nick Wass
December 24, 2015

KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) There have been checkpoints every step of Eric Berry's comeback from cancer, mile markers that have told him that he not only conquered lymphoma but just might be better than ever.

There were small ones early - the ability to do a single push-up during the energy-sapping rigors of chemotherapy. But there were much bigger ones later: running out of the tunnel and onto that brilliant green turf of Arrowhead Stadium for the Kansas City Chiefs' season opener.

Berry reached another big one this week when he was voted to his fourth Pro Bowl.

''It's one of those checkpoints,'' he acknowledged, ''but right now, I feel like I have more stuff to focus on. It's good and everything, but right now I'm just focused on something different.''

Like not being able to make that trip to Hawaii.

Berry's elite play at the back end of Kansas City's relentless defense is a big reason the Chiefs (9-5) have won eight straight games and gotten back into playoff contention. And with wins Sunday over Cleveland and next week against Oakland, the Chiefs could still capture the AFC West, giving them a home playoff game as they begin their quest for the Super Bowl.

That would be the biggest milestone in Berry's storybook comeback.

Not that he's ever considered any other outcomes.

Berry said he ''brainwashed myself from the get-go'' that he was going to return from cancer, even in the days and weeks immediately after his diagnosis. His hair fell out during treatments, and some days it was a chore just to get out of bed. But visits from teammates such as Justin Houston kept his spirits up, and the opportunity to help the Chiefs win a Super Bowl kept him going.

He was deemed cancer-free in June, about seven months after the cancer was discovered. He was back in training camp by the time rookies arrived in July. And he made his return to the field in Arizona for a preseason game, ensuring he would be back for the start of the regular season.

But being back is one thing. Being back at a Pro Bowl level is something else entirely.

''The thing I focus on is just getting better every week,'' Berry said. ''Probably after the season, I'll look at the total body of work. Right now I just want to keep getting better, keep getting better every day I step on the field or in the meeting room, and just try to keep striving for greatness.''

That day-at-a-time approach served him well during treatment. It has also served him well on the field, where the former first-round pick has become the consummate team leader.

Berry is often the last player out of the tunnel for warmups. He's the one who breaks down the Chiefs' pregame huddle. It is his voice that energizes one off the league's best defenses.

''He was so driven that you kind of had a feeling he was going to get there, crazy as that sounds,'' Chiefs coach Andy Reid said this week. ''When you look back on it, and now that it's real, what a great story. True toughness and grit to be able to do that.''

Berry only had two tackles in the opener, but he kept playing more snaps each week, and before long was back to his old self. That meant crashing the line on safety blitzes, and dropping into coverage, where he's pick off a pair of passes. It meant making the kind of plays that Kansas City has come to expect from a player who has long been considered one of the best at his position.

''I kind of joked about it, but was serious,'' Reid said, ''the more his hair grew back the stronger his body became as he went, and here he is today as a Pro Bowl player.''

All of those accolades are great, Berry said. He appreciates the fact that he's been able to play at such a high level again. But he's perhaps proudest that he has inspired others.

Guys like James Connor, the University of Pittsburgh running back who learned he had been diagnosed with lymphoma on Thanksgiving. Berry has spoken to Connor a few times, offering him encouragement.

''I got a chance to embrace unconditional love and total passion from everybody, regardless of, I guess you could say, stereotypes or anything like that,'' Berry said of his own journey back. ''That's a beautiful thing, just to see when people put aside the differences and things like that and just really focus on wishing you well and caring for one another. I think that's a beautiful thing.

''That was probably one of the most magnificent things I probably experienced. That was cool.''

---

AP NFL website: www.pro32.ap.org and www.twitter.com/AP-NFL

You May Like