ST. JOSEPH, Mo. — There was a happy ending to Eric Berry’s battle against Hodgkin lymphoma this week as the Pro Bowl safety was cleared to practice with the Chiefs as they opened training camp at Missouri Western State University.
Berry was on the field Wednesday morning with rookies and first-year players that constituted the first practice of this year’s camp.
“It was exciting to be out there practicing today,” said Berry in a press conference where he was flanked by his mother and father, with head coach Andy Reid, general manager John Dorsey and quarterback Alex Smith sitting nearby.
“The two things I could control was my attitude and my effort. Every day I just tried to build off what I did the day before. That’s the only thing you can do in that situation. You can’t look too far ahead, because I did that at the start and ended up crying to my Dad for about 30 minutes.”
Just a bit more than eight months after it was discovered there was a mass in his chest and then the diagnosis of cancer that followed, Berry ended what he called a “roller coaster” of emotion that he rode through six months of chemotherapy. On June 22, his oncologist at Emory University in Atlanta declared him cancer free and able to resume working towards getting back on the field.
Berry called the last eight months “a battle every day” as he underwent chemotherapy and tried to maintain at least some of his physical fitness.
“It got to the point where I had to set goals like just getting out of bed; there were days where I would literally stay in the bed all day,” he said. “Without what my parents gave me, I don’t know that I could have made it through this.”
There was despair and frustration for much of the time for Berry as he went through a six-phase regimen of chemotherapy and continued to try to work out and keep his physical fitness.
“Sometimes I would work out and I would end up crying after the work out,” Berry said. “First of all I couldn’t believe I made it through the workout and I couldn’t believe it was that hard. I was trying to push myself the way I wanted too … Chemo, that’s a whole different monster. It feels like your dying. You have no energy and there are certain foods you can’t eat. When you look at it, you aren’t really battling chemo; you are battling yourself the whole time. It was a battle of me versus me.
“I just had to embrace the process.”
Early in his chemo schedule, Berry set a goal of doing five pushups every day. Sometimes that was impossible. Other days, he could pump out a few more than a handful.
Berry was so intent on staying in shape that he rejected having a port-line inserted into his torso where he could receive the chemo drugs. Instead, he went for a more painful method of IV’s in his arms. But that way allowed him to continue to work out and lift light weights.
“I already had my mind set that I wanted to be able to work out,” Berry said. “I went ahead and got the IVs, and that’s probably more dangerous than actually having the port. I’m glad I made the decision but it was rough. Just the feeling in my fingers and my veins are totally out of whack right now. The medicine is harsh and it did a little damage to my tissue, but its fine now.”
There were many sources of help and inspiration for Berry during the eight months.
He communicated regularly with Indianapolis Colts head coach Chuck Pagano, who had his own battle several years ago with leukemia. Berry drew inspiration from the examples of TV broadcaster Robin Roberts who got back to work on ABC after battling cancer and that of the late Stuart Scott, who finally succumbed to cancer after a long fight earlier this year.
“His comment about how you beat cancer is how you live,” Berry said. “That really stuck with me. I embraced that quote.”
After he got the all clear from his doctors in Atlanta, Berry went to Florida and did two-a-day workouts for the last month. He saw immediate progress in his workouts there.
“With chemo,” Berry said, “every time I would make gains, it felt like every time I got the treatment, I got set back again. It felt like everything was starting back at ground zero.”
The Chiefs medical and training staff put him through four days of testing, covering everything from bone density, to orthopedic testing, with strength testing and evaluation of his heart and overall health.
“He sailed through every test we gave him,” said Chiefs head athletic trainer Rick Burkholder. “Our doctors were pleasantly surprised by his numbers.”
Reid could not hide his smile about getting one of his best defensive players back, and healthy.
“We will see where he is at,” Reid said. “If he goes through individual (drills) and then work into team work, that’s OK. We’re just going to see how he feels and get feedback from him so we can see exactly where he is at … we are not going to force him into anything and try to be as smart as we can with it.”
Berry understands that this is just the start of his road back to being one of the NFL’s best defensive backs. There are more trials and tribulations ahead and sometimes the pace may be slower than Berry
“Just because it’s a cloudy day does not mean the sun is not shining,” Berry said. “The sun is shining behind the clouds regardless, so you just have to keep pushing and hopefully the overcast will get out of the way for you.”