KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Wide receiver Jason Avant arrived in Kansas City a few days ago, a midseason signing by the Chiefs. He was leaving his hotel Tuesday when a woman mustered up the courage to approach him.
She didn’t want to welcome him to the team. Or wish him luck on Sunday.
"She said, ‘My grandson came downstairs crying, saying Eric Berry may have cancer,’" Avant recalled quietly. "For him to have that kind of impact on someone is impressive."
It was a common reaction to the news Monday that Berry, one of the franchise’s most popular players, was found to have a mass in his chest that doctors believe could be lymphoma. The veteran safety spent Tuesday consulting with specialists at Emory University in Atlanta, near his hometown of Fairburn, in the hopes of establishing a definitive diagnosis.
Only then can the former first-round pick begin tackling what is certain to be his toughest opponent.
"I’ve played against Eric. I’ve had a few brief conversations with him. But everyone I know says he’s one of the humblest people you’ll meet in your life," Avant said. "When you find out you may have something, it’s very heart-wrenching."
Berry began to complain of pain in his chest during last Thursday night’s loss in Oakland, and the pain persisted when he showed up to the Chiefs’ practice facility the following day. He underwent a series of tests, including an MRI exam and CT scan, and the mass was discovered Friday night. He informed his teammates on Monday before departing for Atlanta.
The rest of the Chiefs were left to prepare for a critical AFC West showdown with Denver on Sunday night without one of the central figures in their defense, a former All-Pro who in just a few short years has established himself as one of the NFL’s best safeties.
"Everyone around here, they’re dealing with it and coping with it, but your heart goes out for them," said Avant, who was released by Carolina last week. "I’m feeling around my neck and everywhere else — if it can happen to a guy like that, it can happen to anybody."
Indeed, Berry is considered one of the strongest players on the Chiefs, a guy built like granite who spends long hours in the weight room. He has become a model for younger players in the way he goes about his business, a big reason why he has received so much support.
"It makes you put things in perspective," said Cowboys cornerback Brandon Carr, who spent two seasons playing alongside Berry. "We’ve got a passion to play this game and do great things, but you know, the change of focus is for health and the battle has shifted gears.
"I have a feeling he’s going to give it his all," Carr said. "The support that I’ve just seen across the board, yesterday, I was like, ‘That’s pretty big to have.’ I’ve seen it myself."
Berry is hardly the first professional athlete to be faced with the likelihood of lymphoma, and many have returned from the illness to resume their star-studded careers.
Perhaps the most famous is hockey great Mario Lemieux, who played five more seasons after he was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s disease. All-Star pitcher Jon Lester was diagnosed with anaplastic large cell lymphoma in 2006, then pitched the Red Sox to a World Series title the following year.
In the NFL, Texans offensive tackle David Quessenberry was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s T-cell lymphoblastic lymphoma in June. The former sixth-round draft pick has been through several rounds of chemotherapy but has remained an active part of the team.
"I can’t tell you how many times I have stayed up at night thinking about the day that we have a cure for cancer," Quessenberry tweeted out Monday night. "It doesn’t matter your religion, race, income, occupation or social status. Cancer touches every household in America."
Phil Fulmer, who coached Berry at Tennessee, said the news of his illness was "shocking and concerning." But he said Berry’s close-knit family, including twin brothers who play for the Vols, and legions of fans he’s made over the years will help to support him.
"He was always up to the challenge," Fulmer said. "I believe he will be in this case."
The Chiefs placed Berry on the non-football injury list Monday, and a team spokesman said that doctors at Emory hope to have more details on what Berry will face in the coming days. For now, the well-wishes continue to pour out in his support.
"I can only imagine the phone calls that are coming in," Carr said. "He’s got a lot on his plate right now. Just give him time to prepare himself for the unknown. We just pray, keep him in our prayers, just stay supportive of him."