Throwback Thursday: Eric Berry’s path to greatness

Ross Jones,

Eric Berry strikes fear in his opponents. He has done it since he was a youngster and continues to at the professional level.

The 6-foot, 211-pound safety has made game-changing plays since he was a Pop Warner-wonder and had no trouble making the leap to high school when he was just 14 years old.

Going into Eric Berry’s freshman season at Creekside High School (Fairburn, GA), the football coaches heard stories of the Rec-Football phenom, but they had no idea what they were in store for. Following summer workouts, newly minted varsity football coach Kevin Whitley noticed something special about Berry and decided to move him up from the freshman team to play with the older guys. It wouldn’t be long before Berry made an impact under the bright Friday night lights.

That first game, Berry lined up as the team’s starting safety and kick returner. When the opposing team booted the opening kickoff, Berry ran it back for a touchdown. Then, on the opponent’s first possession, it was third down and Berry picked the ball off and ran it back for a score.

“At that point, I knew he was going to be special,” Whitley told in a telephone interview.

Stories like these aren’t rare when talking to people who know Berry. In fact, it’s tough to find anyone who will say something negative about the Kansas City Chiefs starting safety.

Berry’s first game left such an impression on Whitley that he was already speaking high praise of him.

“Before the second game, we were playing against Westlake. And we had a scout there from the University of Georgia,” Whitley recalls. “[The scout] said, ‘Coach, tell me about your seniors.’ And I told him, ‘I don’t know about my seniors, but this ninth grader [Berry] is gonna do something tonight.’ Then, they kick the ball off and he takes it 60 yards for a touchdown.”

Just like that Berry’s name went from Pop Warner wonder to big-time college recruit.

Weeks later, after Creekside fell into a bit of a hole, Whitley decided to make a dramatic move that would immediately bolster the triple-option offense.

“We put him at quarterback,” said Whitley, who won their next four of five games. “Everybody knew what was going to happen. He had the respect of everybody: the teammates and the coaching staff.”

Following an impressive freshman season, Whitley remembers having a conversation with Berry.

“I told him, ‘Eric, you can play on Sunday. You can play on Sunday.’ And he believed it. I’m not going to say that if it ain’t the case. But he was one of those kids. He believed it and he went to work. “

That’s when Berry decided he wanted to focus completely on football. This is despite racking up a 7-0 record while pitching for the baseball team. Instead, on Whitley’s advice, Berry decided to run track in the spring to increase his speed.

While working on his mechanics and running technique, Berry was also pretty good.  He became a state champion in the 200 meters and in the long jump.

As a premier recruit, Berry fielded offers from all over the country, but the University of Tennessee had a special place in his heart. James Berry, Eric’s father, played running back at Tennessee from 1978-81 and has since been named a school legend.

“I told him during the course of his high school: ‘Eric, you need to start planning to graduate [from college] in three years because you’re going to have the ability to leave early from college. You need to put a plan together because you won’t be in college for four years, ’”Whitley said.

How right Whitley was.

Berry was named the SEC Defensive Player of the Year after his sophomore year. Then, following a junior season that saw Berry him claim first-team All-SEC and first-team All-American honors, he decided to forego his final college and enter the NFL Draft. The rest, as they say, is history.

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