Berry returns from second season-ending injury, used time off as learning experience
ST. JOSEPH, Mo. -- Eric Berry has twice overcome season-ending injuries, and the way the Kansas City Chiefs safety came back from a cancer diagnosis to play the following season was nothing short of inspirational.
In other words, Berry has every reason to rue what might have been.
Yet the undisputed leader of the Chiefs secondary would be driven to distraction if he wasted much time feeling sorry for himself.
Instead, Berry preferred to use the two-plus seasons spent on the sideline as a learning opportunity, a chance to better himself mentally and emotionally if not physically.
"I learned so much," he explained after the Chiefs' first padded practice of training camp on the fields of Missouri Western State University.
"The whole cancer deal was a privilege, to be honest with you. A blessing. Because I learned so much, and so many people inspired me. Just being to connect with them, the common thread of having cancer and overcoming it, I can't tell you what it means to me."
Berry learned similar lessons about overcoming adversity, keeping a positive mindset and focusing on what he could control when he lost seasons to a torn ACL and a ruptured Achilles' tendon.
The knee injury occurred in 2011, his second year in the league, when he was coming off a breakout rookie year that ended in the Pro Bowl. Berry was blocked low by Buffalo wide receiver Steve Johnson in their season opener and wound up missing the rest of the season.
He returned to make two straight Pro Bowls, and was voted an All-Pro in 2013, the year before his cancer diagnosis. Berry underwent chemotherapy and other treatments and the lymphoma went into remission, and he was back on the field in his familiar No. 29 jersey in time for training camp.
Two more Pro Bowl appearances and two more All-Pro nods followed suit.
Then came last year's opener in New England, when the Chiefs were busy rolling to a dominant victory over the Patriots. Berry went down with a seemingly innocuous injury that ultimately marred an impressive win when it was revealed that he tore the tendon on the backside of his left ankle.
"My second year, I felt like I was probably the best shape of my life, and I was starting to learn the defense and acclimating to what was going on around me," Berry said. "Then the cancer hit when I was getting to my peak, getting to where I needed to be. Same thing last year.
"But you really can't wonder where you'd be because I learned so much throughout all three of those processes," he added, "and I just keep going. I can't really tell you where I'd be."
Chances are he'd still be in the middle of the Kansas City secondary.
"I mean, look, Eric's our leader. We appreciate when he's out there going, the guys feed off him," Chiefs coach Andy Reid said. "It's the whole story, the whole thing that he went through, the fact that he does everything out here and works his tail off. It's a phenomenal story."
The Chiefs are counting on Berry to provide guidance and leadership to a defensive backfield that will have an entirely new look this season. Star cornerback Marcus Peters was traded to the Rams earlier this year in an attempt to improve the locker room culture, and veterans Terrance Mitchell and Ron Parker were let go as new general manager Brett Veach made his mark on the roster.
Kansas City will have a pair of new starters at cornerback -- Steven Nelson and Kendall Fuller are the front-runners -- along with a new nickel back. And while Daniel Sorensen could reprise his role at one of the safety spots after taking over for Berry last season, there is a good chance athletic and talented rookie Armani Watts could eventually line up at the free safety spot.
"That's our leader, man. He's been here the longest and he's been doing it for a long time at a high level," Nelson said. "Just his presence alone, man, it's motivating."
Doesn't matter that the first preseason game is still a couple of weeks away.
"I think it's a good feeling to see guys who you know are leaders on this team back in their roles, doing what they do," wide receiver Chris Conley said. "He has an impact for this team."
NOTES: RB Kareem Hunt (hamstring) was back at practice Monday after getting a day off, though the team was not in pads. ... LB Ukeme Eligwe missed practice with a foot strain. ... The Chiefs have their first day off of training camp Tuesday.