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Does Eric Berry have another comeback in him? Don't bet against it

Three-time All-Pro Eric Berry is making the third comeback of his eight-year NFL career, but don't doubt him. "The unexpected is almost expected with him." Denny Medley/USA TODAY Sports

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Andy Reid recently recalled visiting Eric Berry at his home near Atlanta while the Kansas City Chiefs safety was undergoing chemotherapy treatments for lymphoma in the winter of 2015.

Reid was struck at the time by the single red hair coming out of Berry's chin on an otherwise bald head.

"I told him, 'Why don't you just cut that thing off?'"

Berry shook his head in response.

"I'm keeping it," he told his coach.

The one hair was a symbol to Berry of what once was and what would be again. Sure enough, that hair is now lost in the thick beard Berry can grow now that his cancer is in remission.

Berry's rapid return to football from cancer -- he participated in the first training camp practice in 2015, less than eight months after being diagnosed -- was the mother of all comebacks. But it wasn't his first comeback, nor his last, as Berry finds himself in the midst of another one this summer.

He has missed significant portions of a season in three of his eight years with the Chiefs. The lymphoma and a high ankle sprain caused him to miss all but six games in 2014. In 2011, Berry tore his ACL in the season opener and missed the rest of the season. Last season, he ruptured his Achilles in the season opener and missed the rest of the season.

He returned better than ever after the ACL tear and the cancer scare. But does he have another comeback in him?

His latest return hit a significant snag in training camp. He hasn't practiced since Aug. 11 or played in any of Kansas City's three preseason games so far because of what the team is calling a sore heel. This injury is unrelated to the torn Achilles, but it's given him problems in earlier seasons.

Still, the Chiefs haven't ruled him out of their Sept. 9 season opener against the Los Angeles Chargers, and his teammates certainly won't count him out.

"I don't know if I've met anyone quite like him," Kansas City safety Daniel Sorensen said. "His spirit is something special. His motivation to come back from whatever's in his way is remarkable. When you get to know Eric and see how he handles things, you're not surprised by what he's able to accomplish."

Time has a way of catching up to everyone, though, and it's natural to wonder how much comeback one person has in him, even if Berry is only 29.

The Chiefs, through their actions and their words, have showed they are not concerned that Berry's time might have come.

"If his name wasn't Eric Berry, we would be in a position where we were bringing in safeties and making moves for safeties," general manager Brett Veach said. "But Eric always seems to come back and take it to a different level. That's unique about him. Every time he comes back, the level of play and the level of intensity get ramped up. The unexpected is almost expected with him. Every time he has some adversity, the way he comes back, he doesn't just beat the expectations, he destroys them.

"Yeah, you worry about it. But because it's Eric Berry, there's an asterisk by his name. He's certainly in a category of his own."

Berry earned that designation with his recovery from cancer. He put himself through some remarkable workouts as he attempted a speedy comeback. Even during his chemo treatments, he would push himself, finishing his weight room workouts in tears from the physical pain and mental anguish.

Those workouts surprised even some of his teammates who had gone to Georgia to condition with him. They surprised some members of his family, including his brother, Elliott.

"I knew he was always resilient and never really scared of anything," said Elliott, who followed Berry in college to Tennessee and was with the Chiefs briefly in the spring at a rookie minicamp. "After that experience, it kind of showed me how resilient he really, really, really was. It just kind of taught me that if you put your mind to something, you can do it."

"Every time he has some adversity, the way he comes back, he doesn't just beat the expectations, he destroys them." Chiefs general manager Brett Veach

Berry approached his latest comeback attempt much as he did the other two with Kansas City.

"I just looked at it as a challenge and I just attacked it," Berry said. "I had a talk with my dad before I left [for training camp] and he told me not to get discouraged, which I wasn't. But he just wanted to make sure ... I kept putting in work any way that I could. It didn't always have to be physical, but you can also get better mentally, as well. Just having that talk with him helped me out."

Berry said his workouts weren't as punishing physically this time around, and they didn't have to be.

"It's understanding I don't have to do as much physical stuff as far as tearing my body down and trying to push myself to the limit," he said. "I'm to the point where I'm going to be in shape. I know I can get in shape. I know I'm going to be ready physically to play. It's just understanding that and trusting the process so I won't overdo it."

That doesn't mean Berry has lost his edge. Berry has always been devoted to football -- in college he took to helping the equipment staff at Tennessee clean and place stickers on helmets before games -- and his approach can catch new teammates off guard.

So it was with cornerback Kendall Fuller, who met Berry in the spring after being traded from Washington for quarterback Alex Smith.

"He's all about football," Fuller said. "That's the one thing I noticed the most. I remember, when I first got here, he kind of asked me if I had a girlfriend, asked me if I had kids. I think his reason for doing that was just like, 'Let me see how focused he's going to be on football.'"

Berry's latest comeback challenge is different from the first two. Achilles injuries are tricky in their own way.

"A lot of times players returning from this injury get better as the season goes on," said ESPN injury analyst Stephania Bell, who has not examined Berry nor had access to his medical records. "There's no way to really do everything you need to do in football until you're doing it in football. No matter how you test it and go through paces and even some of the stuff in camp, you're kind of reacclimating the tendon to what it needs to be able to do. Until he's playing in games, it's really hard to match the activity.

"But you'd think he'd be able to do it. Look at how he came back from cancer. He was just amazing. That's a guy who, because of what he's been through, has to be thinking, 'An Achilles [tear] is no big deal.' Rehabbing from that, while I'm sure it's frustrating and his season ended almost before it started, maybe he's looking at this as being a walk in the park compared to what he's already been through. He has a perspective of a different kind."

Berry was selected to play in the Pro Bowl in each of his five full seasons with Kansas City. He has been an All-Pro three times. But he has lost three seasons to injury or illness.

Berry had a strong rookie season in 2010 at just 22 and was on the verge of establishing himself as one of the NFL's best safeties. He tore his ACL on the fifth play of the next season, putting him out until 2012.

In 2014, when Berry felt he was reaching the peak of his career, he was diagnosed with cancer.

Last year, he had a great season opener, helping the Chiefs beat the New England Patriots. Berry helped cover and shut down New England tight end Ron Gronkowski until the fourth quarter, when he left with the Achilles tear.

Last season's team was the best of the Kansas City teams that Berry had to leave behind. Would he have made a difference had he played a full season? Would his presence have helped the Chiefs avoid the first round of the playoffs? Would he have made just one play in that playoff game that would have interrupted any of Tennessee's long second-half touchdown drives, allowing Kansas City to escape with a victory?

Berry acknowledged thinking about where he might be had he played his full career. But he also said he has learned about himself by making these comebacks.

“Sometimes, yeah, because when I got hurt my second year, I felt like I was probably in the best shape of my life," Berry said. “Then the cancer hit when I felt like I was getting to my peak, where I needed to be. The same thing with last year.

“But you can't really wonder where you'd be. There's no telling because I learned too much throughout all three of those processes, including this one. I just keep going. I can't really tell you where I'd be without them. The whole cancer deal was actually a privilege, to be honest with you, a blessing at the same time because I learned so much. I helped so many people and so many people helped me, as well, inspiring me and just being able to connect with them through that common thread of having cancer and being able to overcome it."