Eric Berry focused on process to beat cancer, return to Chiefs

ST. JOSEPH, Mo. -- The turning point for safety Eric Berry in his battle to beat Hodgkin's lymphoma and return to playing for the Kansas City Chiefs came early in the treatment process, at the breakfast table of his parents' home near Atlanta.

Frustrated by the effects of his chemotherapy treatments, Berry broke down in tears for many minutes. This was going to be harder, much harder, than he realized.

Berry continued to talk through the tears with his father, James. The problem, they discovered that morning, was that Berry was focused on the goal and not the process. That would have to change for Berry to conquer the cancer and become a football player again.

"I had to break it down to really embracing the process and really understanding that everything wasn't going to come back overnight," Berry said Wednesday after practicing with the Chiefs for the first time since the cancer was diagnosed in November. The Chiefs opened a three-day minicamp for quarterbacks, rookies and players coming off illness or injury, with full-squad training camp beginning Saturday.

"When you add chemo into something like this, that's a whole different monster because it literally feels like you're dying," he said. "You can't go around people. You get sick easily. There are certain foods you can't eat. It just zaps you for a good amount of time. When you look at it, you're not really battling chemo. You're battling yourself the whole time. It's really a battle [of] me vs. me. You can't look too far ahead.

"I just wanted to take it step by step and day by day and see where it took me. My whole thing was that it's going to be what it's going to be. I'm going to control what I can control and the two things I could control were my attitude and my effort. I just tried to wake up every day and just build off whatever I did the day before."

Changing his outlook helped Berry realize his goals in short order. He finished his chemotherapy in May, was declared cancer-free on June 22. Then, on Tuesday night after a series of tests, he was cleared by the Chiefs' medical staff to participate in practice.

Berry described the difficulty of getting to this point.

"It was a battle every day," he said at a news conference at Missouri Western State University, flanked by his mother, Carol, and his father. "It was to the point where I had to set goals where I would just get out of bed: 'Today, I'm going to get out of bed. I'm going to make sure I get out of the bed.' I wasn't going to stay in the bed because I literally could have stayed in the bed all day.

"There would be times when I would work out and I would end up just crying after the workout. First of all, I couldn't believe that I made it through the workout but I couldn't believe it was that hard. I was trying to push myself to the limit but I couldn't push myself how I wanted to."

Berry first had to beat the cancer. He had his treatments in Atlanta, where he was surrounded by a strong support group.

Remarkably, despite the effects of the chemotherapy on his body and his appetite, Berry emerged from the treatments one pound heavier than when they started.

Said Berry: "[His Atlanta oncologists] called [Chiefs trainer Rick Burkholder] and said, 'He's all yours. Whatever you want to do, he [is] cleared to do whatever you want to do.' "

That was victory No. 1. But it's one thing to be cancer-free, and another to be in physical condition to withstand an NFL season.

Berry headed to Florida to train. He worked out with teammates like tight end Travis Kelce, among others.

Berry recently returned to Kansas City, where the Chiefs put him through a series of tests to determine his football fitness, including one for bone density, and cardio and orthopedic exams.

"He did 325 pounds on the squat five times, 275 pounds on the bench press five times, just so we could tell if the strength was back," Burkholder said. "He sailed through every test that we gave him."

On Tuesday night, the Chiefs cleared him to practice; Berry had achieved the second part of his goal.

"It felt good to get back on the field," he said. "In my mind, I still feel I have work to do. This is just a checkpoint. I'm just going to keep pushing through until we get to where we want to be as a team.

"It showed me how far I've come. One of my goals used to be to do five pushups a day. Coming from five pushups to being out on the field with my teammates, that's a long way. We've still got a long way to go, too."