Chiefs safety Eric Berry is cancer-free, but he won’t forget those who have it worse
Before Eric Berry heard the best news of his life, he went to visit some strangers. He knew they had it worse. He thought he could help. Hoped he could, anyway. That was enough.
So the most famous cancer patient in the NFL went to Children’s Mercy Hospital to speak with children fighting chronic and life-altering diseases, and their parents.
Berry, the Chiefs’ All-Pro safety, and his mother did it in such a low-profile way that some at the hospital who work to set things like this up did not know about the visit until they were contacted for this column.
You know some of this story. The other day, Berry announced to the world that he is cancer free, just eight months after being diagnosed with Hodgkin's lymphoma. His mother sat to his left and cried. His father sat to his right and beamed. But the most inspiring part of this story remains mostly hidden.
Particularly with the backdrop of arrests and scandals and the never-ending Deflategate controversy in the NFL, Berry’s recovery from cancer and return to the Chiefs’ practice field might be the best thing in sports right now. What’s more, the whole thing just becomes cooler and more important the more you find out about Berry and his fight.
In his news conference, Berry made it a point to mention people who’ve had it worse. Some of them were famous. Stuart Scott, the late ESPN anchor, changed the way many view cancer by saying you beat the disease by how you live with it, not whether you live through it. Some of them were personal to Berry. He has two aunts who are cancer survivors.
There are no good types of cancer. This is not a fight anyone chooses. But Berry’s diagnosis was relatively positive, right from the beginning. Hodgkin's lymphoma responds well to chemotherapy, and Berry had some of the best doctors in the country working with him.
So Berry was not just being humble when he talked of others having it worse. He was being honest, and more than that, he was speaking from experience. He has always made a particular effort to reach out to fans and strangers going through crises. His diagnosis and recovery now provide him the context and an even bigger platform to help.
He knew this a thousand different ways, including from that day at Children’s Mercy with his mother. They sat on a stage, there to talk a room of 50 or 60 parents and kids and doctors.
Someone asked if they ever wondered, Why me? This hit Carol particularly hard. In the fall of 2013, her twin boys’ best friend died from what appeared to be a routine hit in a football game. A few months later, the Berrys’ house — the one that Eric and his little brothers grew up in — burned down.
A year after that came Eric’s diagnosis. Carol is a woman of faith, and believes that God doesn’t put more on any of us than we can handle, but, yeah, there were times she wondered why she and her family were being given so much.
Brad Warady, Children’s Mercy director of dialysis and transplantation, was in the room and says Eric’s answer was much different.
“No, I’ve never wondered that,” Warady remembers Berry saying. “I’ve got it, they diagnosed it, and now I have to deal with it and move on.”
In the media
“I couldn’t think of anybody better to be a role model for my kids. That’s one thing my kids absolutely take away from him, something that’s affected them. You have to believe in yourself.”
Around the room, parents and their sick kids nodded their heads. Some were crying. Others smiling. The doctors could not have been happier. This is exactly what they want their patients to hear, and Berry is exactly the kind of person they want saying it.
So, yes. Many people have had and continue to have it worse than Berry. He knows this. Respects this. Which is why it’s important to him to talk about this, to reach out to people, and to help.
“This is part of me now,” he says, and here is the coolest part of one of the great sports stories of the year.
Daeton Bone is 12 years old and plays safety, just like his favorite football player. He watches everything, first on Sundays and then the highlights later if he can find them. Any play that Eric Berry is in on is announced by Daeton to his two brothers and mom.
Once, Daeton made an interception during a game and ran it all the way back for a touchdown.
“Oh my gosh, mom!” he said after. “I got a pick-six, just like Eric Berry!”
Daeton’s brothers love football, too, and Berry in particular. They go to Berry’s football camp in Kansas City every summer, and usually start asking about it in February or March.
They were excited to go this year, too, but didn’t know if Berry would show up. Berry had gone radio silent with the media, with no substantive indications about how his cancer treatments were going.
The camp was at North Kansas City High, on a Friday in early June. And Berry showed up. His hair was patchy, growing back from the chemo. Even his eyebrows were thin. But other than that, he was the same. Strong. Active. Vocal. He had a team of friends helping him coach, but Berry of course worked closely with the defensive backs. He also made his way around to all the groups.
If you didn’t know he’d been fighting cancer, well, you wouldn’t have known.
Part of those camps is what Berry calls “Huddle Time.” The kids sit around and ask questions and nothing is off limits. The kids knew what was going on, and weren’t shy about asking.
Berry told them he was fighting as hard as he could, and that he was living his message of giving everything you have for each day.
“I couldn’t think of anybody better to be a role model for my kids,” says Michelle Bone, mother to Daeton, Haydon and Bradon. “That’s one thing my kids absolutely take away from him, something that’s affected them. You have to believe in yourself.”
The 7-year-old boy and the football star were both bald and both knew why. Berry had heard about Noah Wilson from a friend, and hoped to meet him.
Berry invited Noah and his family to his camp and called out for the Wilsons to come chat on the field. Nobody wants to be part of this club, the cancer fighters, but once you’re in, you have a tendency to rely on others who know what you’re going through.
They are the only ones who can truly understand how draining the whole thing is. How scary it can be.
“We didn’t talk a whole lot with Eric,” says Scott, Noah’s father. “We didn’t need to. We just sort of shook hands, looked each other in the eye, and it was like, ‘We know what you’re doing.’ There’s a peace there that you don’t get with anyone else. There’s a bond there forever.”
Berry introduced Noah to his teammates and friends at the camp. They signed a hat that the Wilsons keep in Noah’s room. Noah passed away about three weeks later from leukemia, which doctors thought was in remission from bone cancer.
Scott says he was touched by Berry’s recognition that others have had, and are having, it worse. Professional athletes are viewed as the epitome of physical fitness, so when a kid sees one fighting a nasty disease like cancer, it can humanize the athlete in a beautiful way that creates inspiration. That Berry conveyed no entitlement, no outsized sense of drama, and an appreciation of how hard Noah had it … this only made the experience more meaningful.
Cancer fights change lives beyond the obvious. It’s more than the treatments and the fear. There is a bond within that unfortunate club. Some of the strongest friendships Scott and his family have are with people they met going through the same fight.
Berry is part of that involuntary group now, his story watched so closely by too many others going through similar — and, yes, often worse — circumstances. Scott, in particular, was moved by Berry’s decision to take the IV to his veins instead of through a port. This was more painful, and in many ways more damaging to Berry’s body, but it allowed him to work out through his treatments more quickly in order to return to football.
“That’s a huge testimony that the easy road isn’t always the best,” Scott says. “If you want to come back and do something big, the easy road isn’t the way to go. If Eric reads this, let him know we really appreciate the time he took. We’re proud of him.”
Kelly McCarter turned 40 in March and has lived in Ohio his entire adult life. But Kansas City is still home, he says, and always will be. He reads The Star’s website every day, and listens to local sports radio through his phone on his way into work.
He has a specific reason to watch Berry closely.
“It’s encouraging,” McCarter says, “to hear about somebody on your favorite NFL team who’s going through something similar.”
McCarter felt a sort of dull pain in his abdomen a few months back. At first, the doctor suspected he’d pulled a muscle, but McCarter insisted on a CAT scan. McCarter and his wife are raising four kids. His brother survived cancer in part because it was detected early, and his wife and mother pushed him to be proactive.
The tests showed Hodgkin's lymphoma, similar to Berry’s diagnosis. From what McCarter can tell, his treatment roughly mirrors Berry’s, with bi-weekly chemo prescribed over four months.
McCarter listened to Berry’s news conference the other day and has read as much as he can about his situation. He liked that Berry talked about approaching each day on its own, of focusing only on what he had to do that day. The nutrition part of Berry’s recovery stuck with McCarter, too, and even if he doesn’t plan on doing the same workouts as an NFL player, the whole thing is a bit of a model for him.
McCarter’s first chemo treatment was Friday. If things go well, he’ll be done in time for the NFL playoffs.
“He’s paying it forward,” McCarter says of Berry. “Hopefully, at the end of it, just like he’s an inspiration, hopefully this is something I can look back on and be in inspiration to somebody at work, or my church.”
Back at Children’s Mercy Hospital, Berry sat in front of those sick kids not as a football player, but as a peer. By that point, Berry knew that he felt stronger, but he had not yet been declared cancer free. He was a patient, in other words, just like them.
A football player can be viewed as a role model simply because he plays football, but that can also be a dangerous proposition. Football players are human, and they make mistakes.
In Berry, those kids had something like the perfect vessel for hope: a successful pro athlete with a good reputation and an unbreakable if unfortunate common bond of illness.
“He could have been one of my patients,” says Warady, the doctor. “He was so matter of fact with these kids. They were all on the same level.”
On Wednesday, Berry was supposed to host some kids from Camp ChiMer at Arrowhead Stadium. Camp ChiMer — Camp Children’s Mercy — is a summer camp for children who’ve had kidney transplants or who are on dialysis.
With the timing of that being Berry’s first day practicing, he couldn’t make it. A few teammates filled in for him. It was, in every way, the best excuse ever for a pro athlete to miss seeing some sick kids.
“He’s special to them,” says Warady, who was at the event at Arrowhead. “The kids always like to see one of their own, someone who’s dealing with a chronic illness, deal with it and overcome it and show there’s light at the end of the tunnel.
“Seeing Eric succeed, seeing Eric back on the field, that’s a real positive for the kids. They’ve all been talking about that at camp the last couple days.”
To reach Sam Mellinger, call 816-234-4365 or send email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @mellinger. For previous columns, go to KansasCity.com.