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Chiefs' Berry fights back from ACL to find rightful spot as a top safety

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Berry's best writing has not been signing his autograph, but expressing himself in verse. (US Presswire)  
Berry's best writing has not been signing his autograph, but expressing himself in verse. (US Presswire)  

ST. JOSEPH, Mo. -- Everything was coming together for Eric Berry. He was on the cusp of true stardom, a breakout safety in this league, the kind of defender who could change the entire way opponents prepare for the Kansas City Chiefs.

Then, as was the case with so much of the team's emerging talent last season, it was cut far too short. For Berry, his 2011 came to a close on the third defensive play of the season, when he tore his ACL (on a hit from Bills receiver Stevie Johnson that some in this organization believed was not entirely clean). He ended up spending his winter enduring an arduous rehab and indulging his passion for writing and poetry, using that as a vehicle to express his despair over a lost season.

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His injury was a harbinger of what was to come, with injuries coming in droves, along with blowout losses and the inevitable firing of coach Todd Haley. Now, collectively, the Chiefs, under a new -- if somewhat familiar -- coaching regime must try to emerge from that shadow, with the hopes that running back Jamaal Charles, Berry and tight end Tony Moeaki can become the franchise anchors they were about to become prior to being lost for 2011.

Berry, the fifth overall pick out of Tennessee in 2010, is a unique talent, one who allowed defensive-minded head coach Romeo Crennel to expand his playbook and take chances and force opposing offenses to react. His all-around game was putting him the category of those able to redefine their position, combining his speed, talent and ferocity in the run game with coverage skills. Now, the Chiefs must strike a more cautious tone with the prized jewel of their defense, bringing Berry along slowly this preseason, making sure they maintain a long view with him as he feels his way back on the field.

"He's working very hard to get back to where he was," Crennel said, "but he did miss a year of football and it takes time to get back. And really, we won't know until we get back to playing the [regular-season] games how close he is to being what he was. But he has a good football mind, he likes the game and he's an aggressive player. So once he gains the complete confidence that his injury is healed, then I think we'll see him become the guy we saw his first year."

Of course, no one is putting an exact timetable on that process.

Berry is far too valuable a commodity and, as someone experiencing his first significant injury, this is all new to him. He has no frame of reference for judging exactly where his body is, to say nothing of his mind. The greatest obstacle to any explosive player recovering from this type of injury is within himself, gaining the trust that his knee will respond the way his brain demands.

Berry won't be exposed too much in the preseason, general manager Scott Pioli said, with everything geared to Week 1 and building steadily from there.

"It really is a day-to-day process depending upon recovery time, the weather, the heat, the reaction in the knee, the swelling," Pioli said. "Even the surface -- when we practice on the grass versus when we're on the turf -- it's a totally different thing and you have to evaluate day to day, the soreness, everything."

Losing his season so quickly after the start sent Berry into a funk. He was naturally depressed and was helpless as a season that began with great expectations -- following a surprising playoff appearance his rookie year -- began to rapidly unravel while he watched the Chiefs outscored 109-27 in September. He took it personally.

"There are a lot of guys who play this game, and there's another group of guys who play it with love and passion," Pioli said. "And he breathes it and sleeps it. It was tough to see him go through it because he had never been through an injury before, and it was emotionally draining not only to him but it was tough to watch him go through it. ...

"He felt like he let people down. Eric wasn't just feeling sorry for Eric, he felt like he had let a lot of people down and had let his teammates down and coaches down, everybody."

Berry, meantime, leaned on his family to get through the experience. He did his rehab work primarily away from Kansas City. It's difficult to be a bystander to a football season, essentially a castoff due to an on-field injury.

Chiefs coach Romeo Crennel says he understands Berry's rehab process. (Getty Images)  
Chiefs coach Romeo Crennel says he understands Berry's rehab process. (Getty Images)  
"The nature of this business is that if you are not on the field and you are not playing, you are kind of on the outside looking in," Crennel said. "So he ended up going to rehab off site and I think that worked out well for him, because he was with his family and had that family support, and I think the experience helped mature him emotionally and as a player, because, knock wood, he doesn't get hurt again, but he'll be able to handle it in a much different way."

Being around those who knew him best was imperative, with his father, a former captain at the University of Tennessee, one of the central figures in the young man's recovery.

"My Dad was with me the whole time through surgery," Berry said, "and while I was on my crutches, and I couldn't walk, he was down there helping me in Pensacola [Fla.]. That was truly a blessing to have him down there because we got to talk about a lot of stuff. He supported me so much and my brothers and Mom my teammates and coaches. But it was really good to have my Dad there to take some of that off of me."

Berry spent two months in Pensacola, then went home to Georgia for a while before beginning another stretch of rehab in Boca Raton, Fla., then returned to Kansas City. His father kept preaching how things could have been worse, and pointed out some of the struggles their family members endured in the past.

"I just looked at it like another hurdle that could easily be conquered," Berry said. "I just had to put my mind to it."

With his physical avenues limited, Berry threw himself into writing, something he always has enjoyed.

"I did a lot of writing, poetry, which I have been interested in since I was seven or eight," he said. "That's something I just love to do -- write and get my ideas down."

Berry wrote a screenplay as well, going through the writing process with Justine Brown, an aspiring journalist and one his close friends from college.

Being back with the Chiefs has felt like a blessing to him. His presence alone makes them a better football team. Quarterback Matt Cassel sees it firsthand at practice.

"He's a special player because he can come down and play like a corner," Cassel said. "Sometimes when you try to match your tight end on a smaller safety [Berry is listed at 6-feet] you're thinking, 'This is a nice mismatch for us because of the size.'

"But that's not the case because he has such great transition and he covers, and for his size he's very strong. We're lucky to have him back and it was tough for him and tough for the team to see him go down, because he's such a tremendous leader on the field and in the locker room. It's great to have him out there."

Berry felt like his teammates became closer last season through the adversity and are poised to do big things. He isn't afraid to casually mention a desire to be playing in the final game of the 2012 NFL season.

"I just want us to come together as a team even more and make a run for the Super Bowl," Berry said.

It may seem improbable to some, but Berry knows a good narrative when he sees it. It's a story he could picture himself writing, and he's savoring the opportunity to help make it come true.


Before joining CBS Sports, Jason La Canfora was the Washington Redskins beat writer for The Washington Post for six years and served as NFL Network's insider. The Baltimore native can be seen every Sunday during the season on The NFL Today.
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