Phillip Fulmer says Eric Berry did not get a free pass to the college football hall of fame just because he was a famous Volunteer and 25 others have received that sacred honor.
“He earned admission with his great ability to run, tackle, play the ball and return interceptions, but even more with his character, work ethic and love of the University of Tennessee and his teammates.”
Fulmer recruited Eric from Fairburn, Georiga, and was Tennessee’s coach when he was an outstanding safety in 2007-08. Lane Kiffin was coach in 2009.
Berry will be honored Saturday afternoon during the Tennessee-Texas A&M game. Tux and bow tie come later. Berry will be formally inducted Dec. 5 in Las Vegas. Fulmer was enshrined in 2012.
Eric was Southeastern Conference defensive player of the year in 2008. He was all-SEC in 2008 and 2009. He was a unanimous All-American. He won the Jim Thorpe Award as the nation’s best defensive back.
“Eric is the only player in my 16 years as a head coach that started his first game as a freshman” Fulmer said. “Considering all the greats we have had, that’s pretty special. And he played great the entire time he was here.”
He had 241 career tackles. He intercepted 14 passes. He broke the SEC career record for interception return yards with 487.
Eric’s father, James Berry, a running back for the Vols, 1978-81, a captain as was Eric, provided rare insight.
“Dad told me ‘I don’t think you understand just how good you are.’ And he was right about that. I wasn’t looking for accolades and awards. I just wanted to be a great teammate and put everything I had into the game.”
Eric did a lot of things right. His football IQ was at the top of the chart. He had been a Parade all-American in high school. He didn’t require repeat instruction. He helped himself. He studied video. He didn’t say much but he really listened. He wanted to be the best player he could be. He didn’t have to make an announcement. It showed.
Berry still does a lot of things right. He is trying to share his latest honor.
“This award is really a tribute to all of the people that have touched my life, on and off the field.”
Think about this: “I wasn’t born in Tennessee but the Berry roots and Berry legacy run deep. Dad went here. A lot of his friends went here. My brothers went here.”
Eric smiled just a little when he borrowed a line from the famous Tennessee sing-along.
“Rocky Top will always be home sweet home to me. That song actually means something.”
Eric said Tennessee pretty much embraced him as its own.
Berry left a year early for the NFL. There was too much money to ignore. Kansas City made him the fifth pick in the 2010 draft. He played well season after season. He made the Pro Bowl five times.
He got the shock of his life on December 8, 2014. He was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
Peyton Manning got involved.
“I reached out to him and told him he’s in a lot of people’s prayers and thoughts. He’s a tough fighter but I know he has a tough fight ahead. We’re certainly thinking about him, players that know him, the Tennessee family, the NFL family. He’s a special player and a really good guy.”
Vol for life Inky Johnson, inspiration to many, close friend to Berry, said Eric would hang in there.
“He’s doing great. He comes from a great family. Most importantly, Eric knows who’s in control and that’s God. When you know who’s in control, you’re at peace with whatever happens. Eric will be fine.”
Berry responded well to chemotherapy and returned to work in 2015. He was named comeback player of the year and all-pro.
Upon reflection, that experience caused Berry to pause. He said he talked at length with Coach Fulmer. He said he understood the scope of his football career. He understood the magnitude of awards he received.
“There’s also an understanding of a reference point on that timeline which was me overcoming cancer.”
He played through the 2019 season. He earned something like $100 million in all. He gave some back. He established the Eric Berry Foundation with helping children as a goal. He hosts youth football clinics in Atlanta, Kansas City and throughout Tennessee. He has donated to the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society. He had field turf installed at the park where he learned to play football.
As a going-away tribute, he was named to the NFL all-decade team for the 2010s.
Fulmer said he is so proud of who Eric Berry is.
Josh Heupel said “On behalf of the entire Tennessee football program, we extend huge congratulations to VFL Eric Berry — a guy that represents everything that is good about Tennessee football.”
I said “Feels good when good guys win. The NFL now and then generates some ugly headlines. None belong to Eric Berry.”
(Marvin West welcomes comments or questions from readers. His address is firstname.lastname@example.org).