Mark Wiedmer: Eric Berry's memories lead to helping kids

Mark Wiedmer: Eric Berry's memories lead to helping kids

July 22nd, 2012 by Mark Wiedmer in Sports - Columns

Eric Berry eyed his pale-orange Adidas workout shoes, the ones bearing his personal stamp: EB-29, his jersey number with the Kansas City Chiefs.

"They help me remember Rocky Top," a grinning Berry said early Saturday afternoon inside the D1 Sports fitness complex near Hamilton Place mall. "They help me remember more of Knoxville."

The number 29, in fact, honors fellow former University of Tennessee defensive back Inky Johnson, whose career was ended by injury.

The 150 or so young men who paid $75 to $100 to attend the third-year NFL star's Elite Defensive Skills Camp won't need much help remembering what they learned in their three-hour session with the two-time unanimous All-American.

"It was definitely worth it," said Ringgold sophomore defensive back/wide receiver Michael Lewis, clad in his Tigers practice shirt and shorts and a UT Vols ballcap.

"We learned so much about footwork. He told us that getting better is all about killing yourself every practice."

Eleven-year-old Jax Howard - a quarterback, wide receiver and kicker hopeful at Hunter Middle School - said he loved "everything. He's such a good guy. He taught me to keep trying hard, never stop working."

How good a guy was Berry perceived to be after spending less than a day with this bunch?

Dennis Bean, an 11-year-old Rossville Middle student, doesn't even like UT. He's an Alabama fan through and through.

But of Berry he proudly proclaimed, "I like the man, I just don't like his team."

We should all like what Berry does with the money earned from the camps he stages in Knoxville, Chattanooga, Atlanta and Kansas City each summer.

It goes to his Eric Berry Foundation, which helps restore community parks to create places where "kids can just be kids."

His first such project was Clarence Duncan Park in Fairburn, Ga., where he'd grown up and where his father James (also a former Vol) runs the local youth athletic association.

"I watched my dad when I was growing up," Eric said. "He didn't always have money, but he always had time. He was constantly teaching fundamentals, teaching about life. Now that I have a chance to do that, I feel like it's my responsibility to give something back."

Berry's foundation currently is forming partnerships to help similar struggling community parks in Knoxville and Kansas City.

The Big Orange Nation hopes both James and Eric will continue giving back to UT football by steering Eric's talented brothers Evan and Elliott toward the Vols come February of 2014, when the twins will be seniors at Creekside High in Fairburn.

"I'd love for them to go to Tennessee," James Berry said Saturday. "But I'll let them make up their own minds. I want them to make their own decision, because they're the ones who'll be playing there."

Yet Pops Berry did dangle at least one small pale orange carrot for Volniacs to enjoy.

"Elliott and Evan were up there not long ago for a camp," James said. "They both came home saying they'd had a really good time, so we'll see."

What anyone can see watching Eric Berry work with players ranging in age from 7 to 18 is that he's special both on and off the field.

"You just see how well he was raised," said his agent Chad Speck, who has represented a number of former Vols, including Albert Haynesworth, Denarius Moore and Tyson Clabo.

"His foundation has been important to him from day one. He's obviously a great player - he's driven to be the best - but he's also a genuinely good guy."

Eric Berry said he's had a genuinely good offseason rehabbing his left knee after a torn ACL suffered in last year's season-opening loss to Buffalo.

He also feels good about the direction of the Vols, having worked out with them this past week in Knoxville.

"I think they've made huge strides," Berry said. "I felt some very positive vibes working out with those guys."

But on Saturday at D1 he most wanted to leave his campers with positive vibes about both football and life.

"There were guys from my side of town when I was growing up who made it big and never came back," Berry recalled. "I knew early on that I never wanted to be like that."

When a former Big Orange great can make even a young Alabama fan like him, that goal is probably secure.