Most of them were up much earlier than summer vacation should require. But the early-morning start, the heat or the three hours of agility drills and sprints weren't enough to create a single complaint from the 120-plus kids who participated in the second annual Eric Berry football camp at Boyd-Buchanan on Friday.
A big reason for that was Berry himself, who was more than just a presence. The former University of Tennessee All America and current Kansas City Pro Bowl defensive back was hands-on in most drills, playfully challenging the kids, yelling encouragement, lofting spirals to receivers and even stopping to pose for pictures during water breaks.
"I see the business side of the game so often now, it's cool getting to see the kids out there having fun and playing football at its purest," Berry said. "They're just out here because they love the game. I just want to be an encouragement to kids to work hard and pursue their dreams, whatever that is."
Berry hosts similar kids' camps in his hometown of Fairburn (Ga.), Knoxville and Kansas City and donates the proceeds to his foundation, which helps build or restore parks in inner cities.
"I knew I wanted to do something to help people, and I really wanted it to be something that would reach kids," Berry said. "I didn't have anything like this when I was growing up, but I see how much it means to kids to get to meet an NFL player and see that they can do something positive with their life, whether its through the game or something else. They don't have to follow the crowd. It's okay to be different and have something that drives you to be your best."
Berry's tenacious style and effort, coupled with his natural ability and the pride he takes in his alma mater, separated him as one of this generation's most beloved UT football players, along with the likes of Peyton Manning and Al Wilson.
Berry also has the unique perspective of having played for former UT coaches Phillip Fulmer and Lane Kiffin, then dealt with Derek Dooley as an alum. He cringed at the fact Kiffin never embraced Tennessee's storied traditions -- even putting up posters of former Southern Cal stars instead of UT greats during his brief stint as Vols coach -- and with how unwelcome former Vols were made to feel by Dooley.
Although he admitted its been painful to watch his former team struggle for several years, Berry was quick to add his name among those who believe new head coach Butch Jones will turn the program around.
"That's a place I care a lot about and want to see them back on top," Berry said. "Those type struggles go in cycles for every college team, and I have a lot of faith that Butch is the man who is going to get us back where we want to be. Butch is a great coach. He knows the game, has a solid plan that will work and he understands he needs to show the players and fans he cares about them and the program. The fans have stuck with the program through a tough time and they just keep finding reason to hope. I think we all have a good reason for hope now with Butch in charge, and it's really exciting to know that things are already turning around.
"Butch knows how I feel about him. I love the guy and what he stands for. He's not fake about his enthusiasm for being the head coach at Tennessee. He really does appreciate where he is, and that means a lot to us former players. We don't even have to check in with him if we want to stop by to visit or watch a practice. But a lot of us do call him just so we can talk or check on things, and he's made us feel welcome and like he genuinely cares about us as well as the current players. He just gets it, man.
"We've got a lot to be proud of at Tennessee, and having Butch Jones as our coach now is a big part of that."
Contact Stephen Hargis at email@example.com or 423-757-6293.