Eric Berry, a four-time NFL Pro Bowl selection, last season's Comeback Player of the Year in the league, and one of the most respected and beloved former University of Tennessee athletes in program history, will be the featured speaker at this year's Times Free Press Best of Preps banquet.
The banquet is set for June 9 at the Chattanooga Convention Center, beginning at 6 p.m.
"I feel like I have a great connection with high school sports because I've seen the influence it can have on a young kid's life," Berry, 27, said. "From the role the coaches play to just competing, it all helps build so many positive aspects like character and how to carry yourself after success and failure later in life.
"It's always interesting to see what motivates kids. Plus the fact that I love Chattanooga, since it's always been kind of my happy medium place between where I grew up and where I went to school and started my career. I used to stop at the mall there if I was on my way home from UT, but if I was on my way back to school, I was usually trying not to be late for a meeting, so I didn't get to stop. It's a great place and I'm looking forward to being there and just hearing about all the athletes that are going to be honored."
Berry was diagnosed with Hodgkin lymphoma in early December 2014, but after undergoing chemotherapy, he was pronounced cancer free seven months later, just in time to return to the field at the start of last season. He went on to earn his fourth Pro Bowl selection, was named to the Associated Press All-Pro team and voted Kansas City's Most Valuable Player after making 61 total tackles and two interceptions in helping the Chiefs to an 11-5 record and a playoff berth. He was also named the NFL's Comeback Player of the Year in 2015 by the Associated Press.
"I really didn't know how to take it when they told me I had cancer," Berry said. "I was like, 'What do you mean?' I've always taken real good care of my body, watched my diet and nutrition and was in tip-top shape, so I couldn't understand where it came from. But I just approached it like I do everything and did my research and tried to focus on my goals of getting better.
"When the doctors told me I was cancer free and I could go back to playing, that was a great feeling, and I just hope it gives other people who are going through similar problems hope."
He was also recently named one of two recipients of the Tennessee Sports Hall of Fame male professional athlete of the year award, recognizing the season he had in making his comeback last year.
Berry was the first-round pick for the Chiefs, the fifth overall player taken in the 2010 NFL Draft. He chose No. 29 with the Chiefs to honor former UT teammate Inky Johnson, whose career was cut short by an arm injury.
Midway through his rookie season, Berry was named a team captain, and in the following game against the Titans, he intercepted his fourth pass of the year and returned it for a touchdown to lead the Chiefs to a win. He was the only Chiefs defender to play every snap that season and became the team's first rookie to earn a Pro Bowl selection in 22 years.
For his NFL career, he has 10 interceptions, returning three for touchdowns and 303 total tackles.
"Eric Berry is a special athlete and an exceptional person," said Times Free Press president Bruce Hartmann. "We are excited to bring Eric to Chattanooga to share his story and to help recognize the outstanding student athletes."
At Tennessee, Berry started in 39 games and was a two-time unanimous All-American safety, where he was also the SEC Defensive Player of the Year and Jim Thorpe Award winner as the nation's top defensive back.
After being named SEC defensive freshman of the year by the Sporting News in 2008, he was named a team captain as a sophomore. That year, he tied for the national lead with seven interceptions. He went on to set the career SEC record for interception return yards. He also was named SEC Defensive Player of the year and was a unanimous All American.
Berry's father James played running back for UT from 1978-81 and his younger brothers, twins, Elliott and Evan, are current Vols.
"Tennessee has always been a very special place for me and my family," Berry said. "I still go back as much as I can, and it's great to see the direction the program is headed now. I would go back even if my brothers weren't playing, and I would be proud of my brothers even if they were just students. But it is special to go back to the place where I played and get to see them wearing the same uniform."
Berry was a prep All American in football at Creekside High in Fairburn, Ga., and also set school records in track in the long jump and 200 meters. He won an individual state championship in the 200 and ran the anchor leg of the state championship 4x400 relay team.
"I've been told there will be a lot of athletes and coaches and their families there and that's great. But if I can just reach one person that night, I want them to know how important it is to really and truly live out their dreams and don't change their goals for anything or let anybody stop them. Shoot as high as you can, because you only live once and you don't want to leave wishing you had tried harder. If you have an opportunity to do what you love, give it everything you have."
The Best of Preps banquet is sponsored by Memorial Hospital, Chattem, Xfinity, Center for Sports Medicine and Orthopedics, First Tennessee Bank and Hits 96 FM.
"We are thrilled to partner with the Chattanooga Times Free Press to present the Best of Preps banquet honoring our region's talented young athletes," said Larry Schumacher, CEO, CHI Memorial. "We know physical activity leads to better overall health. As we work to create healthier lifestyles for those in our community, we support the dedication and commitment these student athletes and coaches show as they strive for excellence within their sport."
Contact Stephen Hargis at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6293. Follow him on Twitter @StephenHargis.