He taught me to never be scared of anybody. Always, always go as hard as I can whether it's in a workout or a classroom because you never know. . .
Eric Berry on Inky Johnson
Twenty-nine is more than a number for Eric Berry.
There are a couple of small reasons why the digit means so much - and one big one.
Highway 29 runs right through Berry's hometown of Fairburn, Ga. Berry's birthday is Dec. 29.
Those two reasons, however, pale in comparison to the driving force behind Berry's decision to wear No. 29 when he takes the field for the Kansas City Chiefs this fall.
Berry would have done most anything to get the number. Doing so means honoring one of the most beloved former players in recent UT history: Inky Johnson, the former defensive back who suffered a devastating shoulder injury in 2006 and still has little use of his right arm.
"Inky has been a mentor to me while I was at Tennessee, not just on the field, but off the field also," Berry said. "There was a lot of times he talked to me about taking pride in the game.
"You never know when it could be your last snap. I watched a lot of film on Inky. He played the game that way and I felt like if I didn't play the game that way, it would be disrespecting him."
Berry said he would have paid for the jersey number had it not been available. Lucky for his soon-to-be bulging wallet, it was not being used by the Chiefs, who picked him with the fifth pick in the NFL draft on Thursday.
However, Berry was ready to write the check. After all, Berry, then a freshman, had promised to use Johnson's jersey number when Johnson was a graduate assistant at UT. Berry also wore the number during one game as a Vol.
Johnson, who has been widely praised for his inspirational leadership in his three seasons as a coach, is no longer with UT's football team. The time away from his family to be a graduate assistant became too much.
Still harboring some thoughts of coaching in high school, Johnson now works in UT's development office and hopes to be a candidate for head coach Derek Dooley's yet-to-be-filled Character Development Coordinator position.
Berry didn't need any sort of character overhaul when he arrived at UT; his family had long taken care of that. But, the future All-American did need some fine-tuning.
Berry, like most freshmen, was a little intimidated by the college atmosphere despite landing a starting position by September. Berry wasn't yet comfortable being a leader. Johnson helped alter that mindset.
"He taught me when I first got there not to be scared, to speak up," Berry said. "He told me to come out of my shell, not to be scared because I'm a freshman or whatever.
"He's like 'I've got a gift so I've got to go ahead and use it.' "
Subsequently, Berry grew into the leader that his teammates soon appreciated. And as hard as it is to imagine, Berry hinted that there was a time at UT when he didn't approach football like he does now.
That was before he watched Johnson's highlight tape. Then, Berry understood what it as like to play with the sort of intensity for which he is known.
Berry watched Johnson, who was well under 6 feet tall and 200 pounds take on bigger offensive players like Notre Dame receiver Jeff Samardzija and California tailback Marshawn Lynch.
"Those are big guys," Berry said. "He taught me to never be scared of anybody. Always, always go as hard as I can whether it's in a workout or a classroom because you never know. . . . He was smaller than other people but you never saw him back down from other people."
A humbled Johnson isn't ready to take credit for Berry's well-chronicled hitting ability.
"I think he had that in him already," Johnson said.
The bond between Berry and Johnson grew from their Atlanta roots as the two defensive backs made their way through college football. It could have continued on into the NFL.
Despite his size, Johnson seemed to have NFL potential before his career ended with one violent tackle in that fateful Air Force game.
Now, his old No. 29 will play on - on the field and in the stands.
"I'll be the first one to go out and buy a jersey," Johnson said with a laugh.
And while that No. 29 has some strong meaning, its existence just scratches the surface of a special relationship.
"I just told him whether he wears 29 or not, I'm always going to be behind him and supporting him," Johnson said. "It's a great honor. I've got a lot of respect for him."