There wasn’t much for Eric Berry to complain about last fall.
His first contract turned him into a millionaire, national endorsement deals were starting to roll in and the Kansas City Chiefs were destined for the playoffs.
But there was still one nagging thought that occasionally popped into the mind of the former Tennessee superstar safety.
What if he was a senior in
college instead of a rookie in the NFL?
“Every time I come back to Knoxville, I think I miss it a little bit more,” Berry said during a break of the camp he hosted Friday at D1 Sports. “I missed it as soon as I left campus. Every time I come back, so many memories come back. My guys, my teammates, we always talk about everything that happened when I was here and just kind of reminisce about everything that’s been going on.
“I mean, the decision I made, I’m happy with it. But at the same time, I still have that thought in the back of my mind, like, ‘What if I would have stayed and played my last year?’ That always runs through the back of my mind . . . I loved playing for the University of Tennessee and I love playing for the Chiefs, so it was a win-win situation. But at the same time, it’s kind of bittersweet.”
Certainly the Vols would have benefitted from having the All-American back for one more season as it went through another coaching change last fall, though Berry would have been risking his status as a No. 5 pick in the draft and everything that comes with it had he stuck around with the Vols.
Berry was always aware of that fact as the questions about foregoing his final year of eligibility started in 2009, but even then it was clear the decision wasn’t easy for a player who had followed UT practically since birth and never put his own interests in front of the program.
Some sort of validation came for Berry when Lane Kiffin and most of his staff bolted for Southern California shortly after he decided to go pro, though in hindsight that stunning move might also have factored into those wandering thoughts last fall, given the help Berry could have provided in the transition.
“The thing is, I was just kind of really upset about what happened,” Berry said. “If I was here, I would have been crushed if that would have happened and I had decided to stay just to play with those guys and bought into the program and they just up and left. At the same time, it is what it is and you can’t really do anything about that.
“That’s how I would have felt, and I felt it for my teammates that were going through it because I don’t think anybody can really understand what a coaching change does to a program unless they actually go through it.”
The Vols don’t have that problem now with Derek Dooley preparing for his second season in charge, though the bond between the players who went through the ups and downs is still clear when Berry touches down in Knoxville.
Former teammates Nick Reveiz and Savion Frazier were among those helping run the camp, and Berry also had support from current defensive back Prentiss Waggner throughout the afternoon. In return, Berry still is trying to give back to Knoxville and UT as much as he can — particularly since he couldn’t offer one more season at safety.
“I think the biggest thing I noticed about that Tennessee team (last season) is that they fought,” Berry said. “Whether it was, LSU, North Carolina, whoever it was, they fought to the end of the game.
“They probably weren’t on the same page for a lot of things, but that’s going to come with time, and those guys have heart, they’ve got good work ethic, and that’s all you can ask for out of a team. As long as they keep
fighting and keep buying into the program, I think everything will be OK.”
Austin Ward covers Tennessee football. He may be reached at 865-342-6274. Follow him at http://twitter.com/Vols_Beat and http://blogs.knoxnews.com/ward.