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August 4, 2009

Berry's daily walk

Nearly 1,000 video selections on YouTube in some aspect feature Eric Berry and provide an all-encompassing visage of the University of Tennessee All-America safety. On the field, that is.

There are single-game highlights and homemade tributes.

There are myriad versions of Berry's Twisted Sister moment - think "We're not gonna take it!" - when an angered and frustrated Berry leveled Georgia tailback Knowshon Moreno last season between the hedges.

"That was first down," Berry says. "We still had to go back to the huddle."

Still many video selections are from Berry's initial moment of national acclaim, the one where the kid relying on his sheer physical gifts steps in front of a Tim Tebow pass and races 96 yards through a swamp for a touchdown. As coming-of-age moments go, it's as definitive as it gets for someone playing just his third collegiate game in the hostile environs of Florida Field.

Yet depicting Berry as merely a football player is much like implying Picasso dabbled in paint or Socrates had a bevy of thoughts.

Yes, Berry's a Heisman Trophy candidate. Complete with his own UT-backed Web site (berry4heisman.com), because even without a ball in his hand on every snap, Berry has the singular ability like a quarterback to impact a game each down.

But a day in the life of Eric Berry is an amalgam of starring roles: workouts, class, big-brother moments, an encouraging boyfriend, football duties and still a mother's baby boy. Berry takes it all in stride, at once able to grasp the magnitude of his athletic gifts and wise enough to still make football a fun game that Berry loves to play.

Because behind the big orange curtain and "Power T" helmet is a regular guy.

The workout begins promptly at 7:30 a.m., and though new strength and conditioning coach Aaron Ausmus is just finishing his first full month on the job, players know tardiness isn't tolerated. Berry is early and quickly sets the pace in warm-up exercises on the Neyland-Thompson Sports Center FieldTurf. This upholds a practice-field tradition that stretches to Berry's freshman year. The best player on the team never loafs; during the season or spring camp, Berry races from station to station with an open invitation to challenge him. Few ever do; no one remembers Berry ever losing a race.

As drills move into the weight room, players are greeted with rhythmic, thumping music and a red countdown clock overhead. It is 36 days, 4 hours and 15 minutes until the Lane Kiffin Era begins on Sept. 5 against Western Kentucky when Berry and others start lifting weights.

A few onlookers meander through the weight room during the workout and marvel at the Vols' efforts. Since it's the last day of summer conditioning before camp opens, Ausmus designs a workout with fewer repetitions. Six is the day's requirement, but Berry fails to notice. He does 10 reps at each station.

Reveling in the lighter workload, end of an odd and tough summer conditioning program that includes the transition to Ausmus from Mark Smith, players gather in a circle in the weight room to dance. Gerald Williams, all 6 feet, 4 inches and 248 pounds, has no equals on the dance floor. Across the room, Berry continues to lift weights. Teammates notice his absence from the dancing; playful taunts follow.

"Hey Heisman, come dance! C'mon, Heisman! Come dance! The wise man gets the Heisman!"

There are no wasted efforts in Berry's workout; just as he plays on the field, he's in the weight room with a purpose.

"Man, that was the easiest workout," Berry exclaims. "And my dumb self did 10 reps. Nobody told me!"

Berry mockingly attempts to be upset by his extra work but laughs. All-Americans who start every game from the time they arrive on a collegiate campus are not built from bare-minimum efforts.

Besides, Berry is supercharged not by his workout but by the scales; he weighs 207 pounds and explains the significance.

"When I had my (shoulder) surgery, I got down to 190," he says after playing last season at roughly 205. "Now I've gained it all back but in a good way. I've still got my explosiveness and speed."



"I feel like they're giving me all this attention, I'm going to bring my boys and bring my school with me." - Eric Berry

He's also got 36 days, three hours and 25 minutes until kickoff when he leaves the weight room.

It's roughly an hour until his behavioral psychology class. Berry drives a modest, forest-green, four-door sedan to pick up his girlfriend, Emerald Jones, for class. His only indulgence - aside from Gatorade cans and fruit-juice bottles strewn about the interior -- is an iPod that plugs directly into the car stereo's receiver and is operated with a remote control.

"Man, if there's anything better than that," Berry says of his on-demand tunes as he cranks up "Gangsta Muzik" by Lil' Boosie, "I don't know what it is."

He cruises east on Neyland Drive, past the Women's Basketball Hall of Fame and glows about a recent phone call. A close friend whom Berry considers an "older brother" attends a casual gathering at a Washington, D.C.-area pool and meets a cadre of Beltway stars. NFL All-Pro Ed Reed, Berry's idea of the perfect safety, is among them and soon dispensing advice during a 30-minute phone conversation.

"That Ed Reed call, I'm still trippin'," he says. "I do not get star-struck at all, but Ed Reed � that's my dude. I just tried to get as much from him as I could. He talked to me about preserving my body and not always going for the big hit. He talked about how in the NFL, it's kind of like a running back. You can't take every hit.

"That's something I'm going to have to work on, because I've been developing this mindset for years."

Breakfast consists of a ham-and-turkey sandwich, applesauce and diced pineapples. Electric blue juice that appears suited for a Smurfs family picnic is the preferred beverage, though Berry's favorite drink is mixing fruit juice and lemonade at Chick-Fil-A. He discusses a recently family reunion in Natchez, Miss., where his father, former UT captain James, grew up, his mother's smile and the family's rising stars -- Eric's 13-year-old twin brothers Evan and Elliott.

"My brothers are getting too big, and I don't much like it," he says. "Elliott's as big as me and not even in high school yet."

For proof, Berry proudly displays the photos from the family reunion that he keeps saved on his phone.

The weather is cool and rainy; East Tennessee is experiencing one of its mildest Julys in years. Berry is concerned.

"I know it's going to be hot and humid for camp! I know it is! Wait and see," he says.

A light rain develops into a steady downpour, the universal symbol for skipping class. Now Berry is both a coach and fan; Emerald is tired after working late the night before at a Knoxville clothing store.

"Come on! You're 21 hours from graduating. That's all I'm going to say," Berry says.

It works. "He always gets me with that 21 hours," Emerald says in the car and heading for class inside, of all places, Neyland Stadium.

After dropping off Emerald, Berry continues to his class on The Hill. He discusses the propensity for parking tickets from UT's campus police and ponders what mode of transportation might remedy that situation.

"I think I'd like a go-kart," he says, laughing. "Maybe put some aluminum 5s (wheels) on it and just put my iPod and speakers on the top of it. That way I could just roll right up to the door of each class."

Berry is a few minutes late for class but quick to join the discussion studying applied behavioral analysis. The teacher follows up on a request for students to monitor and seek solutions for changing lifestyle habits. One girl acknowledges she's still mashing the snooze button each time her alarm goes off. The teacher asks what might encourage a change in this behavior.

"Put a thumb-tack on the snooze button," Berry says. Simple problem. Simple solution.

Class ends at 11, and Berry discusses his recruitment three years ago out of Creekside High School in Fairburn, Ga., while waiting for a magazine shoot at Neyland Stadium.

"I guess I just felt like Georgia thought they had me in the bag, and they didn't even know about me and I was in their backyard," Berry explains. "I remember when I went on my recruiting visit, coach (Mark) Richt had my name and stats written on his hand. I guess he thought I didn't see it or something, but I did.

"They were talking to me about playing wide receiver; they didn't even know my position was safety and quarterback. That really made me upset. Coach Kiffin (who then was at Southern Cal), he came with Pete Carroll and the running backs coach and they knew all about me. And I was in Georgia's backyard.

"But all the talk was about Caleb King (now a redshirt sophomore at Georgia battling for a starting job). I guess that's why I always favored Tennessee. They always recruited me hard and let me know what I meant to them. That hurt my feelings, I'm not even going to lie. But I love Mark Richt, love his staff. Him and coach (Rodney) Garner, because they're the ones that recruited me. They're both good men. I was just like, 'Dang.' I just felt like you need to be in your backyard. I just felt like (they) needed to know a little something about me. A few more phone calls or something."

With renovations continuing on Neyland Stadium until later this month, it virtually is impossible to host anything inside the Volunteers' football home without drawing a crowd - especially when word leaks that Eric Berry is participating. So a photographer for the Sporting News, traveling across the country to shoot the best player at each position on a football field, finds an impromptu crowd of Berry and Vols fans huddling in the south tunnel. Berry smiles for the photos - those of the professional photographer and those of his fans. Sure, there's a ring-tone devoted to Berry that features audio of fans chanting his name available for download; no one knows how many cell phone backgrounds feature a smiling Berry with an admiring fan; and more than 2,300 followers chronicle Berry's every tweet on Twitter. Berry is content to sign every poster and pose for every picture, but he's reminded of his community outreach in less than an hour.

Along with teammates Chris Walker, Denarius Moore and walk-on Chuck Karlosky, Berry visits cancer patients at UT Medical Center. Cancer touches home with the players, each of whom knows someone affected by the disease. Berry remembers two aunts who survived.

"This is the highlight of my year," says one patient, wearing an orange bandanna and professing she watches the Vols every week.

For more than an hour, the players sign autographs. Patients, their family members, doctors and nurses join the celebrity scene surrounding Berry. Someone mentions Berry could probably start an IV. As the scene shifts from a treatment room to a waiting room, Berry pauses. He's not sure all items are signed, and he intends to leave nothing behind.

When it is over, UT staff gush about the visit to Berry; they explain some folks make special trips back to the hospital to meet their Big Orange idol.

"Thanks so much," someone tells Berry.

"I'm just glad I could do it," he says.

This is no act, Walker explains.

"Eric's probably the most humble person I've ever been around," says Walker, who lightens the mood when he joins Berry imitating belligerent toddler Stewie Griffith from the hit cartoon "Family Guy." "He's in a position where he could probably be a jerk, but he's not. He's always loving it, he's always having fun no matter what the situation is. It's just fun having Eric around, him just being the humble person he is and lifting everybody's spirits."

Indeed, Berry is stunned on the right back to campus as he sees a billboard just off the Cumberland Avenue "strip" that features his larger-than-life image alongside that of his new head coach, Lane Kiffin.

"Where did they come from? I've not even seen that one," asks a shocked and slightly embarrassed Berry, who's then told that design is all over Tennessee. "When I see that or when I'm walking through Wal-Mart and see myself on a magazine cover, I'm just like, 'Is that really me?'"

Back at Neyland-Thompson Sports Center, Berry readies himself for another photo shoot - this one with his teammates for the "Iron Vols" poster for the team's most diligent workers in the weight room - and discusses on Houston radio his Heisman Trophy candidacy.

"They told me, 'You at least deserve a shot at this. Whether you win or not, you at least deserve a shot because of the way you play the game,'" Berry tells the host. "I couldn't do anything but smile. That was a big compliment to me. I really do appreciate the whole staff doing this campaign for me, regardless of what happens. That's a blessing in itself just to be in this position."

Having seen some of the top football talent anywhere this decade with his stops at Southern Cal and with the NFL's Oakland Raiders, Lane Kiffin explains what sets Berry apart.

"It was really watching tape. He's got such an instinct for the game," says UT's first coach from "outside the Vols family" in some 45 years. "You can coach a lot of aspects, but you can't make a guy instinctive. His instincts are phenomenal. He sees things coming before they ever happen. He reminds me of Ronde Barber, who I think is one of only a few people ever with 40 interceptions and 40 sacks or something like that. So that instinct to be able to blitz and anticipate things is just really special. They have totally different bodies, but they remind me of each other because of their instincts and knowledge of the game."

Berry changes for the photo shoot into his football pants and readies to join some of his defensive teammates in a film room to view a tutorial DVD. The players set up the meeting and leverage peer pressure for virtually perfect attendance. Somehow, as the clock ticks past 3 p.m., Berry manages to eat a couple of pork chops and a salad between the radio interview, film room and pending photo shoot.

The glamorized scene -- complete with an orange Ferrari and more six-pack abs than a John Basedow infomercial -- set to begin at approximately 3:30, doesn't start until well after 4. Berry's day stretches longer, and already he's planning to join his fellow defensive backs and linebackers at famed Knoxville barbecue joint Calhoun's to discuss fall camp and celebrate the close of summer conditioning.

Not surprisingly, Berry is the centerpiece of the photo shoot. He leans casually against the luxury sports car, a heavy chain around his neck. It is a fitting image to effectively close Berry's day; there is much to weigh him down, but the face of Tennessee football -- at least on the field -- carries it all in stride.

"Once 7:30 hits, after my workout there are really no breaks. As you could see, I had to wear a lot of hats today. Boyfriend, student, player. I guess you could say part-time model with the photo shoot. I mean, it's fun, though," says Berry. "Sometimes it can get stressful, I won't lie. But I'd rather be in this position than not being in this position. I just kind of deal with it and keep on moving."

Countless interview requests and folks clamoring for his time condition Berry for the scrutiny.

"I'm a lot more comfortable getting all this attention and stuff, and just dealing with the daily situations. Last year was real tough for me because that was actually the first time we were opened up to the media," he explains. "Freshman year we were kind of locked up. So sophomore year, that was like just a breakout year also so everyone was trying to get ahold of me. And at the same time, I had things going on back at home and things going on back at school. So I just kind of learned how to deal with things separately, I guess you could say. Try not to let my emotions deal with it. Try not, if I'm having a bad day, try not to show it."

While Berry keeps his emotions largely under wraps, his passion to restore a Tennessee program that last won a conference championship 11 years ago to similar heights is evident.

"I feel like that's probably my duty while I'm here, trying to get Tennessee back," says Berry, his eyes focusing on the championship banners that ring the Vols' practice facility. "We weren't doing too good last year, but I got a lot of attention, which I didn't like. But I was going to try to use that attention and am using that attention to get my team back to where it needs to be, back to that powerhouse and the dominance they once were.

"And I feel like they're giving me all this attention, I'm going to bring my boys and bring my school with me."

All in a day's work.

A photo look at a day in the life of Eric Berry


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