Sticky-fingered Tennessee safety Eric Berry is a thief on the field
Tennessee junior Eric Berry is the nation's best safety and an All-America
Berry led the nation in INT return yards and tied for tops with seven picks
The Vols have spent $10,000 to launch a Heisman campaign around Berry
Tennessee All-America safety Eric Berry is such a constant threat to steal passes, it should come as no surprise that when he relaxes in his off-campus apartment, the 5-foot-11, 203-pound junior enjoys playing Grand Theft Auto, a video game based on the criminal underworld. Trained by his coaches to intercept passes, the sneaky hit man performs virtual robberies with the controller in hand. "When the cops come," Berry said, "I just press the restart button instead of surrendering."
The fear of being caught has driven Berry since he was a sophomore at Georgia's Creekside High in 2004. That year, he intercepted a pass thrown by the McIntosh High quarterback and returned it from a yard deep in the end zone. Thinking he had a clear path to the end zone, he decelerated as he approached the goal line and was dragged down at the one. Berry vowed never to let that happen again. "It wasn't that I was slow," Berry said. "I just didn't know how to run."
Berry joined the track team to learn how to better pace himself. Later that year he sunk his spikes into the starting blocks at the state meet, but did not rise into the proper stance when the runners were called into the set position. He thought he would be called for a false start if he sneezed. Taking off from his knees, Berry won the heat and went on to take to 200-meter state title. As a junior he anchored the 4x400 relay, collecting another state title. "He's like no other we've had," says Creekside track coach Scott Vaughan.
But playing football was his passion. A two-way starter as a senior, Berry engineered the triple-option at quarterback and wreaked havoc as a safety. Able to identify tendencies, he took advantage of his dual vantage points. "It's like being a spy," the psychology major said of playing both ways. "I guess I have a split personality on the field."
When it came time to choose a college, Berry thought he'd have more success playing in the secondary. Berry's father, James, had been a three-year starter for Tennessee at tailback and a captain in 1981. Berry took official visits to Auburn and Tennessee, but Knoxville's family atmosphere won him over. Plus, three starters had left the Vols' defensive backfield, giving Berry the chance to play immediately.
He started the first game of the '07 season and began building his case for SEC Defensive Player of the Year in Week 3 at Florida. Midway through the third quarter, Berry picked off a Tim Tebow pass and ran it back 96 yards for a touchdown. Since then he surpassed the SEC's record for career interception return yardage and needs just 15 yards to break former Florida State cornerback Terrell Buckley's all-time NCAA mark of 501. "If I'm an NFL team, he's my first pick no matter what," said Vols defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin, who left the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to join his son Lane's first-year staff in Knoxville.
Berry was forced to slow down last December after his All-America season. His hard hits -- including one that uplifted Georgia's Knowshon Moreno off the ground -- took their toll by season's end. Having injured his left shoulder in an October win over Mississippi State, he opted to have arthroscopic surgery to repair a torn labrum that he said dates back to peewee football. By the time he was cleared to participate in spring workouts, he was back to full speed despite being held out of full-contact drills.
Berry figures to play several roles in Kiffin's vaunted Tampa Two scheme. He has lined up at both free and strong safety positions as well as nickel back this summer. The openness of the sets has afforded him more freedom. Tracking him has proven most challenging for the staff. One morning, Kiffin chewed out Berry for not being deep enough in the secondary. "We just went over this in film!" the gravelly-voiced coach shouted.
"But coach," Berry said. "I'm strong safety in this one."
"Eric," the 69-year-old Kiffin said, "that's my bad."
"Sometimes," Berry said, "they forget what position I'm in."
Berry, who wears tattoos for family members on his wrists, chest, shoulders and biceps, added "Berry Pride" this offseason in the aftermath of a trying period. His father, who underwent shoulder surgery and had an aortic valve replaced in his heart, is currently on disability. His mother, Carol, lost her job after 11 years at a construction company last August and has started taking psychology classes at a local college. "It just makes me want to work harder," said Berry, who is already being projected as a top five pick if he decides to forego his senior season and enter the 2010 NFL draft next spring.
Even if he does leave, the program is set to add another speedster from the Berry patch. Berry's younger brother, Evan, a 13-year-old eighth grader who has already started to chase down Berry's track records, committed to Tennessee in June. "This group of coaches makes kids feel comfortable," the younger Berry said.
Tennessee has invested $10,000 in promoting Berry this season. For the first time since Peyton Manning was a junior in 1997, the school is sponsoring a full-fledged Heisman campaign. Berry's mother and father were driving westbound on Interstate 285 in Atlanta recently when they spotted an electronic billboard with their son's image. The Berry's pulled to the side of the busy highway and took a picture. "I've come out of my shell," said Berry, who finds it ironic that Manning lost to a defensive player in former Michigan cornerback Charles Woodson.
Increased visibility has brought beefed-up security. While at an alumni-sponsored barbeque earlier this month, Berry made a speech. Escorting him was a uniformed police officer. "It made me realize that boy's pretty much not mine anymore," his mother said.
Mother and son enjoyed a more private moment last Friday at Calhoun's on the River, a BBQ restaurant by campus. Halfway through the meal, Carol realized it was the first time they sat together for a meal in town. "Game days are so demanding," she said. "Parents stand to the side."
If Berry feels more eyes watching him across campus this fall, it might be because of an attention-getting photo shoot over the summer. As the poster boy in the front row, Berry donned a large gold chain that "almost broke my doggone neck".
A Tennessee-orange Lamborghini was the star of the show. At first glance, the players -- mouths agape seeing the low-built vehicle -- weren't sure it would fit because of a slight hill at the entrance. "The driver pressed a button and it went up," Berry said.
When the engine revved and the players crowded around, Berry's basic instincts kicked in. "I wanted to steal it," he said, laughing. "But there were too many witnesses."