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Case in point: the Steelers' Troy Polamalu. In 2008, when he was healthy, Pittsburgh's defense finished No. 1 overall, against the pass and in points allowed. Last year, when Polamalu missed 11 games and parts of two others with a knee injury, quarterbacks no longer had to worry about where he might be or what he might do, and the Steelers slipped to fifth overall, 16th against the pass and 12th in points. In the three full games he played, the Steelers had nine takeaways; in the 13 others, they had 13. Most telling, a year after winning the Super Bowl, Pittsburgh missed the playoffs.
Berry, 21, has been likened to Polamalu, and to Ravens star Ed Reed "with speed," according to one general manager, who calls Berry the best safety prospect in a decade. At 5'11" and 203 pounds, he's athletic, intelligent and has the instincts of a ball hawk: His 14 picks were returned for 494 yards, second most in college history. He's also a fierce hitter. As a kid in Fairburn, Ga., Berry played a backyard game called Throw 'Em Up, Bust 'Em Up that was part football, part rugby and all self-preservation. To know who did most of the bustin' up, check out the YouTube clips of Berry laying out SEC stars Knowshon Moreno, Ben Tate and Marquis Maze while at Tennessee.
Those big hits were matched by his big plays. A state 200-meter champ in high school, Berry ran back interceptions for scores of 96, 72 and 45 yards in his first two seasons at Knoxville. Quarterbacks wised up during his junior year: They'd often call out his number at the line of scrimmage, letting him know he wasn't going to be a factor. Berry was the third true freshman in former coach Phillip Fulmer's 17 years to start a season opener, the first Vol to be named consensus All-America in nearly two decades and the first to win the Thorpe Award.
Yet he seems more concerned with others than with himself. Berry turns down autographs as often as he avoids contact. As he exited a freeway in Georgia and braked at a stoplight one day this spring, he rolled down the window to hand money to a homeless person. Berry wears jersey number 14 in recognition of the 14 hours his mother spent in labor to deliver him. The strips of white tape he wraps around his fingers before games are a tribute to Sean Taylor, the Redskins safety who was murdered in 2007 while defending his home against burglars. Berry and Taylor had planned to work out together that off-season.
Berry could have returned to Tennessee for his senior season but chose to go pro to improve his parents' quality of life. Carol lost her job at a mortgage company two years ago, and James, a municipal worker who was a starting running back at Tennessee and a team captain in 1981, had heart surgery last summer. Berry's lone splurge since declaring for the draft was on a black Range Rover, which he had delivered to his mom with a red ribbon on the outside and a box of grits on the passenger seat. James always told Eric he'd be a grown man when he could buy his own grits.
If taking care of his parents was priority No. 1, refurbishing Fairburn's Duncan Park, where he spent his childhood playing football and baseball, was 1A. It used to be the jewel of Berry's neighborhood, but now the playing fields are suffering from years of neglect and underfunding. Berry's foundation plans to replace the worn grass fields with synthetic turf for football, baseball, soccer and softball so that a new generation can have the kind of constructive outlet he had.
"I know teams don't typically take safeties high in the first round, but this is a guy you'd make an exception for," says one G.M. "He not only brings the skills on the field—the speed and athleticism and smarts—but he's also a quality character. You can draft him and not have to worry about him or that position for 10 years.
"The way that he moves, the fluidity in his hips, the way that he breaks on the ball, it's second to none. It's really impressive and very eye-catching. And you talk about changing the prototype at that position—we've started to move away from the big, in-the-box, downhill, 235-pound guy to ideally having interchangeable safeties. He's that type of guy. He's the complete package."
Berry is a fit for any team drafting in the top five, though the Rams, Lions, Bucs, Redskins and Chiefs each have pressing needs elsewhere. Those who do pass on him will learn what it means to challenge Berry. His message to NFL teams: Pick me, or get picked.
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