April 16, 2009

Berry becomes Tennessee's Superman

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. Clark Kent wore glasses and a business suit. Eric Berry merely opted for a Cincinnati Reds baseball cap pulled down low and a black T-shirt to conceal his identity.

Nothing about his attire indicated he's Tennessee's consensus All-America safety. Nothing hinted he will someday probably next year rescue his family from a perilous situation.

"A lot of people don't know who I am," Berry said while leaning against a receptionist's desk inside Tennessee's Neyland-Thompson Sports Center. "I like it that way. It's like I'm a superhero with a secret identity."

So, on a sunny spring day in Knoxville, Berry wandered the Tennessee campus in relative anonymity and relished every step.

"It's kind of strange for him to get all that attention," said his mother, Carol Berry, who lives in Fairburn Ga., with her husband, James, and twin sons Evan and Elliott. "He's learning how to be a celebrity, so to speak. It's difficult for him."

So difficult, in fact, that he moved to an off-campus residence because fans and well-wishers frequently stopped by his dorm for handshakes and photos. That didn't bother him, per se; what bothered him was that they often paid visits after 2 a.m.

Some might embrace the attention and whatever opportunities come with it. But Berry was uncomfortable with being the big man on campus; heck, he's uncomfortable being the big man off campus.

"I've never been the flashy type," he said.

Well, maybe not off the football field. On it, though, Berry flashes like lightning bolts in a thunderstorm. He hits like a linebacker, covers like a cornerback, catches like a receiver and runs like a tailback. And despite inevitable protests from Norman, Okla., Gainesville, Fla., and Austin, Texas, a strong case can be made that Berry is the best player in college football regardless of position.

In two seasons, he has 12 interceptions and already holds the SEC record with 487 career interception return yards. He needs just 15 more yards to set the NCAA return record.

Last season, he returned seven interceptions for 265 yards (a 37.9 average) and posted 72 tackles, including a devastating shot that momentarily knocked Georgia running back Knowshon Moreno out of the game. He produced those numbers despite playing much of the season with a torn labrum in his left shoulder that has forced him out of contact drills during spring practice.

No less an NFL defensive authority than Monte Kiffin, now Tennessee's defensive coordinator, acknowledges that Berry is something special.

"He's a special player because he's so good at covering," Kiffin said. "He can play man-to-man or he can come down in the box. He's very, very smart. He's the whole package. Some guys can cover and do this, or hit and do that. He does it all."

Kiffin widely is considered the architect of the "Cover 2" defense, which relies heavily on sound safety play. In his defense, the strong safety is expected to be a punishing hitter who patrols the middle of the field. Berry is perfect for that scheme. Or probably any other scheme, for that matter.

"Eric can play a lot of different positions," Kiffin said. "We'll take advantage of that, but we won't make drastic changes. He's pretty darn good right now. We're not going to do anything to screw him up."

Kiffin isn't the only NFL legend who has praised Berry. While on a visit to Knoxville two years ago, Indianapolis Colts quarterback Peyton Manning perhaps the most beloved player in Tennessee history faced Berry in a practice session.

"He did seven-on-seven drills with us my freshman year," Berry said. "I picked him off and had a PBU [pass broken up] on a deep post. He said I was one of the top defenders he'd gone against."

Intercepting Manning was easy. Avenging him for Vols fans, anyway will be a lot harder.

Manning was the favorite to win the Heisman in 1997. He passed for 3,819 yards and led the Volunteers to the SEC championship. But a wave of support grew in favor of Michigan cornerback Charles Woodson, who outpolled Manning to become the first and only primarily defensive player to win college football's highest individual award.

The snub stunned Tennessee fans, and 12 years later the vote still doesn't sit well with the state's general populace.

Doug Mathews, a former Tennessee assistant and the longtime host of "Big Orange Sunday," a Nashville radio show, said Tennesseans felt cheated when Manning didn't win.

"I really felt at the time that the ESPN SportsCenter guys pushed hard and made it plain they wanted Woodson to win," Mathews said. "I don't think they had anything against Peyton, but it made a good story. [ESPN] was affiliated with ABC and ABC handled all the Big Ten games and handled the Rose Bowl. They might have played a role in it. I don't think there are many folks who thought Peyton wasn't the best player."

Berry could be the next defensive player deserving of the trophy. And perhaps a similar groundswell of support could arise for him.

"I think that's a possibility," Berry said. "But I don't want anyone voting for me because I'm at Peyton's school. I don't want any handouts. If I do have the opportunity, I want it to be because I'm the best player in college football."

The Heisman is awarded to college football's "most outstanding" player, not necessarily the best player. If it were awarded to the best player, Berry would be among the top preseason candidates. But while Tennessee sports information department officials plan to promote Berry as a Heisman candidate, there are too many factors against him being a serious contender.

First, he plays defense. No defensive player has finished in the top five in the Heisman voting since Woodson won.

Second, Woodson won in a year in which Michigan shared the national championship. Tennessee is coming off a 5-7 disaster in '08, which resulted in the ouster of coach Phillip Fulmer. The Vols aren't expected to contend for the SEC East title, much less the national championship, this season.

Third, when Woodson won, the top seven finishers in the Heisman voting in 1996 didn't return in '97. By comparison, the top three finishers in last year's Heisman balloting Oklahoma's Sam Bradford, Texas' Colt McCoy and Florida's Tim Tebow return, and Bradford and Tebow already have won a Heisman.

One plus is that, like Woodson, Berry has had some return duties and has played on offense. Last season, Berry returned two kickoffs for 32 yards, rushed for 37 yards and caught a pass for three yards. He wanted more opportunities on offense, especially with Tennessee struggling to score points. But Fulmer refused.

"I wanted to play some offense and I pleaded with Coach Fulmer," Berry said. "But he knew about my shoulder and didn't want to put me in that position. I respect him for not putting my health in danger even though I was begging to play. He said, 'No, we're not going to take that chance.' "

Berry said he'd like to play offense in '09, too, but not to enhance his chances of winning the Heisman. That would be too overt.

"It's just not me to be pushing myself for the Heisman or any other award," he said. "I just like to play. I just want to get back to the SEC championship and win a BCS game."

Those priorities were shaped by a strong family influence. His father was a three-year starter at running back and a 1981 captain for the Vols.

"He always stressed, 'Don't dwell on material things,' " Berry said. "He'd say, 'Do what you're supposed to do on and off the field, and don't worry about anything else.' "

Still, some things Berry can't help but worry about. He doesn't wear his emotions on his sleeves, but there are hints about his concerns under them. "Berry Pride" is etched into his muscular arms. He got the tattoos after his father was laid off from his job with Owens-Corning. His mother, who had worked for a home builder, lost her job, too.

"It reminds me of the struggles my family has been through and how we're bouncing back from adversity," he said of his tattoo. "Whatever you're going through, you have to focus on the tasks at hand.

"My dad said that stuff [losing a job] doesn't define the person you are. It tells you who you are and what you're made of."

This time next year, Berry may be on the verge of making millions of dollars. He will be eligible for the NFL draft after the '09 season, and if he enters, he'll likely be a high first-round selection. Just like that, any financial difficulties his family faces would vanish.

But that's a year away. Maybe two.

For now, Berry's motivation simply is to try to help Tennessee win a championship and make his mother proud.

"I love to see her happy," he said. "Watching me play football puts a smile on her face."

He's given her many reasons to smile. So many, in fact, that she demands something really special for a more animated reaction.

"It takes something really good for me to get up and cheer," Carol said. "I love to see him get an interception. That's exciting.

"Not to brag, but if I got up every time Eric did something, I'd never sit down."

Instead, she tries to stay incognito, just like he does.

"I'm a shy person as well," Carol said. "Eric gets a lot of that from me. I don't even wear anything that acknowledges I'm Eric's mom."

Of course not. Think about it: Did anyone ever notice Superman's mother?

Olin Buchanan is the senior college football writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at olin@rivals.com.

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