Jan. 1, 2010
BY DREW EDWARDS
ATLANTA - Thursday night might have been the longest Eric Berry ever lingered in the locker room after a game during his Tennessee career.
But the consensus All-America safety knew what it meant to leave Tennessee's makeshift home in the Georgia Dome following a 37-14 loss to No. 12 Virginia Tech in the Chick-fil-A Bowl.
"It's really hard. I think that's why it took me so long to get out here. I really don't want to leave, but I feel like it's just something I needed to do to help my family," said Berry, who spoke openly in July about his hopes to ease the financial pressure on his parents, both of whom lost jobs in the recent economic downturn. "Just to see how hard my parents have worked over the last 18 years (and) raising my brothers, I fell like this is something I can do to help them just sit down and relax and show my appreciation for what they've done for me."
Tennessee fans, even the ones who hoped that Berry would return for one last season, will be plenty appreciative of what Berry did in his three years at UT.
He's one of the most decorated players in school history. He's been one of the program's best examples off the field and one of its best ambassadors.
He ranks fifth in UT history with 14 career interceptions, seven of which came last year. He could have had more this season, but he unselfishly played closer to the line of scrimmage as almost a kind of hybrid linebacker/safety at times.
He's the first player Tennessee actively marketed as a Heisman Trophy candidate since Peyton Manning. He was the SEC's defensive player of the year in 2008 and won the Jim Thorpe Award as the nation's top defensive back in 2009.
He holds the SEC career record for interception return yards and is second on the NCAA career list, just 8 yards shy of Terrell Buckley. He entered the season needing 15 yards to set a new record, but he doesn't regret anything about his final season at Tennessee.
"I played every snap like it was my last," Berry said. "I made sure of that, so when I did leave I wouldn't have any regrets. From when I made my decision to come here under (former UT coach Phillip) Fulmer - and a lot of credit goes to him and his staff - I don't regret anything. Nothing last year. Nothing this year. I feel like I did everything that I could, and so did everybody else on this team."
Berry got a little emotional Thursday night talking about his teammates.
"We've become very close, not only with my teammates, but the training staff, the guys that work in the athletic department, the managers, all those guys," he said. "I became very close with all of those guys. It's so hard for me to leave that all behind to go into the draft. But it's just something I feel like I have to do because I want to see my parents just relax. It's so hard. It's like I don't want to go, but I've got to."
But Berry is making the wise choice.
Most draft analysts project him as a top-five pick in April's draft. Plus a rookie salary cap is coming in 2011, which could significantly reduce the money top draft picks receive.
The message from UT coach Lane Kiffin message was simple: Don't stay just to make him happy.
"For me to sit down with him and his father (defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin) and ask them about what I should do next year, and him telling me that I should go really made me love him even more," Berry said. "He put me before himself. He was looking at my whole situation with my family and what I needed to do. That's why a lot of the guys rallied behind coach Kiffin. He really does put his players before himself or anybody else. He loves this team."
So does Berry.
One reporter asked him Thursday night if he could name one of his proudest moments at Tennessee.
There could be scores. The interception return against Florida in the Swamp. Huge hits against Knowshon Moreno or Marquis Maize. Any number of times fans chanted his name in Neyland Stadium.
But his choice had nothing to do with him.
"One of my proudest moments was probably tonight to see (freshman) Janzen (Jackson) get that interception," Berry said. "How he matured as a player and just growing up over the whole season. I call him my protégé. For him to get that interception was great. It was something special."
Ultimately, that's how Tennessee fans will remember Berry. And that's one of the reasons his decision to leave early was so difficult.
"You come in saying that you only want to do three years," Berry said. "Just the camaraderie I built with a lot of my teammates and the fan support, just everybody. I don't want to go all the way. I want to stay. It's so much fun. But I just feel like it's a part of a very important decision that I had to make."
Follow the Vols on Twitter @UTAthletics, and read Drew Edwards' blog, The Inside Source.