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Chiefs rookie safety Eric Berry's roots in Georgia keep him anchored in Kansas City

PHOTOS () -

By Kent Babb

McClatchy Newspapers

(MCT)

KANSAS CITY, Mo. - Eric Berry is a one-man shopping spree, carrying more merchandise than he can hold. Up the aisles he goes, picking up this and inspecting that.

"Should've got a basket," says Berry, a rookie Chief safety. "I just pick up stuff as I go."

It's the day after his 22nd birthday, the next-to-last day of December and the end of a very good year. Berry became one of the NFL's richest players in 2010, signing a contract with the Chiefs that'll pay him a guaranteed $34 million. So on this day, he figured he would treat himself. No reason to make a list.

"I just kind of freestyle," he says, eyeing the many treasures surrounding him.

He had knocked out the luxury items earlier: Gummi Worms, Pop-Tarts and a jug of Hawaiian Punch the size of a small suitcase.

"A whole gallon!" he says.

Now he's after the essentials. He's in a corner of the store now, popping the caps on body wash and sniffing the contents. He sets one bottle back on the shelf and picks up one with a coconut on the label. He knows this same bottle would cost more than $5 at some stores. But here, at the Family Dollar at 54th Street and Prospect Avenue, it's $3. This is where he prefers to do some of his shopping.

Berry closes the cap, gathers the rest of his cargo and walks to another corner. A six-pack of toothbrushes is $1. He grabs two.

"I like these," he says, and he understands this needs some explanation. A multimillionaire who goes to one of the city's grittiest areas and rifles through the bathroom supplies to save a few nickels?

"Don't get me wrong," he continues. "I like nice things. But if I can save on it, I will."

Berry is one of the Chiefs' young cornerstones, the jewel of a draft class built with character as a priority as much as ability - and this class and that strategy could influence the team for years. Berry is the face of this movement, and this last week he became the first Chiefs player ever to be chosen NFL defensive rookie of the month. But more than that, he thinks things through, on and off the field, and that's why the team drafted him last April with the No. 5 overall pick.

The team justified the selection because of things like this: When other rookies are beginning a big night in their city's social district, Berry visits teammates Shaun Smith and Kendrick Lewis to watch game film. There are other examples. When others are spending hundreds on petite filets and lobster tails for their friends, Berry is cooking steaks at home with his father, James.

It's the way he learned to do things. He's not about to change.

And on this day, he's just getting started.

"Man," says Brandon Flowers, one of Berry's teammates on the Chiefs' defense, "I don't even think he realizes how much money he's got."

-----

Berry sets down the first load behind the counter and heads back for Round 2. He's mostly anonymous here; his chiseled frame is covered with jeans and a white, long-sleeved shirt. Other than one stock clerk's curious stare, Berry walks the aisles unrecognized.

For the most part, he's oblivious that this is anything but normal.

"Oh!" he says, stopping. "I remember what I needed to get."

He heads toward the cleaning supplies, stopping again to examine the Febreze. He looks at the price first and hooks the nozzle around an index finger. One of the ways Berry does treat himself is by having a woman clean his loft. Before she started, the woman asked him whether she should bring her own cleansers. It would cost a little extra, but the busy football player wouldn't have to worry about it.

No, Berry said. He'd take care of it. His mother had bought things at a dollar store for years. She taught him that there's no reason to spend more than you should. Why change the formula now?

It was in those days in Fairburn, Ga., a blue-collar town outside Atlanta, that Berry learned about sacrifice and how to make dollars last. He was his parents' only child for seven years, but then James and Carol Berry had twin boys, and everything changed. Young Eric wasn't the family's centerpiece anymore, and there weren't as many extra dollars, either. Besides, Carol worked for a home builder, and James painted houses and installed fiberglass insulation.

The parents had enough to provide, but there wasn't much point in their boys asking for something extra.

"He knew we couldn't go out and buy him the latest and the greatest," Carol says now.

Eric sometimes worked with his dad, scraping stubborn old paint from walls, sweating for a few cents and listening to his father talk about how things change in life, and if you're smart, you'll never spend your last dollar - because you never know when you might need it. Eric's parents drove cars until the engines went out and refused to replace a television until the old set went dark for good.

"We've always taken the philosophy of: 'If it's not broke, we could still deal with it,'" Carol Berry says.

The boy listened to his dad on those jobs, but more than that, he watched him and knew that wasn't the kind of career he wanted. The father and son trudged through the days, and sometimes Eric daydreamed about where his next football game might be. The games with pads were fine and all, but Eric learned the sport while playing on the pavement. Things got rowdy sometimes, and on some days, fights broke out.

"Made me tough," Berry says now.

But that wasn't all that Carol wanted her son to be. When she went shopping, her eldest son went with her. Before they would go in a store, she'd hand him a few dollars or maybe five, and tell him that if he helped her find a few things for the house, he could buy whatever he wanted with that money.

They walked the aisles and talked, the mother showing her son how to save on essentials. She thought he was tuning her out, a mother jabbering to an unaware son, but then instead of taking a few dollars with him to high school for lunch, he'd take leftovers and use the microwave.

Not only that, but when Carol had done her shopping and Eric had visited the toy department, she started to notice something else about her eldest son: He would almost always leave with something left in his pocket.

-----

Berry became serious about football, and before long, colleges began talking with him about scholarships. The kid could play, but there was more to him than good feet, solid instincts and speed.

"What I want you to know about Eric Berry is that he's not just a football player," says Kevin Whitley, his former coach at Creekside High in Georgia. "He's the type of young man you want your daughter to marry."

He went to Tennessee, where his father had been a running back in the 1980s, and quickly made an impression in Knoxville. And every week, Berry's family piled into a weathered SUV they had driven for years, watched Eric light up Neyland Stadium and then headed on back to Georgia. They put more than 200,000 miles on that SUV, and it's still running and still in the family.

After three seasons, NFL teams were looking at Berry, trying to find something they'd missed. They kept talking to former coaches and teammates and old friends, and they all said the same thing: You want this guy on your team.

The Chiefs dug and prodded and interviewed. The learned that Berry is a blue-collar player with a white-collar sensibility, the kind of athlete who can win a game and the kind of man who can inspire a locker room.

On a Thursday night last April, Berry's family joined him in New York for the NFL draft. The Chiefs' decision-makers had made their minds up weeks earlier. There was a particular direction the team planned to go with that draft class, and only one player - the top pick - could become the face of this daring movement that places character, leadership and maturity on par with ability.

"We want guys that are professional - who are accountable to their teammates," general manager Scott Pioli said then, a few hours after the Chiefs drafted Berry at No. 5. "Who are going to work hard, do the right thing, pay attention, be on time, be accountable to their teammates, be accountable to this entire organization and all the people working in it. And be accountable to this city.

"What we're looking for in character, this guy has it."

-----

During the next few months, the things the Chiefs had seen in him were becoming clear. He was the team's first top choice in four years to sign his contract before its first training-camp practice. After summer workouts, he would often sign autographs for nearly an hour. Even now, he refuses to conduct television interviews without a shirt, because he thinks some viewers might see his tattoos and form an incorrect opinion of him.

"He doesn't act like a first-round pick," Smith says. "He doesn't do the whole diva thing. You would never know it. That's just the kind of guy he is."

That doesn't mean he lives like a pauper. When he signed that six-year deal worth a maximum of $60 million, he sprung for a Chevy Camaro that cost $149,000 and took months to customize. Then he surprised his mother with a new Range Rover. Carol Berry would be lying if she didn't wince when he bought the cars - Did he really have to buy them new? - but in both cases, her eldest son said it was time. Time for his mother to stop driving that old SUV that leaked so much oil that Carol had to carry a few spare quarts in the back. And time for Eric to reward himself for reaching the top of his profession.

At age 21, Berry had more money that most people could spend in a lifetime. Rookies get much of their contract's guaranteed value up front, mostly in signing bonuses. Berry could buy most anything he wanted, from any store, at any corner of the globe. Instead, he remembered what his parents had taught him, and the warnings that most of today's rookies hear - 78 percent of all NFL players are broke or financially stressed after retirement - and Berry took stock.

"That stat scares me," he says.

Late last May, when Berry was driving around one night to learn his new home, he stumbled upon something that felt familiar. It was something comfortable, and he logged onto his Twitter page to let everyone know.

"I finally found the dollar store in KC!" he wrote.

-----

Berry makes his final selections and carries his haul toward the cash register. He has enough candy, soap and cleaner to last him a few weeks, but that doesn't mean he won't come back.

"It's just something I'm familiar with," he says. "A big taste of home."

He piles everything on the counter, noticing a man in a security outfit staring. The man shakes Berry's hand, and Berry smiles. The man is laughing, shaking his head at the idea that an NFL star would shop here. One of the clerks notices the commotion and calls over.

"You supposed to be somebody special or something?" she says with a smile.

Berry shakes his head.

"Nah," he says. "My name's Eric."

Another clerk starts scanning Berry's merchandise, and while he does, more customers realize that Berry, whether he realizes it or not, isn't just another customer. He's the face of the Chiefs' present and, more than that, their future - a promising young player who returned an interception for a touchdown against Tennessee four days earlier.

Sharon Madge, who's behind Berry, realizes who she's in line with.

"What's your name?" she asks.

"Eric Berry."

"I want to shake your hand," Madge says, and she does. She digs in her purse for something to get an autograph on, and when she can't find anything else, she pulls out a one-dollar bill and flattens it, face up, on the counter. Berry signs it in black ink.

"I can't believe it," Madge says. "I ain't never going to spend this dollar."

The clerk finishes tallying Berry's total - $20.59 for all this - and he hands over a twenty and a one. The clerk hands him the change, and he drops the coins in his jeans pocket.

"Not bad," he says, "for twenty."

Berry pushes the glass door open and walks into the sun as it's setting behind the tree line. He's carrying three bags and a city's expectations, and if he's able to do it and make good on his team's vision, he'll do it his way: By not being so different from everyone else.

He walks slowly on the sidewalk, looking back but still moving forward.

"It reminds me of home," he says. "Just like how everybody talks to you in the store and things like that? They recognize you. They show a lot of love around here, you know? It makes you appreciate what you're doing, makes you appreciate people and makes you want to keep trying to be successful and set good examples.

"Keeps you kind of grounded."

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(c) 2011, The Kansas City Star.

Visit The Star Web edition on the World Wide Web at http://www.kansascity.com.

Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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PHOTOS (from MCT Photo Service, 202-383-6099):

ERIC BERRY


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