ATLANTA -- The last time Eric Berry came home to Atlanta during the football season was two years ago, to begin chemotherapy at Emory University for Hodgkin's lymphoma. On Sunday, just a few days past the anniversary of his diagnosis, Berry returned for his first professional game in his hometown. The emotion of the moment flooded in, which made his performance all the more remarkable.
"I shed a few tears before the game, I shed a few during the game, I shed a few after," Berry said. "I was just thankful for the opportunity. I take pride in a lot of things that people take for granted so I just cherish it and make the most of it."
He did that on Sunday. His 37-yard interception return for a touchdown at the end of the first half, and his returned interception of a two-point conversion attempt -- after the Atlanta Falcons had taken the lead -- lifted the Chiefs to a 29-28 victory that kept them knotted in the thick of the crowded AFC West playoff race.
In the standings, that mattered most, considering that it kept the Denver Broncos one game behind the Chiefs, who began the day trailing the Oakland Raiders for the division lead and are preparing to host the Raiders on Thursday night. The Chiefs have won in odd ways all season -- they are dominant in no category except takeaways, and they lead the league in points off turnovers. Their pull-a-rabbit-out-of-the-hat methods, which on Sunday included a 55-yard touchdown run by Albert Wilson on a fake punt, have convinced them that they are never out of a game.
But for Berry, whom Alex Smith called the heart and soul of the team, this was a far more personal triumph. After his first interception return, Berry handed the ball to his mother, who was watching from the stands. He had decided before the game that he would give her the ball he received from this game. He said nothing to her beyond, "I'll be back."
"I just try to give her whatever," Berry said. "It won't amount to the things she has given me and my dad as well. So many nights, I just was crying on their shoulder and trying to make sense of everything that was going on. And they just kept telling me, just keep pressing, you'll be back, you'll be able to play the game the way I want to play the game. And for it to happen, both of them supported me throughout the whole process I can't thank them enough. I can't do enough to show my thanks, so I keep pushing and keep trying."
Berry's resilience mirrors the Chiefs', who stopped the Falcons' top-ranked scoring offense three times in the red zone and twice from inside the 5-yard line. Berry said that the defense talks during practice about continuing to play hard in the red zone. The opponent is not in the end zone until they are in, the Chiefs tell one another. There is nothing that can be done about what happened to put them in a hole, so keep playing.
"He's the embodiment of what we're about -- selflessness, hard work, giving it up for the guy next to you," Smith said. "That's all Eric talks about. It's real. It's sincere. There's no phoniness about it. It's from the heart. That really does echo throughout the locker room because of who he is and the way he plays."
The Falcons had scored two touchdowns in the fourth quarter to come back from an 11-point deficit. But after they could not convert on a two-point conversion following the first touchdown, they were forced to try another after the second to increase their lead to three. But Berry darted in front of Matt Ryan's intended receiver, tight end Austin Hooper, at the goal line and took off, running untouched the entire way and virtually alone for the final 60 yards. The two-point play gave the Chiefs the lead for good. The swing was so stunning that coach Andy Reid exhaled deeply after his post-game remarks and muttered, "Oh, man."
"Just growing up, my dad always told me the most important point of the game is the extra point," Berry said. "A lot of people take that play off. It's an opportunity to make something happen and I'm going to make the most of it."
As he left the stadium to head into the Atlanta rain, Berry's return to Atlanta was over. The opportunities, for him and the Chiefs, continue.