KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — As a high school senior, Eric Berry approached his family’s dentist about doing an internship.
Berry wanted to be a dentist too and was inquisitive and observant during the semester-long internship with Dr. Robert White. It didn’t take White long to realize that Berry’s professional career would end up going a different direction.
“After his freshman year (in college) we talked about football,” White said with a laugh Tuesday. “At that point his potential was observed and shining through. I told him to focus on what he needed to do now.”
The two-time All-American now has the potential to become one of the highest NFL draft ever at safety after dazzling scouts throughout his three-year career with the Tennessee Volunteers.
Most mock drafts have Berry going in the early first round in Thursday’s draft, and only three safeties have been drafted as high as fifth overall. Eric Turner was drafted second overall in 1991 by Cleveland, Seattle took Kenny Easley fourth overall in 1981 and Sean Taylor was picked fifth overall in 2004 by Washington.
Berry has visited with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Washington Redskins and Kansas City Chiefs, who respectively hold the third through fifth picks in the first round. He’s also met with Cleveland, which has the seventh overall pick, and Philadelphia, which holds the 24th overall pick.
In his typical humble manner, Berry doesn’t credit his own ball-hawking and tackling skills for making him so draftable, instead thanking players like Pittsburgh’s Troy Polamalu and Baltimore’s Ed Reed for paving the way for him.
“I just hope regardless of position or whatever they say about safeties not going high, I hope someone recognizes the talent I can bring and not just on the field,” Berry said.
It’s been kind of hard not to recognize the talent of the do-it-all player who won the Jim Thorpe Award as the nation’s top college defensive back.
Berry has an instinct for being where the ball is. He was named the 2008 Southeastern Conference defensive player of the year after posting a Football Bowl Subdivision-best seven interceptions and returning them for a single-season Southeastern Conference record 265 yards.
He holds the SEC career record with 494 career return yards interception return yards and was just 8 return yards shy of breaking Terrell Buckley’s NCAA career record.
When he wasn’t picking off passers, he was hitting tailbacks, receivers and sometimes quarterbacks. In his lone season playing for Lane Kiffin and his father, defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin, Berry played closer to the line of scrimmage and functioned at times like a linebacker.
Clips have been widely circulated on YouTube.com of two of his more memorable hits: a shoulder-to-shoulder hit on Knowshon Moreno in 2008 that had the Georgia tailback sitting out a few of the following plays and a head-on collision with Florida quarterback Tim Tebow.
Blake Beddingfield, scouting coordinator with the NFL’s Tennessee Titans, said Berry’s versatility can really impact a team.
“I think that’s why Eric is thought of pretty highly. He’s a good cover guy. He’s also good in the run game. He’s been a good player for three years at Tennessee and really had a good career at Tennessee and should go on to the league as well,” Beddingfield said.
Berry is hoping NFL team officials notice what he’s done off the field as well, especially at a time when teams are cracking down on misbehaving players.
He was chosen as a captain at Tennessee his sophomore year. He was a captain throughout high school while starting as quarterback and safety at Creekside High School in Fairburn, Ga., for four years.
“I’ve been a captain all my life in football. That just comes naturally to me,” Berry said.
He was one of the first players to talk with Kiffin when the coach was hired at Tennessee in December 2008 to replace Phillip Fulmer, the man who recruited Berry. Instead of rejecting Kiffin, Berry did his best to encourage his teammates to accept the new coach.
The 21-year-old is already trying to set an example for kids in Fairburn by using some of the money earned by signing with an agent to install new turf on the field where he played football as a kid.
Berry is also doing his best to take care of his family, who has done so much to take care of him. His father, former Tennessee tailback James Berry, recently had surgery and his mother, Carol, lost her job last year.
Now he’s enjoying watching them relax, and he bought his mom a brand new Land Rover to show off to her friends.
Berry hasn’t completely passed on his dream of being a dentist and still keeps in touch with White to talk about life after football.
“We talked about post career, what he could do,” White said. “He can still be involved in the dental field. I showed him an article of a football player who went to medical school after the NFL.”