Two things I can tell you about Sept. 15, 2007: It was hot — very hot. And Eric Berry housed an errant pass from Tim Tebow.
I was in a tree stand on the side of a hill at Prentice Cooper Wildlife Management Area outside Chattanooga, participating in an early season whitetail deer archery draw hunt. Tennessee’s football team was in The Swamp. And getting beat.
I was attempting to listen for deer movement with one ear while listening to Bob Kesling and Tim Pries on the Vol Network with my other ear . . . and failing at it pretty miserably, I might add.
Not that it mattered; Florida was dominating the day, anyway. Almost halfway through the third quarter, the Gators were leading 28-13 and driving into the Tennessee red zone. A touchdown would make it 35-13, and that would be lights out.
And then Berry — as CBS broadcaster Verne Lundquist put it — took the cape off Tim Tebow. Defending Florida’s Riley Cooper in one-on-one coverage, Berry stepped in front of Cooper, picked off Tebow’s pass and returned it 95 yards for a touchdown. He was so fast that only Tebow had a shot to tackle him . . . but the slow white guy had no chance against the 18-year-old who had won state championships as a track athlete in Fairburn, Ga.
Berry’s name was a familiar one to Tennessee fans by that scorching September afternoon. He was considered the top cornerback prospect in the nation coming out of Creekside High School, and had been a big “steal” for UT coach Phillip Fulmer — though it really wasn’t much of a steal, since Berry’s father had played for Tennessee.
But on that day — the only time I’ve ever jumped up and done a fist-pump while hanging on the side of an oak tree 25 ft. off the ground — the true freshman found his way into the hearts of most Vols fans.
The 95-yard return was the fourth-longest interception return in school history. And, yeah, Florida went on to continue dominating the afternoon, eventually winning 59-20. But that didn’t make the INT any less exciting. By the end of that freshman season, despite having only five interceptions, Berry had accumulated 222 return yards, a new school record. He was named a freshman All-American and was Sporting News’ national defensive freshman of the year.
As a sophomore in 2008, Berry was named a team captain — one of the very few sophomores in UT history to obtain that status. With seven interceptions, he broke his INT return yards record from the previous season, totaling 265 yards and two touchdowns.
With a total of 487 INT return yards, Berry had already set the SEC record for interception return yards despite only being a sophomore. And he wasn’t finished.
Berry entered his junior season in 2009 needing only 14 yards to break the NCAA record for interception returns. But something predictable happened that season: teams stopped throwing at him. He finished with just seven return yards on two interceptions. After being named a consensus All-American for a second straight season, and winning the Jim Thorpe Award, he opted to forego his senior season of eligibility and entered the NFL Draft.
Berry was selected by Kansas City as the fifth overall pick of the 2010 NFL Draft. He was selected to the Pro Bowl as a rookie. In three seasons with the Chiefs — he missed all the 2011 season due to a torn ACL — Berry has 8 interceptions, 236 return yards and 3 touchdowns. He wears No. 29, in honor of former Vol Inky Johnson, who suffered a career-ending and life-threatening injury on the field.
For your viewing pleasure, Eric Berry de-caping Tim Tebow:
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