Soon after being named coach of the Tennessee Volunteers, Derek Dooley created the multi-faceted “Vol for Life” program, led by former UT defensive back Andre Lott, that focuses on four areas of personal growth for players: character education, life skills, career development and spiritual growth.

“When we put in that tag-phrase ‘Vol for Life,’ it’s something that’s not a creation, it’s real,” Dooley told The Daily Beacon. “These guys, when they leave here, they consider themselves Vols. It’s the whole ‘Once a Vol, always a Vol.’”

So what does the term “Vol for Life” truly mean?

“I think it’s one: recognizing and appreciating the three-to-four year experience (players) had at Tennessee, and all that Tennessee gave to them,” Dooley said. “Then, when they leave, there’s a continual bond that the player has with the program and that the program has with the player. It’s so important not to ever feel a disconnect between program and former players because they are the ones that made this program the special program that it is and I’ll always remember that.”


There is no longer a Heisman Trophy campaign.
 
Even the large photo on the back of Neyland Stadium’s jumbotron has been replaced.

But Eric Berry is still very much a part of Tennessee football.

“He’s represented this program just tremendously on and off the field,” coach Derek Dooley said. “In fact, he was here this summer and I told him how much I appreciated the way he represented this place because he’s looked up to by so many young people. It helps us in recruiting because when guys are having that kind of success on the field and representing that success the right way off the field.”

Berry’s three-year career as a Volunteer from 2007-09 included consensus All-American honors as a sophomore and junior, as well as being named SEC Player of the Year in 2008. He also provided UT fans with a lifetime of memories before beginning a pro career with the NFL’s Kansas City Chiefs.

“The biggest thing I remember about Tennessee is the fans, definitely the fans,” Berry told The Daily Beacon during the summer. “I’m thankful to have fans in Kansas City like the ones in Knoxville. You know, a lot of NFL teams don’t have fans like here so I was really hoping I was going somewhere that could at least match up with Tennessee.”

The Chiefs selected Berry with the fifth overall pick in the 2009 NFL Draft and were immediately rewarded.

“It was a good year, definitely could’ve used some improvement,” Berry said. “Made it to the Pro Bowl, but not how I wanted to, you know. I made it kind of off default. (Baltimore Ravens’ safety) Ed Reed had a family situation he had to tend to and (Pittsburgh Steelers’ safety) Troy Polamalu was playing in the Super Bowl.”

Even with the individual and team success — the Chiefs made the playoffs — Berry’s rookie campaign had a learning curve.

“In college, I didn’t get beat too much, especially not for any touchdowns,” he said. “Somebody might have a catch on me or something like that, but I can probably count on one hand how many touchdowns. Coming into the league (NFL), I got beat for a few touchdowns, (one) ended up winning one game.

“If you’re not built for that, you can do two things, you can fold up and get discouraged about it or you can try to find ways to fix that problem and bounce back. It can be a lot on a young guy coming in. That’s something totally different for me. I just kept fighting, kept watching film, kept working on my technique, and I’m still doing that. Just fought throughout the whole season and had a pretty good year.”

During the NFL lockout this summer, Berry hosted numerous youth camps in Atlanta, Ga. near his hometown of Fairburn and in Knoxville. He also has established the “Eric Berry Foundation,” which restores community parks for kids.

Yet, despite moving on in his football career, Berry still keeps in contact with current Vols like Art Evans, C.J. Fleming, Daryl Vereen and Prentiss Waggner.

“Eric is a guy that was my recruiting host when I came on a visit to Tennessee,” Waggner said. “Ever since then, we’ve just had that bond because I’m a guy that hangs out with Art Evans and he’s like my big brother, and that’s Eric Berry’s best friend, so we always keep that communication and stay in touch.”

For Evans, Berry and he are more than just best friends.

“That’s my brother,” he said. “I don’t call him my friend, I call him my brother ’cause that’s how close we are since day one. He’s a very humble guy and at the same time, pretty big brother towards demanding and wanting to see you do good ... It’s a blessing I got to experience and be a part of his life and watch him do good things and great things at the same time.”

And it’s that family-like relationship that extends beyond the gridiron that makes Berry a “Vol for Life.”

“It’s like we’re brothers now, you know,” Berry said. “We spent the time here at the University of Tennessee. It’s like we built this bond that could never be broken.”