John Berry still looks like an athlete in excellent condition. At 6 feet and 180 pounds, the Anacostia resident has the physique of a football player--broad shoulders, strong build, clearly defined muscles. Then he lifts part of his white sweater, revealing one of his "battle wounds." The 12-inch scar that starts just above his waist and runs upward along the left side of his body is where doctors removed one of his kidneys and inserted it into his brother's body.
Unlike the cuts and bruises Berry, 22, received on the athletic fields at DeMatha High School and Williams College, the infliction of this wound was voluntary. And unlike his previous medical problems, including a surgically reconstructed left knee, from which he recuperated, this injury ended his football career.
Faced with the prospect of his older brother, DeAngelo, dying from renal failure, John donated a kidney to replace his brother's failing organs. The transplant operation, performed June 12 at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, was successful. But with the possibility of death should he rupture his one remaining kidney, and having the operation just two months before the start of football practice, John decided not to play football this fall, his final season of eligibility at Williams.
"I made the decision and football really didn't have anything to do with it," Berry said. "To me, it wasn't a decision. This is more about life . . . my brother gaining his life. I look at him now and he is the most rambunctious person. That is my reward."
The decision was made easier by the closeness of the family. Although DeAngelo, 26, is a half-brother of John and sister Janisse, 20, (DeAngelo has a different father), the three were close growing up together. Money was scarce and sometimes it was difficult putting food on the table, but their parents, Lolethia Lucas and John Berry Sr. (who divorced four years ago), shielded the children from the family's financial problems.
DeAngelo was a standout baseball player at DuVal High School in Lanham, then joined the Navy. He married, had three children and was stationed in Norfolk last fall taking classes in engineering and computers when he started to feel ill. Tests revealed his kidneys were failing, and he was placed on a lengthy list of people seeking organ donors.
"It was scary at first," DeAngelo said. "It was new to me and I didn't know what to expect. I knew you can die from [renal failure]. Once they explained [how the transplant process] works, it calmed me down."
Around the same time, his brother was finishing a splendid junior season at Williams, a small liberal arts college in the Berkshire Mountains in western Massachusetts that does not offer athletic scholarships. Berry's football skills blossomed after he graduated from DeMatha, where he played little as a senior in 1994. At Williams, an NCAA Division III school that competes in the New England Small College Athletic Conference, Berry moved from quarterback to cornerback and became a standout.
In the fall of 1998, one year after red-shirting the previous season because of a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee, Berry returned to lead the Ephs to an 8-0 record. Elected a team captain by his teammates, he had four interceptions, including two in a victory over arch rival Amherst, and was named first-team all-NESCAC. He also started undergoing tests to see if he was a match as a kidney donor for DeAngelo.
Because of his physical condition, John was a prime candidate for organ donation. In the spring, doctors agreed that his kidney would be a match for his brother; DeAngelo's name was taken off the waiting list.
That John was willing to go through with the transplant did not surprise his brother.
"He has always been caring and giving that way," DeAngelo said. "There aren't any words to describe it. If there's something you need, he'll give it to you."
But DeAngelo and Lucas still had their doubts about John's decision. DeAngelo believed his brother was interested in playing professional football (John wasn't), and he knew the operation would end those hopes. Lucas, meanwhile, already was upset about DeAngelo's suffering; she could barely face having both sons in the hospital.
"When he decided to give his kidney, I was devastated," Lucas said. "I didn't want him to do it. You have one son who is basically dying and another son who has his whole life with great possibilities and to have it stop twice [because of the operations] . . . I couldn't handle it. This decision, it was amazing. My blood pressure didn't go down until a week after the operation."
The operation went off without a hitch in June. For the next month, John did little except eat, sleep and rest at his mother's apartment in Anacostia. On July 12, he started working at his summer job with the forensics division of the Secret Service. Discharged from the Navy because of the renal failure, DeAngelo now works for the D.C. Department of Parks and Recreation.
John has gotten back into shape and looks like he did before the transplant. But this fall will be different. For one, he will not be taking classes at Williams, where tuition, room and board cost approximately $30,000 annually. Instead, he will be working for the college's building and grounds department as he works toward paying back the more than $50,000 in student loans that were part of his financial aid package.
Berry still will be around the football fields. Instead of hitting a blocking dummy, however, he will be on the sidelines as one of football coach Dick Farley's assistants.
So he will wait and use his final season of eligibility to run indoor and outdoor track starting in the winter, when he will also resume classes. He needs one more semester to complete his degree with double majors in biology and psychology.
Berry knows that holding a clipboard instead of putting on his uniform and playing will be difficult.
"This will be a different challenge for me, really," he said. "I've accomplished what I wanted to do at Williams--have a perfect season. . . . We worked hard to get to that point. Now it is someone else's turn. This year is sort of like a gift because it is a medical redshirt [for the season he missed with the knee injury]. To have it taken away . . . it does have an effect, don't get me wrong, but this situation allows me to mentor and teach some of the younger guys some of the intricacies of football--stuff I didn't know when I came in."
Farley said he will miss having Berry, the only player in his 27 years as coach to be named captain twice, on the field. But, Farley said, it would have been difficult for Berry to do any better than he did last fall.
"I just look back and say he captained a team that went 8-0 and he had two interceptions in his final game," Farley said. "Maybe it was divine intervention. . . . I'm not sure he could have done any better than he already has. Plus, he has already had the opportunity to save somebody's life in his family. That is something they will carry into the future."
Although his mother said she often wonders why John had to overcome so many obstacles, John said he never lets such thoughts enter his mind.
"It would have been easy for me to think that if my family wasn't close-knit," he said. " . . . Seeing people around me, families who lost kids from drug abuse or whatever or kids that got shot. Those things put it into perspective. When the moment comes, you have to be willing to make the right choice."
CAPTION: John Berry, left, gave up a college football career when he donated a kidney to his ailing brother DeAngelo.