Lisa Berry told her husband to put the doctor on the phone. She couldn’t believe the words she had just heard.
They want to put you on a ventilator?! That doesn’t make sense.
But that was exactly what the doctor told her. Hospital staff were preparing to connect her husband to the breathing machine by inserting a tube down his windpipe and into his lungs. He had COVID-19 double pneumonia, and doctors said he had a 50-50 chance of survival at best.
About a year earlier, Lisa’s seemingly healthy brother was in the same position. Doctors put him on a ventilator, but he died 28 days later at age 53. She knew a ventilator was a last resort for her husband.
“This is our only option,” the doctor said.
Was there enough time for Lisa to make the short drive to the hospital to see her husband before he was sent into a medically induced coma? “No,” the doctor said, “it’s an emergency.”
After speaking with the doctor, Lisa heard her husband’s withering voice next. He fought for each breath. The conversation was short. They told each other, “I love you,” and she added, through tears, “You’ll be fine. … You’ll be fine.”
Then, moments later, Todd Berry’s world went dark.
To most in college football, Berry is the executive director of the American Football Coaches Association and one of the most influential leaders in the sport. He sits on various NCAA governance committees that create and approve policy and is the leader and spokesperson for hundreds of college football coaches. A former coach himself, Berry had stints with Army and Louisiana-Monroe.
But among doctors and nurses at Baylor Scott & White Hillcrest Medical Center’s ICU unit, Berry had a nickname: “Golden Boy.”
And, on Jan. 24, 11 days after being admitted to the hospital and six days after being removed from a ventilator, “Golden Boy” walked out to a parade of cheers. Nurses and doctors were celebrating an unusual occurrence—a patient who had been connected to a ventilator for four days and lived to tell about it.
“I feel very fortunate to be here right now,” Berry says. “When I left there, I was trying to thank everybody and they were clapping. The doctor said, ‘We needed this as much as you. We haven’t had a lot of success here.”
Berry, 61, agreed to share his personal story with Sports Illustrated as a way to remind people that the pandemic lingers within college sports as it does across the world. He is a survivor of COVID-19 double pneumonia, and one of the few among major college sports to speak publicly about his serious experience with the virus.
A grizzled, hard-nosed and sometimes stubborn former football coach brought to the cusp of death by an invisible enemy, Berry is now more willing to discuss COVID-19 and the vaccine, encouraging those against vaccination to reconsider.
“I certainly have more of a message on this than before,” he says. “I’d take the next round a little more seriously. I’ve been much more open to talk about this than I was, and even some friends of mine who weren’t vaccinated have gotten vaccinated since this time frame.
“Coaching and being around football, you fight through things. There is a certain amount of pride that gets in the way. You don’t think you’re bulletproof, but you do have that mentality. I had to embrace something I didn’t think would come.”
Berry, who was in good health without any underlying conditions, was vaccinated before being hospitalized. He received two doses of the Moderna vaccine last spring, but had not yet gotten the third booster shot. The vaccine’s effectiveness has been found to decrease with time, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have recommended the booster for those five to six months removed from their second vaccine shot.
While the booster may have prevented his hospitalization, Berry is thankful he received the vaccine last March. Without it, doctors told him, his lungs would have been much worse.
“Todd is here for two reasons—the vaccine and God,” Lisa says. “They kept telling me that the one thing he [had] in his favor is he’s been vaccinated. The doctors and nurses told me that. I believe in science.”
Six weeks since he left the hospital, Berry is on the path to a full recovery. He’s been off regular oxygen since Feb. 15 and lost 30 pounds due to the coronavirus. He is also experiencing lingering effects, like mysterious numbness in his feet (doctors have tested his circulation and it’s fine) and fits of coughing.
All of this, however, is better than the alternative.
Berry believes he contracted the coronavirus the week before the AFCA coaches convention, which was held in San Antonio on Jan. 9–11. He quarantined for the CDC’s recommended five-day period, believed he was fully recovered and then attended the event. Three days after the convention ended, his oxygen level dropped into the 60s (normal is 95% or higher). Lisa phoned 911 and an ambulance transported him to the Baylor Scott & White Hillcrest Medical Center, a large complex that overlooks I-35 and sits about five miles south of Baylor’s campus. The Berrys moved to Waco about six years ago, as their youngest daughter, Ryleigh, is a junior at the university.
When Todd arrived at the hospital, the doctor examined his vitals. He recalls the physician saying: “This is bad.” A day later, the same man handed Berry a cellphone while he lay in a hospital bed. “If you need to say goodbye to some people, this is the time. We’re putting you on a ventilator.”
Berry was sedated into a medically induced coma and completely paralyzed for the first day. While he was under light sedation during the final three days on the ventilator, hospital staff brought him in and out of sedation to check his cognition. He remembers only blurry figures and muffled words.
At one point under light sedation, Berry recalls hearing medical staff discussing his prognosis, and the discussion wasn’t good. That’s when he began doing something no other patient had done in the ICU—he started to randomly raise his hand off the bed and into the air at various times.
“I wanted everybody to know that I’m still here and don’t give up on me yet,” he says.
Lisa got to visit for an hour each day. Decked in protective gear, she prayed over her mandatory husband’s sedated body and at times read him scripture. The Berrys, both raised in Oklahoma, were college sweethearts and will celebrate their 40th wedding anniversary in July. They got married during Todd’s senior season with the Golden Hurricanes. He played for coach John Cooper and later was a Tulsa student assistant under offensive coordinator Larry Coker—the start of what was a meandering coaching life.
The Berrys moved 15 times in Todd’s 36 years as a coach. At one point, Lisa says, they moved three times in an 11-month span. “I loved our life, our coaching life,” she says. “It was always an adventure.”
During Berry’s illness, Lisa decided against posting about her husband’s situation on social media and declined to confirm the news to one media outlet when it contacted her in January. While she wanted the prayers, she also wanted to avoid being overwhelmed. Many college coaches knew very little, if they knew at all. Word began to leak around the time of the NCAA convention, held Jan. 19–22, when Wyoming coach Craig Bohl filled in for Berry during NCAA committee meetings.
When Lisa arrived at the hospital on Jan. 19, she found her husband had made a somewhat miraculous recovery, extreme enough that doctors had completely removed him from the machine. He was breathing on his own.
Lisa and Todd recently returned to the ICU unit to deliver gifts and snacks to the nurses and doctors who cared for him. Without them, he knows he would not be here right now, opening up to a reporter about the most grueling experience of his life. He acknowledges he experienced times of despair while on the ventilator and questioned whether he could fight any longer. “I thought about my girls and wife and that sort of thing,” he says.
The experience changed the Berrys forever. Lisa describes it as a “major shift” in their lives. They are now OK with talking about COVID-19 and the vaccine. They are OK with sharing their story and hope it could perhaps have a lasting impact on someone.
“The people that know were shocked. Some people changed their mind about the vaccine,” Lisa says. “I have friends against the vaccine and [they] don’t believe in it. When I say it helped Todd, they disagree with me, and that’s OK That’s their opinion.
“Our perspective has shifted for sure. Don’t take anything for granted. Tomorrow is not promised. It’s real and it’s out there. It can happen to anybody.”