It was an inauspicious beginning for Benedict College football head coach Chennis Berry.
After being hired as the team’s head coach on Feb.11, 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic struck a few weeks later and because of that, he was forced to change the way in which he wanted to build his program.
Two years later, Berry has been able to build his program into something worthwhile. The Tigers are 11-0, SIAC champions, and a No. 1 seed as they host Wingate on Saturday in the NCAA Division Ⅱ playoffs.
But for Berry, it’s about more than just the on-the-field product. He views his team as a ministry where players and coaches can be supported spiritually and taught how to be great men, husbands, and fathers.
Developing the whole football player
“I’m in this game as a head football coach to win games, but I take pride in winning souls and getting young men closer to God,” Berry said. “For me, it’s total player development. It’s not just football player development. It’s the development of the total person.”
The way it’s done at Benedict is through blaring gospel music during workout sessions and team Bible studies. The player-led scripture studies, in particular, have attracted students outside of the football team almost as much as what happens between the white lines.
Shout out to BC 🏈 Team Chaplain Pastor @bishop4bishop as he delivered an amazing Devotion last night to our Team titled “I’m a BELIEVER”! He touched on how CHRIST LOVES BELIEVERS! Such a blessed service bringing our team closer to Christ! It’s GAMEDAY!! #CLB #IMABELIEVER pic.twitter.com/aAFT9gzaJQ
— Chennis Berry (@coachberry77) September 9, 2021
Berry has also been viewed as a father figure by many players and even young staffers, often being someone who they feel comfortable being open with about anything in their lives. That relationship has resulted in several players developing and strengthening their faith.
“I’m fortunate that I have a person that I can speak with about all of the difficulties that I face because coach Berry has a lot of experience as a coach, husband, father and Christian man,” Benedict defensive coordinator Jordan Odaffer said. “He leads from the front and demands the best from every member of the program.”
Berry is big on accountability, grades and championships. As far as academics go, he created a Smart Cats program, where players who earn at least a 3.0 GPA are honored and players who need assistance are given support from members of the surrounding community.
Leadership has always been in Berry
The goal for Berry in this work is to fortify the mission as a faith-driven program.
“[We] just [have] different people in the community come and pour into our young men,” Berry said. “That’s some of the things that really help our young men because they’re able to see things that they want to be able to accomplish in life and to be able to hear those people come in and speak to them about just balancing day-to-day life. That’s always very, very helpful to our young men.”
For Berry, it’s been a long coaching journey to this point that has required faith long before he was hired at Benedict.
He has previously served as an assistant coach at seven different HBCUs over the course of 26 years. After playing at Savannah State, he joined the coaching staff at Morris Brown College in 1996.
Berry then went on a nomadic journey that featured stops at Kentucky State; Fort Valley State; North Carolina A&T; Morgan State; Howard and then Southern.
Berry always believed that he was called to be a leader because even as a player at Savannah State, he exhibited natural leadership qualities, those who knew him said.
“I was always one of the ones who wasn’t scared to step out front and tell a teammate when he’s not doing what’s right. So I believe that it was always in me,” Berry said.
Emphasizing success beyond the playing field
Upon arriving at Benedict College, the school had just received a $4.8 million grant, with some of it going toward the football program. The money was used to upgrade Charles W. Johnson Stadium as well as locker rooms and offices.
Berry’s pitch to potential recruits has always been very straightforward and to the point: if you come to Benedict College, you have a chance to become a great man, husband and father, he says. As he sees it, Benedict College president Dr. Roslyn Clark gave him a chance, so he wants his young players and staff members to be given the same chance as well.
These players had a week to rest up for the second-round playoff game against Wingate at Charles W. Johnson Stadium in Columbia, South Carolina. Berry has always appreciated the support of the fans in the stadium nicknamed “The Jungle.”
“The young men we have in our program are going to have success well beyond the playing field because of their character,” Odaffer said.
For Thanksgiving, the entire team ate together. Berry wanted to keep that sense of togetherness as they seek to become the first HBCU national champion since FAMU in 1978. Berry knows what a championship would mean to the school and the city, so he hopes to accomplish one of the main goals to set out for when he first arrived.
He’ll do it not to bring glory to God.
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