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Raymond Berry: Man Of True Grit

Growing up, future National Football League receiver Raymond Berry was a scrawny kid with terrible eyesight. His eyes were so bad, in fact, that he couldn’t even see the large E at the top of the optometrist’s chart. As a result, he had to wear thick horn-rimmed glasses, which he continued to do off-field into adulthood as a pro. Meanwhile, on the playing field, he wore contacts. He also played with a tight back brace to realign a crooked spine. And if that wasn’t bad enough, he had one leg shorter than the other, forcing him to wear a lift in his cleat. He also wore special rib pads for protection.

However, Berry was one determined fellow. None of these obstacles would stop him from becoming one of the greatest pass receivers in NFL annals. In fact, his physical negatives forced him to work that much harder at other aspects of the game to achieve success.

Raymond Berry
1961 Fleer football card of Raymond Berry (US Public Domain)

Born February 27, 1933 in Corpus Christi, Texas, Berry wasn’t talented enough to make his Paris, Texas high school football team until his senior year, although his father coached the team. No favoritism there. After catching only 33 total passes in his three years at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, he was chosen by the Baltimore Colts in the twentieth round, 232 overall in the 1954 NFL draft. By then, Berry was 6-foot-2 and a lanky 185 pounds. In 1955, his first year at Baltimore, he played all 12 games and caught 13 passes for 205 yards, with no touchdowns. The next year, he improved to 37 passes, 601 yards, and two TDs. From then on, Berry never looked back, no pun intended.

His best season was 1960, where he grabbed 74 catches for 1,298 yards, the same season he had his longest gain after a quarterback throw: 70 yards to paydirt. In 1959, he scored his personal-best 14 touchdowns, while collecting 959 yards on 66 catches. An awkward runner, he wasn’t the fastest receiver or the strongest, but he got the job done. And he was hard to tackle. He had sure hands; and through intense determination, he prepared himself more than any other receiver. He was quoted as saying: “Luck is something which happens when preparation meets opportunity. One play may make the difference in winning or losing a game. I must be prepared to make my own luck.” He also said, “The most prepared are the most dedicated.”

In order to stay a step or two ahead of his pass defenders, Berry learned to run 88 possible pass patterns and practiced every one of them over and over again until he could perform them in his sleep. After team practices, he would get either the backup quarterback or another teammate to throw him deliberate bad passes, forcing him to dive or reach out for them. He would also spend considerable time perfecting pass and run plays with quarterback Johnny Unitas, another player who came out of nowhere.

Graduating from Louisville College, Unitas was drafted in the ninth round, 102 overall, by his hometown Pittsburgh Steelers in 1955. But he didn’t even make it through training camp because the team had three other signal-callers and he was the odd one out. Coach Walt Kiesling said Unitas wasn’t smart enough to be an NFL quarterback, words he would live to regret. So, Unitas--now married--went home and worked in construction to support his young family and on weekends played two-way football on a local semi-pro team for $6 a game.

Meanwhile, a Baltimore Colt scout happened to watch one of the games in which he played and was stunned. He immediately called his office to tell them that there was a kid named Unitas in a Pittsburgh sandlot league who could throw better than most NFL quarterbacks. The rest is history, so they say. For the next dozen-plus years, Unitas and Berry, once they became Colt teammates, were one of the best pass-and-run combinations in NFL history.

Together, they shone in the 1958 Championship Game in Yankee Stadium before 64,000 fans on December 28 against the New York Giants, a game that made the NFL the iconic sport that it is today. And television helped do that: 45 million nationwide saw one of the greatest football games ever, a thrilling contest that wasn’t decided until 8 minutes and 15 seconds of overtime.

Johnny Unitas
1961 Fleer football card of Johnny Unitas (US Public Domain)

The morning before the game, Berry walked the field alone and checked every inch of it: soft spots, holes, mucky areas, you name it. He determined that the field was remarkably dry except for a handful of frozen patches and hard sections inside the five-yard lines at each end. His conclusion after surveying the sight like a surgeon: He decided to switch from his usual regular-length cleats to his longer ones, which would give him that extra dig into the turf, allowing him to turn without slipping. Due to the  Yankee Stadium field condition on game day, both Unitas and Berry, as well as the Baltimore coaching staff, knew in advanced that the Colts would be putting the ball in the air.

Berry’s cleat decision paid off that afternoon, catching 12 passes for 178 yards and one TD. With the Colts behind by three points late in the game, he caught three consecutive passes for 62 yards to bring the team into field-goal range. Kicker Steve Myhra put it through the uprights from 20 yards out to tie the affair at 17-17 with seven seconds on the clock.

In sudden-death overtime, Berry made two pressure catches in the final drive where Unitas led the team 80 yards on 13 plays, climaxed by an Alan Ameche one-yard romp up the middle to win it 23-16. Unitas threw 40 passes, completing 26 for 349 yards. The Colts still ran the ball though to keep the Giants honest: 138 yards on 39 attempts. Incidentally, the game featured 17 future Hall of Famers (players and coaches combined on both teams), Berry and Unitas included in the mix.

In his 13-year NFL career that spanned 1955-1967, all with the Colts, the sure-handed Berry caught 631 passes for 9,275 yards and 68 TDs at a time when the league played only 12- and 14-game schedules. Overall, he dropped only two passes and fumbled only twice--in the days of no padded receiver gloves. He led the league in receptions and yardage three times and TDs twice while playing in a total of 154 regular-season games.

He didn’t miss a single game until his eighth year in the league. Selected to six Pro Bowls, he made the NFL First All-Star team from 1958-1960, and the Second team twice. He played on two championship teams, 1958 and 1959, and in the 12 seasons that he and Unitas played together, they faced only one losing season: 1956, when they finished 5-7.

Upon retirement from active playing, Berry was a receivers coach with the Dallas Cowboys, University of Arkansas, Detroit Lions, Cleveland Browns, and New England Patriots before becoming the Patriots’ head coach from 1984-1989, where he won 48 games and lost 39, his best season being 1985 when he took the 11-5 Patriots to the Super Bowl before losing to the Chicago Bears 46-10.  In 1991 and 1992, he was the quarterback coach for the Detroit Lions and Denver Broncos, respectively.

Berry was voted into the NFL Hall of Fame in 1973 and was ranked #40 on The Sporting News list of 100 Greatest NFL players.  His friend, four-time league MVP Johnny Unitas, made it to the HOF in 1979 and was selected #5 on The Sporting News list, after passing for 40,239 yards and 290 TDs in his star-studded career.

Unitas-to-Berry must have been quite a sight to watch. One was a Pittsburgh Steeler castoff, the other a sleeper who probably had a 50-50 chance at best of making the Colts’ receiver corps. For both players, it was all about determination and, of course, grit. True Grit.


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