Berry, Raymond Emmett

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BERRY, Raymond Emmett

(b. 27 February 1993 in Corpus Christi, Texas), football player who raised catching a football to nearly an art form, his scientific approach enabled him to retire from the Baltimore Colts as the National Football League's (NFL) all-time leader in pass receptions.

Berry was one of two children born to Mark Raymond Berry, a teacher and football coach, and Bess Ermine Hudgins, a homemaker. Berry played football for his father at Paris High School in Paris, Texas, but Berry was not a first-string player until his senior year. After graduation from high school in 1950, the 153-pound Berry enrolled as a two-way end at Schreiner Institute, a junior college in Kerrville, Texas. At Schreiner, he began to develop as a receiver—thirty-two catches for eight touchdowns in his only year there. After Schreiner, Berry enrolled at Southern Methodist University (SMU) on a football scholarship in 1951. At SMU, Berry, who was six foot, one inch tall, and never weighed more than 180 pounds, was known as much for his defensive as offensive work. Although his final two seasons at SMU saw Berry catch only twenty-eight passes and score just one touchdown, he was co-captain as a senior.

Because of the year he spent at Schreiner, Berry was eligible as an NFL "future" draft pick as a junior at SMU; he was taken in the twentieth round by the Baltimore Colts. When Berry reported to the Colts training camp in 1956, he was not assured of making the team. Berry and another unheralded rookie, Johnny Unitas (who had been cut by the Pittsburgh Steelers in training camp the year before) stayed after practice and worked together. Very soon the Unitas-to-Berry pass/catch combination would strike fear in the heart of many NFL defenders. Colts lineman Gino Marchetti said, "What allowed Raymond to make the team was the fact that we didn't have many good offensive ends. He didn't look like a seven-alarm fire himself, but he hustled all the time." Berry's hustle also caught the eye of Colts coach Weeb Ewbank.

Berry's long hours after practice working with Unitas paid off. By 1957 both receiver and quarterback were established as vital parts of the Colts' offense. Berry flourished in 1958 when he led the NFL in receptions, a feat he repeated in 1959 and 1960, and the Colts won the championship in both 1958 and 1959. The 1958 NFL championship game against the New York Giants, a sudden-death overtime game (the first in championship game history) is frequently called "The Greatest Game Ever Played." The 23–17 Colts victory, which was televised coast-to coast, is credited with lighting the fuse that caused the professional football explosion in the 1960s and beyond. Berry could not have had a bigger game. He put the Colts up 14–3 with an early 15-yard touchdown catch, but the Giants were ahead 17–14 with 2 minutes to play. With the ball 79 yards from the end zone—Berry said, "It looked like seventy-nine miles"—Berry and Unitas went to work. Three times on the critical drive, Unitas looked for Berry. Three times Berry got free of double coverage and made crucial catches, tacking on valuable additional yardage when needed—gains of twenty-five, fifteen, and twenty-two yards. The third catch was carried to the thirteen-yard line as time was ticking down, and Steve Myra kicked the tying field goal as time ran out. In overtime, it was Unitas to Berry again. Berry made a critical twenty-yard catch-and-run on a third-and-fifteen situation at the Colts' thirty-seven–yard line. And then another, a twelve-yard gain that carried to the Giants' eight-yard line and all but assured the victory. Alan Ameche scored the title-winning touchdown two plays later. For the day, Berry made 12 catches for 178 yards and 1 touchdown.

Berry further refined his scientific approach to receiving by having his wife (Sally Anne Crook, whom he married on 20 August 1960; they had three children) throw to him. The couple found a nearby park with a soccer goal that served as a backstop. This was important, because Berry never wanted easy throws to catch—he wanted errant throws that he had to leap for, dive for, dig for, to extend himself. Sally, lacking football experience and skill, dutifully provided these kinds of throws. Berry also watched literally miles of film, studying opposition defenses and defensive personnel.

A certain mythology surrounded Berry, especially after he reached stardom in the NFL. Supposedly he wore a back brace, had one leg shorter than the other, was extremely slow, and had impaired vision. Though somewhat limited physically, Berry was no near invalid. He was, however, one of the first NFL players to wear contact lenses on the field. When the Colts played late-season games on the West Coast, as they did each year, Berry fashioned a pair of "sunglasses"—the California sun hit at an annoying angle late in the game—from a pair of underwater goggles with tinted lenses.

Berry retired from the Colts after the 1967 season with 631 catches for 9,275 yards (both NFL career records) and became an assistant coach with the Dallas Cowboys. While working with Cowboy receivers in training camp, Berry felt something was amiss. As he ran a sideline pattern, instead of catching the ball at the sideline just before going out of bounds, he was going out of bounds just before the catch. Berry questioned the width of the field but was told, "It has to be right, we've been playing on it for years." However, when the field was measured it was a foot short of regulation.

Berry took over as head coach of the New England Patriots eight games into the 1984 season. In 1985, with an 11–5 record, Berry had the Patriots in contention for a spot in the Super Bowl. With three victories away from their home field, the underdog, wild-card Patriots gained a berth in Super Bowl XX. Unfortunately, though they scored first, they were no match for the Chicago Bears, who won 46–10. Berry's success as head coach somewhat surprised even his closest friends and teammates, many of whom thought he was simply "too nice a guy" to enforce the discipline needed for a winning team. But as he did for much of his life as a player, Berry proved the doubters wrong. He ended his NFL head coaching career in 1989 with a 51–41 record. His last coaching stint was as an assistant with the Denver Broncos in 1992. Berry and his wife settled in Golden, Colorado, where Berry continues to work on special projects, including those with youth ministries.

Berry was one of those rare athletes, like Michael Jordan and Jim Brown, who had to be seen in person to be believed. There was something about Berry's genius—the concentration and purpose—that did not come through on television. One example of Berry's attention to detail is the way he practiced falling on fumbles. Although he perfected the skill, it was never really necessary. Only once in his 13-year career did Berry fumble away any of his 631 catches. His hands, generally considered the game's best, were strengthened by daily exercises with Silly Putty.

Berry reportedly had "by his own count, eighty-eight different moves to get past a defender," but he denied this by saying, "I never counted the moves; I don't see how anyone could have many." Such myths were part of the Berry mystique. According to former Cowboy coach Tom Landry, Berry "perfected his moves to the extent that man-to-man coverage wasn't effective. He brought about what became 'zone' coverage." In 1982 Berry wrote Complete Guide for Pass Receivers, not to make money, but to share his vast knowledge and insight with young, aspiring pass-catchers.

Through dedication and innovation, Berry took a modest natural ability and turned it into a record-setting career. He was not imposing physically and did not have the blazing speed that many great offensive ends of his era had. In fact, he remained so unassuming in appearance throughout his life that he once stumped the panel of the television show What's My Line? because they could not believe he was a football player. What Berry did have was a desire to succeed and the knowledge and inquisitiveness to make it happen. Berry once summed himself up by saying, "My whole life and ambition could be summarized in one sentence—I just had to play football."

There is no biography of Berry. His life and career are discussed in Berry Stainback, The Specialist in Pro Football (1966); Dave Klein, The Game of Their Lives (1976); and George Allen and Ben Olan, Pro Football's 100 Greatest Players (1982).

Jim Campbell