Photo by Tyler Lamb / Sports Editor
There are two kinds of people in the world. Those who enjoy football, and those who don’t. And if you’re from Texas, you not only enjoy it, you adore it because its a way of life. This is where the journey began for NFL Hall of Famer and Super Bowl coach Raymond Emmet Berry.
A resident of Murfreesboro, Berry was thrust into the sport of football from the young age of five. His father was a local high school football coach. Naturally, Berry fell in love with football, a sport he would one day be recognized for as one of the best to ever suit up.
Berry played started playing once he got into the fifth grade and excelled all through his grade school years. As he moved up into high school, one would assume Berry would be given a spot on varsity. However, coach Berry held his son in check, making him earn everything he worked for.
‘”There was two parts to the relationship. One when I was at home where he was disciplining me; the belt upon the butt when he was trying to keep me in line.”
“Playing for him at the high school level, he was a tremendous football coach and he had two great characteristics. One was that he really believed in sound fundamentals and two, he really believed he could win.”
Young Raymond would fight in junior varsity play for two seasons before finally moving up onto varsity his junior year. Even then though, he didn’t make his first start until his senior year. But from that moment forward, it was game on.
The young, now groomed 17 year-old would emerge his senior year into a dominant regional player. But with no appealing offers, Berry decided he would start small and work his way up, enrolling in Shreiner Institute.
Around this time, in 1953, Elroy Hirsch was a staple in professional football. He had the looks, the skills, and he played in Los Angeles for the Rams. Along the way, Hirsch was branded with the nickname “Crazy Legs” for the way he moved in the open field. Hirsch also had an incredible ability to catch over his shoulder, a skill most didn’t have at the time.
Given all that Hirsch had a face for Hollywood, a self-titled movie swept across the theatres of America called simply, “Crazy Legs”. At that time, there were only 12 NFL teams. Since there was no Texas NFL team at the time and since the college freshman, Berry, had never watched the sport on TV, going to see this movie while at in junior college would be a trip that would ultimately change his life.
“I was 18 years old when I saw the movie “Crazy Leg’s”. Visually, I had never seen a great receiver. So the first one I really get an eye view of is “Crazy Legs” Hirsch and I couldn’t have gotten any better of an example. When I saw that movie, I thought, ‘I want to catch the ball like “Crazy Legs” Hirsch. So I started working on what he did in that movie, and that was the beginning of my real focus on becoming a great receiver.”
Berry would make the trip to see the movie three times before it left theaters. The effect of that movie would spark a light in Berry, leading him to Southern Methodist University.
Growing up, Berry had idolized SMU legend Doake Walker. Once Berry got to SMU, it was his mission to catch like Hirsch and run like Walker. But in just two seasons in an offense that was primarily run based, Berry accounted for just 33 catches in three years. Berry was also forced to play outside linebacker, a spot he would excel at.
“I was a very good defensive player and that’s one reason I got to play at SMU,” said Berry.”I mainly spent my SMU days blocking and playing defense.”
Before the start of his senior year, Berry received a call telling him he was drafted by the Baltimore Colts in the 20th round, overall pick in the 1955 draft.
“They took a big risk on me, drafting me in the 20th round and all,” Berry chuckled.
Berry would sign away on the dotted line for $8,500 over the next two season with $1,500 signing bonus included, a figure he said “was one of the better rookie contracts.”
While Berry knew he was being drafted for both positions, it was the receiving side he wanted to excel at the most. But for the third time in his career, Berry again had to wait on what good was to eventually come.
In his first season in Baltimore, Berry hauled in only 13 catches. Looking to get possibly cut, the Colts would acquire a guy the Steeler’s would cut a year prior, a quarterback by the name of Johnny Unitas, a talent most around the team hadn’t even heard of up to this point.
“‘Johnny who?’. When he came to training camp that year, that’s exactly what we said..’John who?'”. Here’s one of the greatest quarterbacks to ever play the game and they have exactly no clue what they’ve got.”
Once Unitas was acquired, Berry’s numbers immediately skyrocketed. From the moment they met, Berry admitted they “clicked”.
However, this was was sharpened by the extra time spent after practice that their head coach Weeb Ewbank allowed them to have. The two would form such chemistry together, they would know exactly just how many steps or/and seconds there was to complete a pass. This would come in handy down the stretch as the two would tear apart teams for years to come with their precision, timing, and confidence in one another.
“We worked together so much it was automatic. We would get in a football game and it was like we were on cruise control.”
“I studied so much film on defensive backs, I began to realize their weaknesses, what I could beat them on, and what to stay away from. We got to a place where when I would come back into a huddle, I would tell John, ’15 yards..sideline”. He would call it. Whenever I had something open, I said ‘I can go deep on this guy’. He’d call it and we’d score a touchdown.”
In their first year together, Berry would up his numbers to 47 receptions for 800 yards and six touchdowns, a statline that would top all NFL receivers.
While that year was special for the two, the next year would change their careers forever, accumulating to a the 1958 Championship game that would go down as “The Greatest Game Ever Played.”
Check back tomorrow for part two of the four-part series “Raymond Berry: Murfreesboro’s link to pro football’s Big Game” where we talk about one of the NFL’s most historic matchup.