Photo by Tyler Lamb / Sports Editor
Dec. 28, 1958. A day that would forever change the course of not only Raymond Berry’s future, but also the National Football League’s. Up until this point, the sport still took a backseat to baseball. It was gaining popularity, seeking for a moment in the spotlight. This would be the opportunity the NFL had been waiting for, a defining moment that would capture the eye from young to old.
Taking place in the historic Yankee Stadium and broadcast live across the nation on ABC to 45 million viewers, the hometown New York Giants were the clear favorites to most going toe-to-toe against Berry’s Baltimore Colts.
“The New York Giants had Vince Lombardi running their offense and Tom Landry running their defense…Now you want to talk about heavy hitters as far as coaches are concerned,” said Berry. “But we had Weeb Ewbank, and he was equal doing both of them.”
Berry said that Ewbank’s offense was simplistic, yet very sound, a combination that is hard to accomplish in any profession in life.
“Weeb gave us a six shooter with four bullets in it and we knew how to shoot all of them. And that’s exactly what happened in this game. We got into a situation where we were behind late in the game and we had to get a drive going to bring the game into overtime and that’s exactly what we did.”
Down 17-14 after giving up a 14-3 lead, the Colts found themselves in the midst of the biggest two-minute drill in NFL history.
The Colts, lead under center by Unitas, started off the drive with a 25-yard strike over the middle to Berry. The two would connect twice more on a 15-yard pass on a slant, followed by another 22-yard completion to move the ball down to the 13-yard line with seven seconds remaining in regulation. All-in-all, the tandem would account for 62 yards on the final drive.
The Colts sent out kicker Steve Myhra who split the uprights on a 20-yard field goal to tie the score at 17 as time expired. What would occur next would be a first for professional football: overtime.
“It was the first time a game went into overtime,” said Berry. “They had an overtime rule in the rulebook, but nobody new anything about what it was because it never had happened.”
Following the first second coin flip in the sport’s tenure, the Colts defense forced New York to go three and out. Unitas, Berry and the rest of the Colts embarked on a 13-play, 80-yard drive that saw two more connections of the dynamic duo gaining 33 more yards.
Moments later, Baltimore fullback Alan Ameche pounded his way through from the one-yard line to give the team the 23-17 win.
On the day, Berry hauled in an NFL title mark 12 passes for 178 yards, a statline that would also become career-highs.
During that time period, passing that ball 25 times a game was seen as an astronomical day for any quarterback. Giants quarterback Charlie Conerly passed for 10-14 for 187 yards and a score.
Unitas, on the other hand, threw 40 passes, completing 26 of them. He racked up a total of 349 yards and one touchdown, which was caught by Berry.
The trusty receiver said their coach, Ewbank, had the “instinctive ability to delegate the play-calling to Johnny Unitas.”
“He called all the plays, John did,” said Berry.
Like a modern day Peyton Manning, Unitas seemed to be ahead of their time.
“We had a perfectly balanced offense, we could run the ball or throw it,” Berry said.” We throw to every receiver and we could run with every back. So we had every weapon [Unitas] needed. He knew how to direct that offense to get the max out of everybody.”
“If you don’t understand football, I can tell you that being totally balanced is the strongest type of system you can have,” said Berry. “It gives the defense more problems. Whenever they don’t know if you’re going to run or pass or hurt them with both, they’ve got a real problem. That’s exactly what our offense was and Johnny Unitas knew how to operate it.”
Following the game, the NFL boomed with instant popularity, eventually surpassing baseball as America’s most popular sport in the years to follow. And nearly 60 years later, the 1958 NFL Championship game is still tagged as “The Greatest Game Ever Played.”
But at the end of the night, Berry said his Baltimore teammates in the locker room had “no clue” the magnitude of the game they had just played.
By 1966, the the NFL and the up and coming American Football League were two separate beings. The NFL was the more established league, yet one of Berry’s SMU teammates, Lamar Hunt led the charge in combining the two as one super league.
The deal was that the team’s would still play their respective league clubs during the year. However, following their own championship games, the NFL and the AFL would then meet in what was known as the Super Bowl.
“We didn’t really know that much about them,” said Berry. We were contracted on doing our job and doing our thing, the development of the new football league was a phenomena of the time.”
Just like the ’58 Championship, Berry said everyone around professional football didn’t think the Super Bowl would be that big a deal.
“What we as players really didn’t understand was that there was a whole lot of football players out there that with 12 teams in the NFL, they weren’t getting to play.”
At the time, even if one had a successful college career and tried to make a veteran football team in the NFl, Berry said there weren’t many available job openings.
“The American Football League gave so many players the chance to play the game they loved to play and it was a great development for professional football.”
In 1967, after totaling three NFL Championships and accumulating more receptions (631), yards (9,275), and touchdowns (68) than any other receiver had ever recorded at that point. Berry, then 34, decided the hang up the cleats. The 3-time NFL receiving champion left the league holding nine total receiving records.
All of that from a guy who tallied just 13 grabs his first year.
The Colts remained good, even after Berry left, winning Super Bowl V in 1970. But for Berry, he said there was no extending his career.
“There was no extending my career because my body was give-out. I had injuries in my shoulder and my knee that got to the place to where during the last half of the season of my last year, couldn’t even answer the bell.”
Nevertheless, Berry’s playing career was one that only those who suit up can dream about. And in 1973, Berry joined the small fraternity of players who have a statue in Canton, Ohio as he was a first ballot Hall of Famer.
Berry admitted that he knew he would get into the Hall, yet he never expected it to be the experience that it was.
“The ceremonies in Ohio up there were so awesome, so moving. It was a tremendous experience to be there and to become a part of professional football history.”
But even before Berry was enshrined, he had already picked up a new career, something that he wasn’t too fond of.
“Whenever I retired as a player, and I knew my playing days were over, there was one thing that I didn’t want to do…I didn’t want to coach.”
Little did he know that one day he would lead a franchise to its first ever Super Bowl appearance, an organization that now prides itself on perfection…the New England Patriots.
Check back tomorrow for part three of the four-part series “Raymond Berry: Murfreesboro’s link to pro football’s Big Game” where we talk about Berry’s natural success as a head coach.