The Best Game Ever (cont.)
His father was coach of the Paris High football team. Raymond wanted to play, but he was skinny and slow. He had a bad back. He was nearsighted, and because he couldn't wear glasses on the field, he competed in a fog. He wore special shoes to correct his gait because one leg was shorter than the other. His feet were so big that his nickname was Skis.
Ray Berry put his son on the team, but Raymond didn't become a starter on the varsity until his senior year. Ray was the kind of football coach who liked intelligent players, so much so that he didn't abide by the tradition of always letting the quarterback call the plays in the huddle. He picked the smartest kid on the field. Raymond called the plays. By then he was the best football player Paris High had ever seen.
Along with those big feet came big hands, really big hands, and Raymond could jump. He had always been told he was too slow to play football, but he discovered that he could use what speed he had intelligently. He could fool a defender into thinking he was slower than he really was, then startle him with a burst at a critical moment. When he couldn't outrun a defender, Raymond figured he could outsmart him, outposition him and outjump him, and with those big hands he could catch better than anyone he knew.
It was the kind of skill that could only be demonstrated in action, however, and in football your chance to see action depended entirely on a coach's evaluation of your skill. So Raymond's career proceeded catch by catch. No major college wanted him, so he spent one year at Schreiner Junior College in Kerrville, Texas, before Rusty Russell, the coach at SMU, gave him a shot in 1951, as much in deference to Ray Berry as to the young man's potential.
"I'll give you a one-semester trial scholarship," said Russell. "You're not eligible to play because of the transfer, so you'll work against our varsity squad every day, and I'll watch you this fall."
It was a chance to practice with the Mustangs, to be a member of what Russell called his T-team. The coaches would program the T-team with the offensive plays run by whomever SMU faced next, and Raymond would run that team's pass patterns against the varsity defense. Throwing passes for the T-team was SMU's star quarterback, Fred Benners. Together he and Raymond started to light up the practice field. Raymond earned his scholarship, but his skill was considered so specialized that he was used sparingly. He caught only five passes as a sophomore and 11 as a junior.
At the end of the latter season he still had not started in a college game, which was why his selection by the Colts in the 20th round of the draft in January 1954 was such a surprise. With another year of college eligibility remaining, he was what was called a "futures" pick, a throwaway category down in the lower echelons of the draft, where teams grabbed players in a what-the-hell frame of mind. Without sophisticated scouting networks, pro clubs relied on word-of-mouth from coaches and sportswriters. Some of those 11 catches in Raymond's junior year had been spectacular. A Dallas Morning News reporter named Charlie Burton had noted Raymond's skills and might have put in a word for him. And Benners, Raymond's old T-team quarterback, was drafted by the New York Giants. An injury ended his career after his rookie season, '52, but he had friends in the pro game and might have talked up his old practice-field receiver. Raymond never did find out exactly.
He made the Colts in 1955, one of 12 rookies the team kept, but he caught only 13 passes that season, and he knew why. He was overmatched by pro defenders. In college Raymond had run only simple, predetermined routes: hooks, posts, crossing routes. All he had to know was his assignment on a given play. If it worked as planned, he would find himself in an uncovered spot. In the pros there were no uncovered spots. NFL defenders played mostly man-to-man, which meant that once the ball was snapped, Raymond had a superbly trained athlete in his ear. Defenders bumped him, pushed him, tripped him, threw him off stride and then slapped the ball out of the air or intercepted it if it got close. Raymond could not catch a pass unless he could shake off his man, and he lacked the quickness and speed to get away from most of them.
No one was more aware than Raymond of how badly his rookie season had gone. So as his teammates went home to enjoy the long off-season, he went to work. Using his father's 16-mm film projector, he set about breaking down and studying the position of wide receiver like no one else ever had. The Colts provided him with all the game film he wanted. He asked for games that featured the best receivers in the NFL -- Harlon Hill especially -- and slowed down the projector to dissect their moves. He began to develop his own repertory, naming each juke and fake after a player he admired. He picked the brains of collegiate wide receivers. From Howard Schnellenberger, a star tight end at Kentucky who would go on to a long career as a coach, he learned the double fake. He practiced zigzag moves in pantomime at Wise Field. Then he began experimenting with triple fakes.
He also got himself in terrific shape. He was neither a smoker nor a drinker, and he watched his weight carefully. Motivated by what he would later call "absolute terror," he started lifting and running. He remade himself.
Football coaches always talked about "game shape." Players, they said, could do calisthenics all they wanted, but the only thing that could get you in shape to play football was to play. That's why Raymond got out his stopwatch and began simulating entire games by himself. He began in March. By early summer he could play an entire game without feeling winded. When the Colts' grueling two-a-day drills started in July 1956, his obsessive training methods paid off. The workouts were a breeze.
One thing Raymond absorbed watching all that film in the off-season was that the great receivers had what appeared to be an almost mystical connection with their quarterbacks. They would run a route that delivered them to an open spot on the field at the same moment the ball arrived, which meant that the quarterback threw the ball before the receiver was actually open. How could a struggling wide receiver who was unlikely to make the team cultivate that kind of relationship with Colts quarterback George Shaw, one of the hottest young stars in the game?
He couldn't. But there was a new quarterback at training camp in 1956, a tough kid from a working-class ghetto in Pittsburgh whom the Colts had picked up from a semipro sandlot league after he was cut by the Pittsburgh Steelers. He was a skinny, bow-legged, slightly stoop-shouldered young man with abnormally long limbs, enormous hands, a blond flattop, a big crooked-toothed smile and an utterly unflappable manner, and he had about as much of a chance of making the team as Raymond had. Raymond got his first look at the new arm when he reported to training camp.
"That's the free-agent quarterback," one of his teammates said. "Unitas."
John Unitas had the best and most eager arm on the practice field that summer. He knew this was likely to be his last chance to latch onto a pro job, and he wanted to make sure the coaches got a good, long look at what he could do -- an ambition that would meet its perfect complement in Raymond Berry's sophomore-year desperation. The receiver arrived that summer looking for a quarterback to enlist for his personal practice sessions, someone to work with him on timing long after the rest of the players had left the field.