The Best Game Ever (cont.)
Unitas wasn't just obliging, he was eager to stay after practice and throw for as long as Raymond wanted to catch. This was a quarterback who never worried about wearing out his arm. His throws uncoiled with an almost exaggerated smoothness, right down to the wrist snap as he released the ball, which left his long fingers splayed downward. The motion seemed effortless.
Passer and receiver became fast friends. John understood Raymond's perfectionism and the advantage of close coordination and timing in the passing game. Don Shula, one of the team's defensive backs in camp that summer, saw how the extra work between John and Raymond was paying off. When Shaw was throwing to Raymond, Shula had no trouble defending, but when Unitas was throwing, he struggled. It wasn't just Shula's imagination. As a member of the Washington Redskins the following season, Shula had to defend against Raymond in a real game, and the receiver caught 12 passes from Unitas for 224 yards and two touchdowns.
Both Raymond and John made the team in 1956, and their bond deepened. Raymond was living as a bachelor in a walk-up apartment in a row house near Memorial Stadium, the Colts' home field. He was the only teammate John began inviting to share dinner with him; his wife, Dorothy; and his children. Raymond invited John to private film-study sessions in his apartment. On their own time, the man with a magnificent arm and feel for football was teaming up with the Colts' resident nut.
The Colts flew to New York on Saturday morning, Dec. 27, 1958. They landed at LaGuardia Airport and boarded a bus that took them across the Triborough Bridge into Manhattan and then up to the Concourse Plaza Hotel at 161st Street in the Bronx. Much to the amusement of his teammates, Raymond wore a blackout mask on the plane and bus to shut out the card games and foolery that always accompanied team travel. He carried an overnight bag and a scale on which he weighed himself daily. He had determined that 186 pounds was his ideal playing weight, and he monitored it scrupulously. Over the season he had dropped down to almost 175, so he had been trying to bulk up through the relatively light practices of the previous two weeks.
On Sunday at Yankee Stadium, Colts defensive tackle Art Donovan, ever the showman, honored his game-day ritual by vomiting theatrically in one of the bathroom stalls. To Raymond it sounded like a hippopotamus heaving a goat. He understood that the big lineman's rowdy displays just masked his anxiety, but it annoyed him anyway. Different players had different ways of coping with tension. The receiver's was to absorb himself in preparation.
He was mightily prepared for the NFL championship game. He pored over the 25 pages of notes in his microscopic handwriting that he carried in a binder: diagrams of the routes he had run successfully against the Giants cornerback he would face that day, Carl Karilivacz; insights he had gleaned from hours of solitary film study; plays he wanted to try; reminders of everything else from head fakes he had designed for specific routes to basics like watching the ball all the way into his hands. WATCH YOUR FOOTING ON STARTS he had written in large block letters in the middle of one page. He had the careful planner's habit of dividing each page into segments with perfectly straight lines. Under the heading DURING RUNS he had written BASIC THREE, which were:
Below that, with stars penciled in alongside, was written *BE BEST COMPETITOR ON FIELD *KNOCK #20 & #21 ASS OFF *GO ST AT 21 TO SET UP 136, referring to safety Jim Patton, who wore number 20; Karilivacz, who wore 21; and play number 136. Under the heading DURING SHORT YDG & GOAL LINE Raymond had written, *KNOW SNAP COUNT *DO YOUR JOB.
There were pages and pages of meticulously drawn plays on sheets divided into 12 neat squares, with arrows indicating every pattern he had ever run against the Giants and tiny notes about outcomes. Raymond knew at least some of this would be in Karilivacz's head, and he wanted his own thinking to be one level deeper -- he wanted to anticipate the cornerback's thoughts. He also had almost an entire page devoted to "#84," Giants outside right linebacker Harland Svare.
Some of the notes were cryptic, others straightforward:
WHEN YOU SQUAT TO BLOCK 71 HE WILL GRAB YOU, referring to tackle M.L. Brackett.
WILL HOLD YOU ON GL-6-1, SHORT YARDAGE, TOO, POSSIBLY
WILL STAY ON YOUR NOSE, THEN JUMP BACK WHEN COUNT STARTS
GETS TO OUTSIDE FAST!
KNOCK HIS BUTT OFF EVERY CHANCE YOU GET
Long before the fans began to file in, Raymond was out on the field carefully inspecting the turf. He did it primarily to decide what kind of cleats to wear, but also to look for wet, loose or frozen patches he might be able to exploit. He had his regular playing shoes and his mud shoes, which had two extra-long cleats under the ball of each foot, on which he would pivot. If the turf was wet and soft, the mud cleats gave him advantage, but on a hard field the longer cleats hurt the soles of his feet and slowed him down. It was a tough call for this game, because most of the field was dry, but there were a few wet spots. Raymond knew where to find them. There was a pattern to the way the grounds crew removed the tarp after a snowfall or rain. If they weren't careful, the water would pool toward the center and then drain out the edges as they removed it, leaving wet spots on both sides of the field near the 50-yard line. Sure enough, Raymond found a big wet patch at midfield right in front of the Giants' bench. He found another in the far southern corner of the field, which during the winter was almost always in shade. He didn't want to get caught at a critical moment in the game on one of these slippery spots, so he decided to wear his mud cleats.
All game long the Giants had been double-teaming Lenny Moore when he lined up as a wide receiver to the right, and the Colts had countered by throwing often and successfully to Berry on the other side. He had caught seven passes, including one for a touchdown. He was clearly Unitas's favorite target in second-and-long and third-and-long situations, and it was equally clear that the Giants' right cornerback, Karilivacz, was struggling to stay with the canny Colts receiver one-on-one. So now, with New York leading 17-14 and just two minutes left to play, Giants defensive coach Tom Landry decided to do something drastic. He would take away Berry. If Unitas wanted to move the ball upfield in this final drive, he would have to do it without his favorite target. Landry instructed his right-side linebacker, Svare, to abandon his usual position and split way out, lining up directly in front of Berry, head-to-head. Svare's assignment was to stay with Berry, get in his way, prevent him from running his route.
The move was radical. It was designed to rattle Unitas, who would be in his hurry-up offense, calling two or three plays at a time in the huddle. From all of his film study and charting of tendencies, confirmed by what had happened in this game, Landry knew that at this critical moment the Colts quarterback would go to Berry, almost certainly on a sideline pattern. It was basic clock-management strategy, and nobody was better at the sideline pattern than Berry. If the Giants could take that away, they would throw the Colts off stride. Once derailed, they wouldn't have time to regroup.
Starting from his own 14-yard line, Unitas completed an 11-yard pass to Moore for a first down, then missed on a short pass to running back L.G. Dupre, which stopped the clock and allowed the Colts to huddle. One minute and 15 seconds remained to play. This was Baltimore's last chance. What followed were not just the most important three plays of the game but also the most important three plays of Raymond's and John's careers.
The Colts had second-and-10 from their own 25, clearly a passing situation. John called two consecutive passing plays, both sideline patterns to Raymond. On the first, the receiver was to run an "L-cut," a simple down-and-out toward the Giants' sideline, exactly what Landry had guessed he would do. Karilivacz had been playing well off Berry, guarding against a deep route, more or less conceding the short sideline pattern. But when Raymond trotted out to his spot along the left sideline, much to his surprise, Svare came with him. The linebacker set himself directly across from the receiver, just three yards deep.
In all of his meticulous note-taking for this game, in all of his film study, Raymond had never seen a Giants linebacker do this. It was the perfect counter to the play John had called, because even if Raymond could shake Svare on the route, he would be slowed enough for Karilivacz to jump him from above -- just as Karilivacz had done in the first quarter, for an interception. It appeared as though Landry had outsmarted the Colts.