The Best Game Ever (cont.)
What the Giants' coach could not have known was that years earlier, in one of their private film sessions, Raymond and John had seen this defensive maneuver. Not by any Giant. Raymond could no longer recall which team it was. But he and John had seen in the flickering image on his white apartment wall a linebacker drift out and line up nose to nose on a wide receiver. It surprised them, and they had come up with a countermove. This exact situation. They had decided that Raymond should make a quick outside release to fake the linebacker and then slant pell-mell toward the center of the field. A linebacker split wide like that leaves a gaping hole in the secondary. John told Raymond he would hit him in stride.
In the seconds before the ball was snapped, Raymond looked over at John, and their eyes briefly met. Did John remember? Raymond assumed his three-point stance, and at the snap of the ball he took two steps wide, pulling Svare outside, and then broke toward the middle at such an angle that Svare couldn't touch him. John's quick pass reached Raymond six yards downfield, in full stride. He had remembered.
Sam Huff, the Giants' middle linebacker, was so surprised that he ran right past Raymond as he angled across the field. Huff turned back upfield and caught the slow-footed receiver from behind, but only after a 25-yard gain. Baltimore called timeout. One minute and five seconds remained, and the Colts had just leaped to midfield. Landry and Huff felt as if Unitas were inside their heads.
The Colts could not afford to waste a play now. John called two in the huddle, the first to Raymond. The Giants gave up on moving Svare out wide. This time he lined up split about halfway out. Huff was no longer positioning himself at the center of the line. He was cheating a little back and to the right, something that Unitas noted and filed away. The Colts' most likely move was to the sideline, to stop the clock, but John called for a square-in. It was a gamble. He was choosing surprise over caution. If the play was successful, it would not stop the clock, and every second now was precious. Raymond broke straight downfield, then cut across the middle behind Svare and in front of Karilivacz. Again he caught the ball in stride and turned up the center of the field. This time he was hauled down on the Giants' 35-yard line, a gain of another 15.
With less than a minute to play, the Colts lined up again without huddling. The second of the two plays John had called was known as "come open late." John would drop back and check off three receivers: Moore on the far right, Dupre in the middle and, if both were covered, Raymond on the left. The pass routes were staggered so that Dupre would make his final cut a few seconds after Moore and Raymond a few seconds after Dupre. In all the years they had run it, Raymond had never known John not to throw to one of the first two targets.
One of the wet spots Raymond had found when he scouted the field -- the place where water tended to drain off the tarp as it was removed -- was right in front of him, right where Karilivacz was standing. Now his change to mud cleats would pay off. When the ball was snapped, Raymond ran about 10 yards upfield and then curled back two steps to the wet spot, which had begun to ice over. John rapidly looked off his two primary receivers and drilled the pass to Raymond. As he caught the ball, he pivoted sharply to his right on the long cleats, and when Karilivacz tried to make the same cut his feet slipped out from under him. Raymond had nothing but open field ahead up the sideline. He made it to the 13-yard line before the Giants' pursuit brought him down from behind.
"Unitas to Berry," said the Yankee Stadium public address announcer for the third consecutive time. Three plays, three passes to Raymond Berry, 62 yards. The Giants' defense was reeling. There were 15 seconds left. The Colts' offense raced off the field, and the field-goal-kicking team sprinted on.
Shaw was the holder for Steve Myhra, who was thinking what a long, cold winter it would be for him back in the wheat fields of North Dakota if he missed. The ball was snapped, Shaw placed it, Myhra took one step and swung the wide toe of his shoe into the ball. He glanced up in time to see it sail cleanly over the crossbar. The score was 17-17.
Once Raymond saw Colts fullback Alan Ameche cross the goal line for the winning touchdown in overtime, he ran for the locker room as fast as he could. He found an empty toilet stall and closed himself in for more than five minutes, a tall, lean man in a dirty white-and-blue uniform, his shoulder pads filling the small space. He thought about the high school team he had fought to make, the provisional scholarship at SMU, the fluke of being drafted as a futures pick by the Colts. He thought about the desperation he had felt two summers earlier and about meeting John and about their fortuitous partnership. And now they had done it. They were the best team in all of football, and he had made himself into a key player. He thought about how his 12 catches, for an NFL-championship-game-record 178 yards, had helped his team to victory. He thought about the three pass plays in the critical fourth-quarter drive and about the play he and John had improvised when Svare drifted wide to take him out.
Raymond had never been certain that all his years of obsessive work, all the pages of handwritten notes he kept in worn three-ring binders, were worth it. He thought that they made a general contribution, but day in and day out he did the work mostly on faith; it was something he had to do. Now fate had delivered a moment that proved its worth, at the pivotal point of the ultimate game of his career. How spooky that was, and how wonderful. It went beyond just being good, or being lucky. Raymond eventually would come to see it as the hand of God.
When he emerged from the stall, he ran into Tex Maule, a writer for Sports Illustrated, and told him, simply, "It's the greatest thing that ever happened."
Raymond Berry came out to meet me at the airport in Nashville in June 2007. He stood at the bottom of the escalator by the baggage claim jotting notes to himself on a small piece of paper, which he slipped into his shirt pocket when I introduced myself. Back at his home, in a spacious office, he showed me the faded, worn loose-leaf binders that filled an entire upper shelf, one for each of his 13 years as a professional player, containing the notes and play diagrams he made before every game.
No one was surprised when he eventually became a coach. He was named head coach of the New England Patriots in 1984 and took them to the Super Bowl the following year. He coached for six seasons before the team let him go, and he retired from the game.
When he helped the Colts win their first championship, his career was just getting started. He told me he didn't really begin to work on serious head and body fakes until after that season. He kept on getting better. His catch total went from 56 in 1958 to 66 the following year and then to 74, his career high. But Raymond Berry's most remarkable statistic, which speaks directly to his discipline and his character, and which may be the most remarkable number in the NFL's record book, is this: In 13 seasons, through 631 receptions for 9,275 yards and 68 touchdowns, Raymond Berry fumbled exactly once. When he retired in 1967, he owned the NFL record for most receptions in a career. Weeb Ewbank, his Colts coach, introduced him at Raymond's induction into the Hall of Fame five years later, noting how unlikely it was, given Raymond's physical limitations, that he had even played pro football, much less become the most successful player at his position in NFL history. "Raymond and Raymond alone turned himself into the receiver he became," Ewbank said.
That is his legacy. Today many of the techniques Raymond developed are standard at all levels of football.
"After the first four years of being in the league," Raymond says, "I asked myself, Where does this drive come from? I began to realize that I was doing this so differently from everybody else. I began to get very curious about the source of this drive. It was a powerful thing. I began to realize it was a tremendous gift. It had everything to do with how I was playing, and it just did not get deterred by obstacles. I finally realized God gave me that drive. It was just as much a part of me as speed, jumping ability, strength, weight. The desire and the drive were more important than all of them. They made me."
Like those of any pioneer, Raymond's obsessions redefined his field. It just happened that his had goalposts at either end.
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