Raymond Berry: Underestimated Champion : Skinny Little Receiver Looked More Like a Candidate for the Hospital Than a Football Immortal at Schreiner

Associated Press

He was a skinny, he was slow. One leg was a bit shorter than the other, so he had to wear padding inside one of his shoes.

His eyesight was so poor that he had to wear glasses even when he played, and a special cage was fitted inside his helmet to protect them.

Naturally, he was injury prone, and he always seemed to be nursing some kind of hurt that season.

When his college teammates saw him for the first time, they sarcastically dubbed him, "Jack Armstrong, the All-American Boy."

No, Raymond Emmett Berry was not many people's candidate for football immortality when he arrived on the campus of Schreiner Institute in the fall of 1950. To most, he seemed to be a candidate for the hospital should the Moutaineer coaches have the bad judgment to actually let him into the a game.

Yet, football immortality is exactly what Berry achieved. In his 13-year career with the Baltimore Colts, he caught more passes than anybody had before him and set the standard for wide receivers in the National Football League.

With quarterback Johnny Unitas, he formed perhaps the most famous and effective pass-catch combination in pro football history.

Nobody caught a football or ran a pass pattern better than Raymond Berry, and the Pro Football Hall of Fame recognized that when it added Berry to its membership in 1973. Today, Berry is the head coach of the New England Patriots.

It is a fact that is downright stunning to many, but it was at Schreiner Institute (now Schreiner College ) where Berry started on the road to success. It was there that Berry first got a chance to do what he did best--catch the football. For that and other reasons, Berry's year at Schreiner was one of the most important of his life.

"It was a good year for me," Berry said. "For the first time, I got to play in an offense that threw the ball some. Schreiner was a fine school academically and helped me make the adjustment from high school to college."

Why did Berry decide to come to Schreiner?

"It was the only school that offered me a scholarship," Berry said. "That made my decision fairly simple."

Actually, Berry could well have ended up playing at the junior college in his native Paris, Texas, rather than Schreiner. Berry had played at Paris High School for his father, but both thought it would be best for him to get away from home.

The beneficiary of this decision was Claude (Chena) Gilstrap, who was leaving Paris Junior College for the head coaching position at Schreiner.

"Raymond wanted to get away from home, just like a lot of 17-year-old boys. He went with us rather than stay at home," Gilstrap recalls.

It seemed that Gilstrap was the only college coach impressed with the potential of Berry, who was unheralded as a high school senior. But, Gilstrap went to a lot of Paris High School games and he like what he saw.

"I thought he was a very good prospect," Gilstrap said. "I was pleased at the chance to get him. They didn't pass the ball much at his high school, but when they did, he caught it. He was a good pass receiver even then."

Berry had to convince a lot more people of this. The Mountaineers knew they were getting a fine coach in Gilstrap, but they didn't know they were getting a great end in Berry. His appearance did nothing to indicate this. He was 6-1 and weighed 154 pounds, and he wore glasses all the time.

"He didn't even look like a football player," said Mountaineer quarterback Bill Thompson, now a coach at Baytown's Lee High School. "He looked like a student."

Gilstrap: "Athletes looked more like average people in those days, and he still didn't look like an athlete."

Berry didn't run much like an athlete, either.

"Everybody could outrun him," said Rex Kelly, Mountaineer line coach for 15 years. "Even me."

His mountaineer teammates had a little fun at Berry's expense, according to Thompson. They made up nicknames for Gilstrap, the trainer he had brought along, and Berry based on characters in the well-known Jack Armstrong radio program. Gilstrap was called Uncle Jim, the trainer was called Billy, and Berry was rechristened "Jack Armstrong--the All-American Boy."

Berry was even bully-bait to one Mountaineer player. This was a 220-pound fullback who was "always picking on somebody," according to Kelly. "He wouldn't let people alone. He was always in a fight."

One day, Berry became his target. Kelly was in the Schreiner football dormitory when a student rushed in to get him. The fullback was picking on Raymond Berry, the excited student said. Kelly went rushing out to stop the fight, but he was too late.

"By the time, I got there he had already whipped the hell out of him," Kelly said. "Both of his eyes were closed and he was bloody all over. We had to put him in the hospital."

But the player that went to the hospital was not Berry, but the truculent fullback.

"He ran into the wrong one to pick a fight with," Kelly dryly commented.

Berry had the last laugh, because he did turn out the be the All-American boy. To an unobservant bully, he may have resembled the "before" part of a Charles Atlas ad. But to the people who watched him most closely--Mountaineer coaches Gilstrap and Kelly--Berry was a true athlete.

"You can tell the great ones just by the way they move," Kelly said. "Raymond had it all. He was the best I've ever seen, and I'm not just saying that because I coached him. He was one of those kind you get once in a lifetime. He couldn't outrun anybody, but he could get open."

Gilstrap said, "A great deal has been said about what a self-made player Raymond was. That's not quite so true. He had a great deal more natural ability than people liked to credit him with. He was a fine track man at SMU."

The most noticeable thing about Berry was that he was the hardest-working football player anybody had ever seen.

Gilstrap: "He was the most dedicated player I was ever around. He didn't need a lot of coaching. He gave a lot of thought to football, which is probably an understatement."

"All he did was work at football," Kelly said. "Any time he could get anybody to throw to him, he'd be out on the field. A coach didn't need to do anything. He knew it all. He studied it. He worked on it. He'd practice with anybody at anytime."

Berry didn't quit working on football even when he was off the field.

Kelly: "He carried rubber balls to class and squeezed them all the time. The only time he took them out was to write something. The damn ball would stick to his hands, they were so strong. He didn't even need two hands to catch it, he could catch with only one."

Berry had help, too. The unsung hero in the Berry saga is Bill Thompson.

Thompson said, "Chena said that if Raymond could catch my passes, he could catch anybody's passes."

"That's true," Gilstrap said. "Bill Thompson was responsible for making Raymond. He threw the ball like a frisbee. The only thing Raymond had to learn was how to catch a ball on the numbers."

With all he had going for him, Berry still needed the helping hand of fate.

Berry remembers: "Three or four days before our opening game, I was on the third team. Then Coach Gilstrap moved one guy and another one sprained his ankle. That first game I caught a few passes and scored a touchdown. From then on I started getting open and catching the ball."

The Mountaineers won their opener and the next week they romped over Edinburg, 42-13, as Berry caught six passes and scored two touchdowns. Schreiner went on to finish 7-3 and barely missed the Pioneer Conference championship. The decisive contest was a loss to Kilgore, a game in which two touchdown passes caught by Berry were called back due to penalties. The memory of that is still rather grinding to Kelly.

Kelly: "Kilgore had the boys and plenty of money, but we had those two touchdowns called back. Gilstrap thought we got cheated. The head linesman was too damned old to be out there."

Despite this disappointment, the Mountaineers achieved their best season in 10 years, and Berry was a major reason for it. He led the Pioneer Conference in receptions with 33, eight of them for touchdowns, and was named to the all-conference team. He did all this even though he was hindered by injuries throughout the season. He suffered a severely sprained wrist, a cracked rib, a hyperextended elbow, and his teeth were broken in.

"That was one of the toughest years for injuries I ever had," Berry said. "I was beat up all year long."

Berry didn't relax in the off-season, however.

Gilstrap: "Raymond's dad wanted him in the Southwest Conference. Rusty Russell (the SMU head coach) knew all about Raymond. He came to me and said, 'He (Berry's father) wants me to take that kid of his.' I told him, 'Raymond needs another year here.' But Rusty decided to take a shot with him."

Berry: "I got a one-semester trial scholarship. Every day was like a football game. They told me if I was good enough to play in the Southwest Conference, they'd give me a scholarship for four full years. I did get one."

After such an outstanding season at Schreiner, Berry's career at SMU was a bit disappointing. He made all-conference as a senior, but he never caught more than 16 passes in a season. He was drafted as a "future" by the Baltimore Colts in 1954, but he wasn't selected until the 20th round.

Berry seemed doomed to be a chronic victim of underestimation. Gilstrap tells the story about the time Berry was selected to play in the East-West Shrine Game.

Gilstrap: "The coaches thought Matty Bell (SMU athletic director) was losing his touch. They said, 'Why did you send us a guy that looks like that? He doesn't look like an athlete.' Raymond ended up being the MVP of the game."

A few years later, Berry was the most feared wide receiver in football. He led the NFL in receiving for three straight seasons, earning All-Pro honors each time, and went to the Pro Bowl five times. His finest performance came in what some consider the greatest pro game ever played, the overtime game for the NFL championship in 1958.

The combination of Unitas to Berry clicked for 12 completions and 178 yards as the Colts defeated the New York Giants, 23-17.

In talking about those championship Colt teams, Berry says, "What you shoot for in football is balance, and we had it. Alan Ameche was a tremendous fullback. Lenny Moore was a gamebreaker, just tremendous speed and scoring ability. He was explosive. We had a defense that was dominant. They didn't have to rely on me. I had a lot of room to operate."

As Gilstrap said, "Raymond wasn't given to rhetoric." Especially about himself. But he continues to distinguish himself. He recently became the first Schreiner graduate to ever coach an NFL team when he took the reins of the Patriots. His success there is a foregone conclusion to people who know him.

"I know Raymond will be a good coach," Rex Kelly said. "Because he doesn't miss anything."

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