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Raymond Berry

Hands of glue, transformed heart

Raymond Berry

by Dennis Pollock

One of the most unlikely men to ever attain to pro football's Hall of Fame, Raymond Berry's life and career is an enigma that defies explanation. Berry was as far from the stereotype of the professional athlete as it is possible to get. He didn't look like a football player or act like one. His mild and self-disciplined personality seemed more suited to a university setting than to the rough and rowdy pro football locker rooms he inhabited for his thirteen year career. His teammate Alan Ameche noted, "Everybody wondered what Berry was doing here. He had one leg shorter than the other, wore contact lenses, was barely 185 pounds, didn't have speed, and wasn't particularly strong."

Most pro athletes were standouts in college, but Berry didn't even start for his college team until his senior year. He was drafted in the twentieth round by the Baltimore Colts, a new franchise desperately in need of players in almost every position. No other team in the league had the slightest interest in him.

Beyond any doubt, Raymond's greatest physical assets were his two hands. He had what the pros call "soft hands" – footballs coming anywhere near those hands didn't deflect or bounce off; they were almost always caught. While Berry couldn't outrun most defenders, if he could get even a little opening, and had a quarterback that could deliver the football somewhere reasonably close to him, a reception was pretty near certain. This ability had served him well in high school and in his last year of college when his coach finally realized what a treasure he had. But once in the pros Berry saw that the pro style man to man coverage, with lightning fast defenders constantly on top of him, would soon force him out of the league if he didn't figure out a new approach to getting open. 

Pursuit of Excellence 

That was when Berry's other asset kicked in. In those days few players or even coaches were truly students of the game. Natural athletic prowess was sought out and glorified. The star players achieved their success by their gifts and their instincts. When asked for analysis of a certain pass or run or reception they had little to say. They didn't think about it; they just did it.

Raymond was a thinker and an analyzer. Knowing his football career would soon be over if he didn't make some changes, he began to pour all of his considerable energy into remaking himself into a top NFL receiver. One of the first things he did was to purchase a projector and borrow game films to study. He not only studied his own mistakes and successes, but he watched films of other teams, especially ones that had outstanding wide receivers. He watched their moves again and again, and began to discover one of the most powerful weapons of the truly great pass-catchers – the fake. He saw that double and triple fakes could more than make up for a lack of raw speed, and began to compile a list of different fakes he could use in the games, making page after page of notes in his meticulous handwriting. He would then practice them tirelessly until they became second nature.

Raymond didn't limit his quest for perfection to observing game films; he gave himself constantly to extra hours of practice. He would write out every play for an entire game and then go out on the football field after the regular practice, and replay and simulate the game alone on the field, running every pattern and pretending to catch every pass thrown his way. In those days in the late fifties and early sixties, weight lifting by football players was frowned upon, but Berry did it anyway. He squeezed Silly Putty constantly to strengthen his fingers. He ran and ran until by training camp in his second season he was in superb shape. Most of the football players showed up overweight, out of shape, and needing every hour of every day of camp to get in shape for the coming season. Berry arrived for camp in the best shape of his life. After a morning workout, one of his teammates noted in amazement, "Raymond, your shirt's not even wet!"

There was one other ingredient that went into the mix to make Berry the outstanding receiver that he became. At training camp that year there was a new kid on the block – a tall, slim, bow-legged young quarterback by the name of Johnny Unitas. The two soon became friends and Berry found that Unitas was almost as passionate about excellence as he was. They began to practice together after the team practice was finished. Again and again Berry ran his routes, and Unitas rifled the football into his compliant hands. Although Unitas wasn't slated to start that year, when the regular quarterback was injured Johnny U. was called upon, and the Unitas to Berry combination soon became the most potent force in professional football.

Berry's obsession with excellence paid off in a huge way, bigger than even he could have imagined. His big goal had been to be able to stay on the team and continue to play pro ball, but he achieved far more than that, becoming one of the greatest receivers ever to play the game of football. Tributes to Berry's abilities come from both his teammates and opposing players. Unitas once said of him, "He was so dependable I'd never have to worry about throwing to him in a game. He used to beat everybody..." Tom Brookshier, former Philadelphia Eagles defensive back, after a game in which Berry caught ten passes, stated, "Berry is almost impossible. He has every fake there is." Life Magazine featured him in 1959 calling his hands, "The Surest Hands in Pro-Football."  

Greatest Game Ever Played 

Among pro football historians there is a consensus that the most significant football game ever played was the title game in 1958 between the New York Giants and Baltimore Colts. Up to that time pro football was nowhere near as popular as baseball, and the majority of Americans had little interest in it. The 1958 game opened the door for football to become the nationally loved sport that it is today. There were three reasons for this: 1. The game lasted long enough to bleed into prime time television, resulting in millions of Americans seeing pro football for the first time. 2. The game was a riveting match between two teams of enormous talent. 3. This was the first NFL game to employ a never before used provision in the rules – sudden death overtime.

Space does not permit us to go into further details of the game – it is sufficient to say that Raymond Berry played a major role in the Colts eventual victory. In the final drive of the fourth quarter, as Unitas led the team downfield to enable them to tie with a last second field goal, Unitas hit Berry with three consecutive passes for 62 yards. Defending linebacker Sam Huff reflected sadly on the game, "You couldn't stop the Unitas-to-Berry combination. It just seemed like Unitas to Berry, Unitas to Berry, over and over again, like a nightmare..."

When the game was finally over Raymond raced into the locker room, fearing the enthusiasm of the fans. Then something strange happened. Upon winning a national championship most athletes are in the mood to drink and party. Instead Raymond felt an unusual presence come upon him that seemed to compel him into one of the stalls. As he sat alone and thought about the strange path in his life that led him from local Texas boy to world champion NFL star, he somehow began to see the hand of God. He saw that not only were his soft hands a gift from God, but his drive for excellence and his analytical approach to improving himself were as well.

Raymond had grown up in a church-going family. He had been baptized as a boy, learned the basic doctrines of Christianity, and had believed them without much question or thought. But God was not a major factor in his life, and Jesus was little more than a historical figure. Indeed, since his pro football career had begun, Berry had hardly thought of God. But now, out of the blue, God seemed to force Himself into Berry's consciousness, revealing to him that his success was nothing more or less than a gift from His Creator. 

Preparation for Transformation 

Over the next few years thoughts about God seemed to occupy more and more of Berry's mind. He went to church when he could, read the Bible through, prayed for and received a lovely wife, and made a commitment to give some of his income to missionary endeavors. He had never been a drinker or a smoker, and while his football teammates would drink and party late into the nights, Berry would be asleep at an early hour. By almost anyone's standards, his life was squeaky clean.

And yet something just didn't seem right. Although the young football star seemed to have it all together, he had no assurance in spiritual things. He later told how he was especially troubled in three areas. He could never shake off feelings of guilt and a lack of peace. Though his life was far more morally upright than most of his teammates, he knew his own weaknesses and flaws. His sense of perfectionism, which served him so well in catapulting him to football fame, was now depressing him and making him keenly aware of how pathetic he must look in the sight of a holy God. Secondly he wondered about death and eternity. Where would he go after he died? Was he truly deserving of living in eternity with God? What exactly happens when you die? Thirdly he didn't seem to have much purpose in his life. Now that he had achieved the highest level of success possible in his profession, he still wasn't satisfied. There had to be more to life than championship rings and having your name in the record books.

Raymond Berry did not realize it at the time, but the truth was he was being "set up." The Holy Spirit was preparing him, making his heart receptive to the greatest gift ever given to any man or woman – the gift of the Holy Spirit. In time Raymond became close friends and roommates with Don Shinnick, an outstanding linebacker for the Colts and a committed Christian. Although Don didn't say much to Raymond about Jesus at first, in time he began to share. Raymond, under the impression that his church attendance and decent life made him a Christian, didn't seem to really get what Don was saying. Finally Don came out with what he was feeling: "Raymond, I don't believe you have ever accepted Christ as your Savior." Few Christians would be so blunt, but in Berry's case it was exactly what he needed to hear. Though he attended church and had been baptized, Raymond Berry had never been born again. He had no personal relationship with Jesus Christ.

About a week later Raymond was ready. Asking Don to help him frame a prayer of salvation, He received Jesus as His Savior, telling God, "I am going to trust Your Son, Jesus Christ, as my Savior tonight. I don't really understand what I'm doing. Help me to understand this." After his prayer, his friend gave him some very solid counsel: "Raymond, if you trust Jesus Christ He will live in you. You don't have the power to live a Christian life. He's the power to live a Christian life."

It has been decades since Raymond Berry prayed that prayer, and clearly his life has been transformed. He found the peace he once lacked. After receiving Jesus, the Bible began to come alive to him. He has shared Christ with individuals and groups across the U. S. Raymond's story is a different kind of testimony. Most celebrity testimonies reveal how they lived a wild and profligate life, chased women, drank heavily, used drugs, and then were delivered from these things by Jesus. It is exciting to hear such stories but it is important to keep in mind that it is not only the drunkards and the sexually immoral that need the Lord. Hard working, outwardly moral people need Jesus just as much! And church attendance no more makes one a Christian than hanging around an army base makes one a soldier. Our Lord tells us, "Unless a man is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God." Believing the essential facts that Jesus lived a perfect life, died on the cross in our place, and rose again the third day, we must actively receive Him as our Savior. "But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, to those who believe in His name" (John 1:12).

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