Raymond Berry doesn't look like a National Football League coach, especially the archetypal ones. He doesn't roar as Lombardi did. He doesn't have Don Shula's thrusting Rushmore jaw. He's diametrically the opposite of his Super Bowl opponent, Mike Ditka, a Midway monster who might be tougher than John Wayne. "If you don't follow me out of this foxhole, pal, I'm gonna drag you out."
Berry wears glasses or contact lenses. He's alternately tight-lipped and soft-spoken. As the New England Patriots' leader, he's self-effacing, passing around credit to assistants and players. He won't say anything in a short interview that would shake the earth. He believes strongly in God but, like most things, doesn't say much about it; no crusader he.
Still, he's cloaked in myth. One leg was not really shorter than the other, as legend had it, making his story all the more heroic as he became, from 1955 through 1967, arguably, the game's greatest receiver.
But Raymond Berry, a coach?
Did he ever think Raymond Berry would turn out to be a head coach, let alone the coach of a Super Bowl team? The question was asked of Ordell Braase, a teammate of Berry's when the Colts were in Baltimore and Johnny Unitas wore a crew cut and Marchetti, Donovan and Lipscomb were like giants who trod the earth.
"No," said Braase, who came in when Marchetti went down like thunder in the 1958 "greatest game ever played," the title game against the Giants that ushered in the modern era of pro football, the day Unitas and Berry simply were unstoppable. "No," said Braase, "but I didn't think about it long enough."
When you think about it, it makes sense that Berry would be a head coach, and one so adept as to lead the long-downtrodden New England Patriots into next Sunday's Super Bowl against Chicago.
True, Berry looks more like a lanky, absent-minded professor. "What? You say the experiment blew up? The chemistry lab is destroyed? Good heavens!"
But forget the myths. He never set his watch on West Coast time days before a trip there. He had use of all his fingers; the old Life once did a piece on him called "Nine Sticky Fingers," but he would regain use of the "permanently" dislocated pinky by squeezing children's play putty, which he continued to do for years. His wife, Sally, did throw passes to him -- but not that often.
Yes, he did take a scale on the road with him to make sure his weight was perfect on game days. He did hang on to footballs even in hotel lobbies, practiced after dark, knew when the sun would come over the rim of the Los Angeles Coliseum, kept several changes of cleats and contact lenses on the sidelines and washed his own football pants to make sure they wouldn't shrink. The day before a game "he'd walk every inch of the field," said placekicker Steve Myhra, who sent the "greatest game" into overtime with a field goal in the final seconds. "You know, he'd find a little slush spot here, a little ice there where he thought he could beat a defender. He covered the field like a prospector."
Everybody said Berry was slow. ("If he had any speed he would have caught 20 passes a game," said Myhra.) But Berry always thought he had physical advantages -- he had big feet for a player and used them to cut sharply on his esoteric pass routes, and he could look back for a pass by turning his neck without turning his upper body, thereby losing no speed. And, most of all, he had long fingers and "sure" hands. He only fumbled once, and that was a disputed call.
Jimmy Orr, for a time the Colts' receiver on the other side from Berry, was also Berry's antithesis. Orr hated practice, loved only Sundays. Berry loved it all. After practice one day, Orr lit a long cigar as Berry worked relentlessly on a primitive-looking body-building device he had hooked to the locker room wall. Said Orr in amusement, from behind a smoke screen: "He's been pulling on that thing for the last 10 years."
But the Colts wouldn't laugh out loud about Berry -- and the Patriots have responded to him in part as a result of this -- because, as Braase said the other day, "He's a dedicated and sincere person. He must be a breath of fresh air from all the cliches most coaches spout." And Myhra: "He's the most deserving gentleman I know. He's just dear, and precious. It's understandable why he's had success with the Patriots. They've been kicked around for so long that they're willing to listen to him."
As Berry's former mates, Braase and Myhra, watch him on TV -- Braase still in Baltimore, Myhra in Wahpeton, N.D., often at Little Richard's bar -- and when something happens involving Berry that is characteristically Berry, they laugh softly, knowingly. That's Raymond.
"Did you see him on the sidelines against the Jets in the playoff game?" said Braase. "That big hat, that parka. He looked like he was dressed for the Arctic. And you know what he said when somebody asked him about his clothes? 'I didn't want the weather to interfere with my thinking.' "
"Against Miami," said Myhra, "that receiver dropped a pass and you know he felt bad about it, and he's all alone on the sideline and Raymond comes over and puts his hand on the guy's arm and you knew Raymond was telling him, 'It's okay. You'll get the next one.' Nobody has a shoulder when you need one like Raymond.
"The thing about Raymond, he never would castigate you. We'd call him 'The Preacher,' but not much. He and (Don) Shinnick (now the Patriots' linebackers coach) were very decent Christians, but it was no big deal. A bunch of us, we'd like to go out, drink some beers. Raymond would come by once in a while, have a Coke. He might not approve, but as long as we were ready for Sunday, it was okay."
Most of the time, Berry did not stop off with the boys but went directly home and watched game films after dinner. He grabbed film tins by the armful. Myhra said, "On Sundays, after games, he'd get some fresh film of that very game and some other film and he'd come in Mondays with his own scouting report for the next opponent. He'd do that every week . . .
"We were in the Army together, six months at Fort Knox, January to June 1958, the championship year. I was a tank unit commander, a lieutenant. Raymond was a private. On weekends, I couldn't wait to get to Louisville. Drink some beer. Raymond wanted my room in the officers building. He'd sneak in there with a projector and, all weekend -- this is his idea of a weekend -- he'd watch films. Not porno films. Football films."
And did all that preparation pay off. In his career, he had 631 receptions for 9,275 yards and made the Hall of Fame. He helped make history on Sunday, Dec. 28, 1958, in the dying minutes, with the lights of Yankee Stadium cutting the late-afternoon gloom. In the "greatest game," Berry caught 12 passes for 178 yards (both intact as championship-game records) and a touchdown. In the final drive of regulation, Berry caught three passes for 62 yards against double coverage as the Colts drove to tie, 17-17. And he caught two more in overtime as the Colts drove to win, 23-17 -- including that reception taken after Unitas had waved him deeper, Unitas directing like a symphony conductor and Berry, as Braase recalled, responding "like a Labrador retriever in water, following orders . . .
"On his last catch, he was so determined, he went over the middle, caught the ball at the 10, put his head down and, with tacklers on him, fought for more yardage. That's pretty good for a skinny kid from Paris, Texas."
It figures, even looking back to those days in northeast Texas, that Berry would be a coach. His father, Raymond Sr., was a coach. He coached football more than 30 years at Paris High. There, young Berry did not manage to play first string until his senior year. He weighed 153.
Wanting to play in the Southwest Conference, he went to junior college for a year, then got a scholarship to Southern Methodist. Still, he caught only 33 passes in three years at SMU. He scored one touchdown in high school, one in college. (He would get 68 for the Colts). The Colts drafted him in 1954 but in the 20th round. For two years, Berry went to the Colts' camp in a panic. Would he make the team?
Once, as a rookie, Berry did have teammates laugh out loud at him.
"It was Raymond's first year, 1955, and we played the Eagles in Hershey in the first exhibition game," Jim Mutscheller, tight end for the Colts, said recently. "Raymond was lined up at left tight end, opposite Chuck Bednarik. It was a running play to the right. Raymond came off the line and Bednarik's hand came up and caught in Raymond's face mask. Then when Bednarik saw where the play was going, he ran across the field but he couldn't get his hand loose from Raymond's mask, and he dragged Raymond along. Raymond's feet were flopping out behind him like a sack of wheat. We saw this on the movies when we got back to training camp. (Coach) Weeb (Ewbank) ran it over and over. Weeb said, 'Raymond, you're going to have to get a hat pin if those guys won't let go of your helmet.' "
In the beginning, Berry always found that he had "a hand in my face," an opponent across the scrimmage line attempting to foil his plans, and this made him positive that he had to study the game, make a science of it. He wanted to know how defenders reacted to certain offensive situations so he could go about his business. He learned how many steps and how many seconds it would take to get to a point on each of his routes. What turned the tedium almost mystical was that he had a passer so extraordinary the ball almost always got to a point at the second Berry did.
And Berry worked -- he worked before, during (when not that many balls were thrown to him) and after practice, but he never wore himself out practicing because he had perfected his drills, wasting neither time nor steps. Always, he had balls thrown to him at crazy angles. At the sidelines, he kept both feet in bounds, his body suspended like a leaning tower.
Ernie Accorsi, a former Colts publicist and now a Cleveland Browns vice president, said: "When Shula came along (as Colts coach), and Berry was already famous, Shula would come out to practice and Berry would be out there already, running these sideline patterns by himself. This was phantom stuff, no quarterback, no ball in the air. Shula'd look over and, you know, Raymond's got six more patterns to run, and Shula would say, 'When this team is ready for practice, let me know.' "
Then after practice, more practice. In the late '50s or early '60s, one afternoon around 5 o'clock, a person came upon two figures in the near-darkness on a humble practice field behind an armory in Pikesville, Md. All the other Colts had finished and gone in. You could barely make out the last two except for their trademark body movements, passing and receiving. The game's epic stars, out at night alone. Unitas and Berry.
But Berry usually would want more throws than Unitas was willing to provide. Enter the Net Drill, which Berry devised in 1957. Berry took part of the netting from an Orioles batting cage and strung it off to the side of the field. After practice, he'd get somebody -- often Myhra -- to throw to him in front of the net, and he'd take 50 to 70 throws, high ones, low ones. Berry would dive and leap, and stretch out beautifully in the air parallel to the ground. If he missed, the ball would hit the net and drop and he wouldn't have to chase it. A time-saver.
"Unitas would throw a soft ball," said Myhra, "but I would throw a real hard ball. Raymond always said if he could catch my passes he could catch anything. I didn't care how many I threw; all I had to worry about was my foot being okay for Sunday."
In 1968 and 1969, Berry served as receivers coach for the Dallas Cowboys. According to Myhra, "he left there because he couldn't get them to put in the extra effort. I'm not going to name names, but they didn't want to stay after practice and do the Net Drill."
But in a memorable profile in his book "Lead Time: A Journalist's Education," Garry Wills (who stuck with Berry longer than most writers and defensive backs) elicited from Berry, then receivers coach for the Patriots, a response that revealed Berry as wholly devoted to the best interests of his receivers and not one to inflexibly espouse the Net Drill or imagine himself up on the screen in game films beating today's defenders.
"No, it is just a different game now. Things that worked then would not now. Harold (Jackson, now the Patriots' assistant receivers coach) and Stanley (Morgan) have different bodies from mine, different gifts, and I have to concentrate on what they will be doing."
Surely, though, Berry has passed on to the current Patriots many of his routines, one being to "reconnoiter" when running pass routes. He would come back to the huddle or sideline with suggestions. Not only would he suggest plays in the huddle -- "and nobody would say anything in a Unitas huddle," said Accorsi -- Berry would even say what play not to run. "(Former center and former Colts general manager Dick) Szymanski told me this," said Accorsi. "John would call a play and Berry would say, 'No, I'm not going to run it. We didn't practice it.' John would have to call another play. Nobody could get away with that -- except Raymond."
Clearly, Berry always has had something to say, a knowledge of the game and a willingness to impart it -- if anyone cared to listen. And if they didn't, or if he had a reason that made sense only to himself, he'd go his way. Berry always has had his reasons. Once, Braase said, on a running play to the right, late in a game with the Colts ahead and trying to protect a lead, Berry swung over from the left side of the field behind the ball carrier. "Weeb yelled, 'Why aren't you out in front, blocking. Why are you behind him?' And Raymond said, 'Just in case he fumbled, I wanted to be there.' "
After moving on from his assistant's job in Dallas, Berry worked as an assistant at Arkansas under Frank Broyles, then back to the pros with Detroit and Cleveland before the Patriots, from 1978 to 1981. After a 2-14 season in 1981, he and the entire Patriots coaching staff, headed by Ron Erhardt, were fired. Berry stayed in New England and worked for a real estate company in Wellesley. Of coaching, he told Wills in retrospect, "It is not a job a sane man undertakes."
Berry was still in real estate when the Patriot owners remembered him after eight games last year. It is said that veteran Patriots players asked management to bring Berry back. The 1984 Patriots went 4-4 under him. Berry took a lot of notes. Then he swung into an offseason -- including visits to players' homes -- that was as busy as the offseasons of his playing days. As he once explained to Wills, "There is no offseason. We just go to a five-day-a-week, 9-to-5 job."
Coming into this season, Berry watchers agree, head coach Berry, now 52, did two major things to bring the Patriots up sharply: He conceived a detailed plan for the year and had his team well-conditioned. "In the mid-'70s," said Accorsi, "the Patriots had the talent. Now they have it again. All they needed was that respected leadership. To know Raymond is to respect him. He is 100 percent genuine. The players see that."
Now come the Bears and the Super Bowl. The Bears! "I remember a game with the Bears," said Mutscheller. "The scouting report said to beat the Bears we should run to the left. This meant that Raymond had to play tight left end, and the defensive end in front of him was Doug Atkins, who was 6-8, 280. Raymond took home the films to try to figure out how to block him. Finally, he came up with it. Instead of trying to block Atkins before Atkins took a step, Raymond would wait until Atkins took his first step, then -- he noticed on the films -- when Atkins had his legs crossed he'd block him. He did that all day . . .
"So now it's the Bears again. Raymond will have to figure out a way."