There’s little doubt that the NFL receiver position has evolved significantly over the past several decades.
Today’s game requires a pass catcher to be fast, elusive, have great hands, be able to separate from defenders, and jump out of the stadium.
With some exceptions, most receivers who played the sport in the 1950s, 60s, and 70s likely wouldn’t make a current roster.
That’s certainly the case with Ray Berry.
When Berry ended his college career, he barely had over 30 receptions total.
He also wasn’t very fast, had a gimpy knee, was nearsighted, and was typically mistaken for an equipment manager.
Based on that information alone, Berry wouldn’t have received even passing interest from modern-day pro scouts.
However, he excelled in meticulous preparation, good practice habits, and an unwavering belief in his ability.
— I Think I Know (@IThinkIknowNFL) April 23, 2013
Those characteristics led the Baltimore Colts to draft Berry in 1954 and he ultimately became one of the best receivers in history.
For over a decade, Berry evaded defenders as he led the NFL in receptions, reception yardage, and receiving touchdowns.
He was a focal point on the Colts team and eventually helped the franchise earn the chance to play in the 1958 NFL Championship game.
After retiring from the sport, Berry transitioned to coaching and led the New England Patriots to Super Bowl XX.
This is the inspiring story of Ray Berry.
Growing Up in Paris, TX
Raymond Emmett Berry Jr. was born on February 27, 1933, in Corpus Christi, Texas.
Shortly after his birth, the Berry family relocated to Paris, Texas.
Raymond liked sports, especially football, and dreamed of playing for his father, Ray, who was the head coach at Paris High School.
The problem was, Berry wasn’t blessed with an athlete’s body—at least not at first.
It’s long been said that one of Berry’s legs was shorter than the other.
However, Berry later corrected this myth by saying he had a serious misalignment in his back that led to the appearance of one leg being shorter.
Berry has also said that the rumor that he had to wear a special shoe because of his ailment is also false.
Despite this misinformation, Berry did have to wear a back brace when playing and he was also nearsighted.
Therefore, if he didn’t wear glasses, Berry had a difficult time seeing anything.
When he became a freshman at Paris High School, Berry’s father put him on the school team but didn’t start him.
Still, Raymond (as he liked to be called since his father was also named Ray) worked hard to become a starter.
Talented, but Not Recruited
Although he wasn’t fast, Berry had the ability to jump and could time passes just right to take balls from defenders.
Before and after practice, he would spend hours running precise routes and eluding imaginary cornerbacks.
The game of football was mostly ground-based back then, but Berry practiced catching passes so much that it was extremely rare when he dropped one.
“You can’t grow and you can’t run faster than your physical equipment lets you,” Berry wrote years later. “All you can do is squeeze the very most out of what you have.”
Berry did that and then some.
When his father finally made him a starter as a senior, Berry’s football I.Q. was otherworldly and he acted like a player/coach on the field.
To this day, Berry is still one of the best players in school history.
That didn’t matter much to college coaches, unfortunately, and he received no interest from the big schools.
Undeterred, Berry’s father contacted a friend at Schreiner Institute (now called Schreiner University) in Kerrville, Texas, and asked him to consider his son.
Schreiner’s coach, Claude Gilstrap, gave Berry a scholarship and was astounded by how well he did.
“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 took the opportunity and responded with 33 catches and eight touchdowns and made the all-conference team.
The Mountaineers went 7-3 in 1950, Schreiner’s best record in a decade.
“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.”
Transfer to SMU
Berry had found success on the gridiron in high school and at Schreiner and he fully intended to continue playing, this time at a larger school.
Once again, Coach Ray Berry reached out to an acquaintance, Rusty Russell, at Southern Methodist University (SMU) and asked Russell to take a look at his son.
I believe Gilbert becomes the first former @templewildcats assistant to become a collegiate HFC. One Temple HFC, Rusty Russell, went on to lead SMU, Victoria, Schreiner and Howard Payne. https://t.co/6z0kjtmbwM
— Tim Waits (@Tim_Waits) December 6, 2018
Russell agreed, but there were strings attached.
“I’ll give you a one-semester trial scholarship,” said Russell. “You’re not eligible to play because of the transfer, so you’ll work against our varsity squad every day, and I’ll watch you this fall.”
That was no problem for Berry, who continued practicing like a man possessed and prepared by spending several hours studying film.
He spent time on Russell’s practice squad running plays that the Mustangs’ next opponent would use.
It wasn’t long before Berry consistently ran past and jumped over the SMU starting secondary and Russell had seen enough.
He gave the kid from Paris a full scholarship before the 1952 season.
Limited Opportunities, but Still Drafted
As a sophomore, Berry rarely saw the ball as a backup receiver for the 4-5-1 Mustangs.
Russell was just like any other football coach at the time and SMU ran the ball as often as possible.
The result was a whopping five receptions for Berry in 1952.
After the season, Russell left (ironically) for Schreiner Institute, and new coach Woody Woodard took over.
Woodard was also a run-first coach and Berry caught 11 passes as a junior.
“I didn’t catch many passes because not many were thrown,” recalled Berry.
Berry was still a substitute through his junior year, but that didn’t stop the Baltimore Colts from selecting him with the 232nd overall pick in the 20th round of the 1954 draft.
At the time, the NFL Draft was held in January and Berry still had a season of college eligibility left.
— Danny-Mac (@maverick76904) September 19, 2017
So, the Colts took him with a “Futures” pick with nothing to lose.
Berry was a tad shocked, especially because he wasn’t a starter and he only had 16 total receptions.
However, he had impressed the right people, specifically reporters for Texas newspapers that had the ear of several NFL personnel.
As a senior in 1954, Berry played to expectations and caught 17 passes as a starter and captain for SMU.
The Mustangs went 6-3-1 and Berry was honored as an All-Southwestern Conference player.
Berry Makes the Colts
Berry arrived in Baltimore in 1955 as a long shot to make the team.
However, Ray (as he was soon called by teammates) was never one to back down from a challenge.
He threw himself into practice, and just like he did at SMU, consumed film during his off time, especially of upcoming opponents and fellow receivers.
In fact, after signing with Baltimore, Berry got his own projector so he could view film at home.
“I must be the only player whose contract included his own Bell and Howell projector,” said Berry. “People thought I was nuts.”
Berry also engaged in unorthodox training methods such as strengthening his hands with Silly Putty, looking at weather patterns for games, and examining the angle of the sun on the field.
Due to his poor eyesight, Berry wore contact lenses and even worked with specialists to find tinted lenses to diminish the glare of the sun and see the ball better.
He also made several notes to himself, even during practices and games, and studied the notes during his spare time.
His teammates didn’t realize it at first, but Berry was rewriting the way the receiver position was played in the NFL.
— Emission Systems (@EmissionSystem) September 22, 2016
After his first training camp, the Baltimore coaches informed him that he had made the team and was one of a dozen rookies that became Colts that year.
He was excited to make the squad but soon found that it was difficult.
NFL defenders were much better athletes than those he faced in college and Berry found he had a hard time separating from them.
In seven starts, Berry caught just 13 passes and never reached the end zone.
Berry was upset at himself for his poor rookie showing and went home with his projector in tow.
He spent the offseason poring over game film and looking at fellow NFL receivers to study their moves.
When he wasn’t watching film, Berry would find a patch of grass and practice moves, feints, and fakes until long after the sun went down.
Then, he began working out with weights and simulating full games using a stopwatch.
By the time the Colts’ 1956 training camp began, Berry was in fantastic shape and the drills the coaches ran were rather easy for him.
At the same time, a new gangly-looking quarterback from Pittsburgh arrived at camp.
— Horseshoe History (@HShoeHistory) March 28, 2023
Nobody gave the guy much of a chance, especially because he had been cut by the Pittsburgh Steelers the year before.
Still, Berry was intrigued and asked who the new arm was.
“That’s the free-agent quarterback,” one of his teammates said. “Unitas.”
Unitas to Berry
Johnny Unitas had the same determination to make it in the NFL as Berry and the two soon formed a fast friendship.
Their time together was primarily spent in the film room drawing up plays and scouting opponents and working after practice on routes.
The duo talked shop constantly and it was inevitable that they would soon become the stars of the team.
“It’s important for an end and a quarterback to speak the same language,” said Berry. “It’s almost like a marriage.”
During the 1956 season, Unitas started seven games, passing for almost 1,500 yards and nine touchdowns for 5-7 Baltimore.
Berry was on the receiving end of 37 passes for 601 yards and two touchdowns.
Johnny Unitas to Ray Berry.
— Peter Bisaillion (@PBisaillion) March 30, 2023
Unitas helped Barry find holes in the secondary and Berry also realized he could get off the ball faster from a different stance.
“I feel I can start from scrimmage quicker if I use a three-point stance. The upright stance is good because you can see the defense better,” Berry wrote.
A year later, the connection between the two was undeniable and soon the entire league was talking about Unitas and Berry.
“It’s good to work out with Johnny in another way, too,” wrote Berry. “He’s a strong-arm passer. You work with a guy who can’t stick the ball out there for you, and you develop bad habits. You have to work with a passer who can overthrow you all the time, no matter how deep you go. Working out with Johnny, you’re always stretching after that long one and you get the habit and you get the details down that help you get the extra feet.”
With Unitas starting all 12 games in 1957, the Colts improved to 7-5 and Berry had 47 receptions for an NFL-best 800 yards and six touchdowns.
During a game against Washington in Week 7, Berry caught 12 passes for 224 yards and two scores, accounting for nearly all of Baltimore’s points in the 21-17 victory.
He was named a second-team All-Pro after the season.
By 1958, Unitas was firing on all cylinders.
He could thread the needle anywhere on the field and found Berry for an NFL-best 56 receptions for 794 yards and nine touchdowns (also tops in the league).
Berry’s constant film study and skull sessions with Unitas paid off.
His ability to catch a ball was almost unparalleled and numerous sportswriters have commented that he only fumbled one pass during his entire career.
Knowing he was trustworthy, Unitas looked for Berry often and the receiver benefitted by going to his first Pro Bowl in ‘58 along with being voted a first-team All-Pro.
Other coaches and players in the NFL took notice of the Colts and saw the success of the franchise’s passing game.
1958 Baltimore Colts. World Champs. pic.twitter.com/LDNhQZzpOT
— 𝙃𝙚𝙡𝙢𝙚𝙩 𝘼𝙙𝙙𝙞𝙘𝙩 (@HelmetAddict) November 22, 2019
What those teams witnessed was a serious departure from the standard run-heavy offenses and several opponents struggled to keep up with Baltimore’s talent.
In 1958, the Colts went 9-3 and finished first in the Western Division for the first time in franchise history.
That pitted them against the New York Giants, who had battled the Cleveland Browns to win their division and get to the title game.
The Greatest Game Ever Played
Baltimore had a stacked roster that included Unitas, Berry, Alan Ameche, Lenny Moore, one of the best offensive lines in football, and a defense that included head-crackers Gino Marchetti, Eugene “Big Daddy” Lipscomb, and Art Donovan.
In preparing for the biggest game of his life at that point, Berry wrote a modest 25-page report that detailed everything from who would cover him that day to what routes and fakes worked best with certain New York defenders.
When Baltimore arrived at Yankee Stadium, Berry got off the bus and proceeded to walk the field to note any imperfections in the turf and commit those spots to memory.
After the contest began, the Giants took the initial lead with a field goal in the first quarter.
Then, the Colts’ powerful offense went to work in the second quarter and Unitas found Berry for a couple of quick strikes that included a 15-yard touchdown.
— Tom's Old Days (@sigg20) December 23, 2020
His score put the Colts on top, 14-3, at halftime.
In the second half, New York scored 14 unanswered points to take a 17-14 lead and it looked like Baltimore was up against the ropes.
Then, with roughly two minutes left, the Colts had the ball and Unitas took command.
With the crowd on its feet and the clock winding down, Unitas zipped passes to his receivers, and at one point, found Berry for three consecutive completions.
The third completion was a beauty where Berry caught the ball right near one of the rough spots on the field.
He then pivoted just in time so his defender, Carl Karilivacz, slipped on that same spot.
Berry then proceeded to motor down to the Giants’ 13-yard line.
“I didn’t get it at the time (the magnitude of the 1958 title game), but without question, that’s the high point of my entire pro career, those three catches,” said Berry in 2009.
After Berry’s third catch of the drive, the Colts’ field goal unit trotted out and kicker Steve Myhra nailed a 20-yard field goal to tie the contest at 17.
Colts. Giants. 1958 NFL Championship.
The Greatest Game Ever Played is officially the #1 game in @NFL history.
— Indianapolis Colts (@Colts) October 5, 2019
That sent the game into overtime for the first time in NFL postseason history.
In the extra quarter, New York had the ball first but went three and out.
Then Baltimore took over and Unitas sliced and diced his way through the haggard Giants’ defense.
He connected with Berry twice during the period including a 12-yard catch that put the Colts at the New York eight-yard line.
Three plays later, Ameche plunged in from the one-yard line to win the game and the world title, 23-17.
59 years ago today in #NFLHistory…
— NFL Legacy (@NFLLegacy) December 28, 2017
Berry had an afternoon for the ages, pulling in 12 catches for 178 yards and one touchdown.
His receptions and yardage totals would remain records for a championship game for several years.
After the contest, the Colts received their winner’s share of $4,700 each and a tired Berry gave his thoughts about the day.
“It’s the greatest thing that ever happened,” he said.
In 1959, it was more of the same for Berry, Unitas, and the Baltimore Colts.
Berry continued setting new marks when he led the NFL in receptions (66), reception yards (959), touchdowns (14), and for good measure, yards per game (79.9).
His touchdown number set a Colts record that wouldn’t be touched for more than 40 years and Berry’s receptions, yards, and touchdown totals made him the league’s fourth-ever “triple crown” winner.
For the second year in a row, Berry was named a first-team All-Pro and voted to his second Pro Bowl.
Then, the 9-3 Colts met the Giants again for the 1959 NFL Championship.
Just like the year before, the game was tight through the first three quarters as the G-Men held a slim, 9-7, advantage.
Charlie Conerly and the #TogetherBlue offense vs. #ForTheShoe and the Baltimore defense in the 1959 NFL Championship Game. The Colts won convincingly, 31-16 at old Memorial Stadium. (photo by the great Neil Leifer for Sports Illustrated) pic.twitter.com/1AS94l2UXk
— Ken Gelman (@kengfunk) December 27, 2020
The floodgates opened in the fourth quarter when Baltimore scored 24 unanswered points on the way to a resounding 31-16 win.
Although he didn’t catch a touchdown, Berry had five catches for 68 yards.
Baltimore had back-to-back championship seasons in 1958 and 1959.
After the 1959 title, the team ran out of gas and missed the postseason for the next four years.
Yet, Berry continued to play at a level rarely seen in league history.
In 1960, he led the NFL in receptions (74), yards (1,298-his only career 1,000-yard receiving year), and yards per game (108.2-also a career-high) to go along with 10 touchdowns.
Then, in 1961, he had a career-best 75 catches for 873 yards but didn’t score once.
— Tom's Old Days (@sigg20) March 3, 2023
Berry’s next two years were modest (for him) and he caught 51 and 44 passes in 1962 and 1963, respectively.
The Colts returned to the NFL Championship game for the third time in 1964 after finishing the regular season with a franchise record 12 wins.
Berry had 43 receptions for 663 yards and six touchdowns that season and was voted to his sixth Pro Bowl.
Despite Baltimore’s fantastic season, the team was held scoreless by the Cleveland Browns in the title game, 27-0.
Between 1965 and 1967, Baltimore had winning records, but only made the playoffs once, a 13-10 loss to Green Bay in the Conference Playoff game in 1965.
Berry had over 50 receptions and 700 yards in both ‘65 and ‘66.
In 1967, he sustained injuries that limited him to seven starts, 11 catches, 167 yards, and one score.
Berry ultimately decided that his body had enough and he retired after the season.
Little did he know that the Colts would set a new franchise record in 1968 with 13 wins and reach Super Bowl III before losing to Joe Namath and the New York Jets, 16-7.
During his 13-year pro career, Berry caught 631 passes for 9,275 yards and 68 touchdowns.
He was a two-time NFL champion, a six-time Pro Bowler, six-time All-Pro, and led the NFL in receptions three times, receiving yards three times, and receiving touchdowns twice.
Berry was later named to the league’s 1950s All-Decade Team and 75th and 100th Anniversary All-Time Teams.
He has been placed in the Baltimore Ravens Ring of Honor and his number, 82, has been retired by the Colts.
In 1973, Berry was paid the ultimate compliment when he was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
With his playing days behind him, Berry wasn’t quite sure what he was going to do next until a former opponent contacted him.
“Coach Tom Landry of the Dallas Cowboys called me the spring after I announced my retirement, and he wanted me to join his staff in Dallas to be receiver coach,” said Berry in 2009. “I hadn’t really been thinking about coaching, and I had several conversations with Coach Landry and he changed my mind. We moved to Dallas and started into the coaching business.”
Berry coached the Cowboys’ receivers for two years before spending three seasons with the Arkansas Razorbacks’ receivers.
He then returned to the NFL ranks where he tutored pass catchers for the Detroit Lions and Cleveland Browns from 1973-1977.
Then, in 1978, he joined the staff of the New England Patriots.
“I ended up with Coach Chuck Fairbanks there in the late ’70s,” said Berry. “He hired me to coach receivers with the Patriots, and that brought us to New England—we ended up staying there for thirteen years.”
When the 1981 season concluded, then-head coach Ron Erhardt and his staff, including Berry, were fired.
For the next two-plus years, Berry remained in Maryland and worked in real estate until he received his next coaching opportunity.
Berry Guides New England
In 1984, Patriots coach Ron Meyer was shown the door after a 5-3 start.
Meyer wasn’t well-liked by the Patriots players after he had criticized them numerous times in the media.
Northern Cal 'cool'. Ron Meyer bashed Eason when the Patriots let him go 84. Meyer had a bad habit of blaming everyone else when he get fired. Eason better career than say Chuck Long/Andre Ware/Klingler etc that bashing by Meyer to the media was always the narrative sadly🏈 https://t.co/a7gZLrE8LM
— Jeff Johnson (@therealJeffJ97) July 7, 2021
The situation was so caustic in the Pats’ locker room that team owner Billy Sullivan fired Meyer, then shocked the world when he brought back Berry to lead the organization.
Some media members wondered how the soft-spoken Berry would fare with the group of malcontents that Meyer had complained openly about.
Others, however, didn’t worry a bit about the former all-pro and they were sure that his character would win over the Patriots players.
In fact, one sports writer wrote that Berry was the “finest man to have walked the earth since Jesus Christ.”
Former teammates also believed good things were in store for New England.
“Raymond is that one person you meet in your lifetime,” offered Lenny Moore, “who is totally genuine. He is free of the kind of faults so many of us have.”
Once he got the job, Berry endeared himself to the team when he reached out to personally introduce himself to each player.
He was also the opposite of Meyer, who many viewed as a glory hound.
“Suddenly, we knew we had a coach who was more concerned with the team than himself,” recalled veteran Patriots quarterback Steve Grogan in 1986. “He’s not a screamer or a yeller but there was no doubt who was in charge. Everything he said made sense and you just knew he was always telling you the truth, which on that team was something new, believe me.”
Super Bowl XX
For the remainder of the 1984 season, Berry guided the Patriots to a 4-4 record.
Then, in 1985, New England caught fire.
The Pats won 11 games, then beat the Jets, Raiders, and Dolphins all on the road before meeting the 15-1 Chicago Bears in Super Bowl XX.
The road to Super Bowl XX for the 1985 @Patriots was well traveled. In the playoffs, the team fought incredible odds as they won three consecutive playoff games, all on the road!
— Pro Football Hall of Fame (@ProFootballHOF) January 6, 2019
Berry had just missed playing in a Super Bowl when he retired in 1967, but now he was getting a chance to coach in the biggest game of the year.
Unfortunately, there wasn’t much that anyone on the Patriots’ roster or coaching staff could do to slow the powerful Bears.
Chicago had been installed as 10-point favorites before the contest and ended up winning 46-10.
Life After Football
The Patriots returned to the playoffs in 1986 but lost to Denver in the Divisional round.
Berry remained with New England for three more years and was fired after a 5-11 season in 1989.
His record as a head coach was 48-39 and 3-2 in the playoffs.
He has since been placed on New England’s All-1980s Team as a coach.
After leaving Massachusetts, Berry coached quarterbacks in Detroit for the 1991 season and spent a year in the same capacity in Denver in 1992.
Following the ‘92 season, Berry left football for good and spent several years in the financial and air purification sectors.
Berry is currently 90 years old and lives with his wife, Sally, in Tennessee.