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

February 10, 1985|CLIFF NEWELL | Kerrville Daily Times and Associated Press

KERRVILLE, Tex. — 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.

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