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Jim Murray

It's Not Berry's Part, but He's Got His Act Down Pat

January 23, 1986|JIM MURRAY

NEW ORLEANS — Everybody knows what football coaches look like. Big, thick necks. Wrists like pistons, beard like two miles of barbed-wire.

They don't talk, they bellow. They have the nice sweet dispositions of a sergeant whose shoes are too tight and whose stomach hurts. Their attitude is, "I'm giving the orders here!" and the veins stick out in their necks and their eyes bug out when they give them.

They answer to the name of Bear or Bum or Bo or Iron Mike, and they have vocabularies of ferryboat captains. Their normal conversational tone is a growl. They're physical people. Their idea of treatment for any injury is to rub a little dirt on it. They throw things when they're mad. They rule by fear.

And, then, there's Raymond Berry.

You can tell right away that nature never intended him to be a football coach. A door-to-door salesman, perhaps. A small-town druggist. Maybe, even a cipher clerk. Or a mole in a spy ring.

No one would ever guess his line of work. Nobody even calls him Ray.

Raymond has spent his whole life trying not to draw attention to himself. But this week, he's blown his cover forever. He has emerged, of all things, as a logical successor to historic extroverts like Knute Rockne, Vince Lombardi, Pop Warner and Hurry Up Yost. A super coach.

Even as a player with the Baltimore Colts, Raymond Berry never looked the part. First of all, he was nearsighted. Next, he was slow. His back hurt. He wore a surgical corset. He had boils. He had no cartilage in one knee.

He used to suit up for games like a guy going to the South Pole or the top of Everest. He had these tinted rubberized sun goggles. He wore specially tailored uniforms. He looked like a World War I pilot.

"Here comes Captain Midnight," the Rams would say when he showed up. But they put two men on him because Berry tended to disappear, goggles and all, as soon as the ball was snapped.

He didn't play a game of football, he engineered it. He checked the temperature, lighting, humidity, even the position of the sun in the sky. He studied the terrain as if he had to putt on it, not run on it, or build a bridge on it, not catch a pass on it.

He could catch one in handcuffs. No one remembers Raymond Berry ever dropping a pass if it was in the same area code. He could hold onto a football in an avalanche. He fumbled once in his entire pro career. It was raining at the time and it was the only pass he ever even juggled.

If you looked at his stats, you would swear you were dealing with an Olympic sprinter, 6-5, 230 or so, who had moves like an ocelot's and eyes that could see through steel. But the real Raymond Berry had contact lenses and had to show two pieces of identification just to get on the team bus.

But, none of this guaranteed him success in the baffling world of coaching. Prowess is never a qualification for mastery in that demanding profession. Quite the contrary. The overachiever is apt to think that, if he can do it, anyone can. "Just go out there and catch 75 passes a year, like I did."

Besides, there was his personality. Raymond Berry never raised his voice or his fist in his life. He was as polite as a deacon, as quiet as a monk.

He had no Napoleonic complex. He was patient, modest, and listened a lot. For a Texan, he was almost subversive. He was also tireless, dependable, selfless. So, he became an assistant coach. He seemed born for it.

His career was the reverse of the Peter Principle. Instead of getting promoted beyond his capabilities, he was kept at a job that didn't fully maximize them.

The New England Patriots, at the time he joined them, were a team with talent to burn. So they burned it. They had the best recruits in the league but the club leaders kept marching them into a swamp. It was the biggest waste of manpower since Mussolini's navy.

Naturally, the team grew rebellious, mutinous, disillusioned. Other teams drooled when they saw that personnel, but guffawed when they saw the use it was put to.

No one knows quite why management, when it finally got fed up with high-priced collegiate reputations, turned the talent over to Raymond Berry.

Everyone knew it was a caretaker operation. Raymond just had to watch the store while the Sullivan family, the owners, scouted up another big reputation to put in charge of losing.

It was the talent that decided the issue for a change.

"Suddenly, we knew we had a coach who was more concerned with the team than with himself," the veteran quarterback, Steve Grogan, was recalling the other day.

"A lot of people thought he was an interim leader but we knew better. A lot of people thought he couldn't control a team because he was so quiet. He's not a screamer or a yeller but there was no doubt he 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.

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