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Raymond Berry- One of Life’s MVP’s

by Joe Kennedy

For me, one of the peak moments of the recent NFL Super Bowl occurred after the game when a lean, brown-haired man in a blazer approximately the color of Grey Poupon mustard carried the Lombardi Trophy past a line of exhausted, victorious New York Giant players.

The players rubbed the trophy, kissed it, hugged it. The man in the blazer kept a deliberate pace. Finally the announcers told the audience who he was: Raymond Berry, the retired Hall of Fame receiver from the 1958 and 1959 world champion Baltimore Colts.

In the 1958 title game Berry caught a record 12 passes from John Unitas, the Colts’ otherworldly quarterback. Played in Yankee Stadium, and with a vast nationwide television audience, the game was decided in sudden-death overtime and still is known to many as”The Greatest Game Ever Played.”

A stoic  offensive tackle for the Colts  named George Preas, from Roanoke, savagely leveled New York defenders on running and passing plays alike. For this he was named the Colts’  “Unsung Hero.”

Preas  lived in Roanoke during the off seasons and continued to live here after he retired. He and his wife, Betty Joyce, prospered in business and and raised their two children, daughter Kelly and son Geep.

George Preas died in 2007 at age 73. His funeral was held at Second Presbyterian Church and Raymond Berry came from his home in Tennessee to deliver the eulogy. I was a daily newspaper man back then. I covered the funeral and talked with Berry both the night before the service and at the reception afterwards. It was a thrill for me — I grew up in Baltimore.

Originally from Paris, Texas, Berry had wry manner and a pronounced drawl. He was courteous, frank and, like his quarterback, he was as tough as a granite countertop. Not blowhard tough. Not bully tough. Not ugly, obnoxious or conceited tough. But I could tell that the  Hall of Fame receiver, who overcame less than perfect eyesight, less than blazing speed and a less than imposing physique, had determination radiating like a fine mist from every pore.

I spent 36 years in daily journalism and spoke with many high achievers, from writers like Annie Dillard and Bobbi Ann Mason to musical stars from Dawn Upshaw to Doc Severinsen to movie stars like Sissy Spacek, Tommy Lee Jones and Beverly D’angelo.

Successful businesspeople? Check. Homemakers? Check. Scientists? Jane Goodall, twice. Check. Check.

Why is  Raymond Berry the most impressive person I ever interviewed? Not because he played 13 years of pro ball and fumbled just once. Not because he and John Unitas spent hours and hours after practices working on their timing and perfecting their skills. Not because  the pandemonium on the field after the Colts’ victory in ’58 made him realize his life was about to change in ways he couldn’t predict and prompted him to pray and accept Christ as his Savior in a bathroom stall in the Yankee Stadium locker room.

It was simply because he was a straight-answer guy. And because his answers reflected a lot of sincere thought. And because a bit of humor lightened most of the things he said.

I’ve said many times that many very successful people hold advantages the rest of us never think about. Garrison Keillor of “a Prairie Home Companion?”An awesome ability to be dead serious and drop-dead funny at the same time. Brooks Robinson, the Baltimore Orioles’ Hall of Fame third baseman? The metabolism of three highly energetic men. Country singer Loretta Lynn? An open heart and an irresistible lack of guile.

Raymond Berry’s success was built on details. He showed up at his first pro training camp with a small notebook he filled with everything he encountered – capturing it in tiny print. When the late afternoon sun got in his eyes at a stadium in California, he designed tinted goggles, wore them in games and saw other players do the same. When, during  their extra hours of practice, he grew tired of chasing down Unitas’ passes he didn’t catch, he fashioned a big net into a movable backstop. And when his teammates made their inevitable jokes about his modest manner and strait laced behavior, he laughed with them.

I know this because one morning when I was about 12, he came into our neighborhood barber shop with players who were regulars there. Phil, the owner, couldn’t contain his excitement., saying, over and over, “Raymond,” as if a member of England’s royal family had wandered in.

Berry just smiled.

His teammates tossed barb after barb at their pupil, whom they clearly were taking on a field trip into their more colorful lives. And Berry just smiled, going along with their jokes and enjoying every minute of it.

Compassion and humility always win.

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