What chance do I have of climbing Mt. Whitney upside-down and backwards? The very same chance the U.S. Olympic hockey team had of winning the gold medal in 1980. But that U.S. team, comprised mostly of college players, was coached by a great mind and motivator, Herb Brooks, and he brought them in against incredible odds. Brooks was a very fine player himself at the University of Minnesota, and then coached his alma mater to three Division 1 hockey titles. He also coached in the NHL for seven years. Brooks is enshrined in the United States Hockey Hall of Fame. Herb Brooks was killed in an auto accident near Minneapolis on August 11; he was 66. He leaves a great legacy of accomplishments, but the one he will be most remembered for is that "Miracle On Ice" against the Soviets in the 1980 Olympics, an incredible upset that led to the victory over Finland to win the gold, and one of the greatest thrills I’ve ever had as a sports spectator and fan. Here is to the memory of Herb Brooks.
Story of the Week
The usual Pro Football Hall-of-Fame wide receiver has a laundry list of important qualities. Speed, quickness, size, ability to run with the ball; these are all credentials of the top receivers of the game. That’s Raymond Berry’s list as well; those are all characteristics he didn’t have. Then we throw in for good measure terrible eyesight, and one leg that was noticeably shorter than the other, and you have the complete Ray Berry package.
He was drafted in the 20th. round as a future in 1954, and there were many who wondered why the Baltimore Colts even bothered to pick him at all. After all, during his entire college football career, he caught just 33 passes for exactly one touchdown. Not exactly the star of the show.
But Berry had a full understanding of his abilities. He had excellent hands, so catching the ball was not the problem. All he needed was a move to get himself open. As it turned out, he came up with more than one. Berry said that he had 88 precise moves on the field, and every day at practice he went over each of them, staying on the field long after everyone else had left.
Berry caught just 13 passes as a rookie in 1955, but from then on, he literally wore out right-angle paths to the sidelines in every NFL stadium. He led the NFL in receptions for three straight seasons, and when he retired after the 1967 season, his 631 catches were an all-time NFL record.
Raymond Berry was maddening to opponents. Everyone knew what he was going to do, yet no one could stop it. In what may have been his greatest performance, Berry caught 12 passes in the 1958 NFL Championship Game, a post-season record that stood for 23 years. Three of those receptions came on the Colts' final desperate drive in the fourth quarter. His catches set up the tying field goal that forced overtime, then helped Baltimore to an overtime victory in the game that truly put the NFL on the map of sports.
Berry was so obsessive about his craft that he often was seen as something of an eccentric. He went to great pains to study the fields on which he was about to play. He also made a science of knowing the wind and sun conditions of the day. He even did special wrist and hand exercises to prevent fumbling; despite those who thought he was going too far with it, they should be reminded that Ray Berry, in 13 NFL seasons, fumbled only once. Unbelievable!
He and quarterback Johnny Unitas had an almost eerie symbiosis on the field, especially in the two-minute drill. That was the product of long hours after formal practice when the two men worked on timing patterns. When Berry turned, the ball was there.
Raymond Berry is living proof that pro scouts are not always right, and that they don’t always look for the characteristics that make a champion. Make no mistake about it; Ray Berry was a championship player, and his resume speaks for itself.
I recently stated that Frank Robinson and Fred McGriff are the only players to hit 200 or more home runs in both the American and National Leagues. Phil Tesoro of Thousand Oaks, CA., Ted Toback of Oak Park, CA., and Doug Bower of Las Vegas, NV. corrected me via e-mail; I neglected to name Mark McGuire. Thanks to the three of you, and I never want to hear from you again. (Just kiddin’, guys.)
Last Week’s Trivia
What pitcher holds the record for most career wins in World Series competition? Whitey Ford at 10.
Trivia Question of the Week
What pitcher holds the record for most strikeouts in a World Series game? See next week’s Sports Junkie for the answer.