Nos. 80 and 79: Raymond Berry and Larry Fitzgerald

So here’s my favorite thing about the great Raymond Berry: He was said to have invented 88 different wide receiver moves. It’s the specificity of the number that thrills me. If the claim was that he invented 100 wide receiver moves, fine, whatever, I wouldn’t even know what to do with that information.

But 88 different wide receiver maneuvers? That’s just fantastic.

There are a handful of athletes in sports history who essentially invent a new position so that they have a place to play. There was no place in pro football for Raymond Berry. He was born with one leg shorter than the other. He was pretty severely shortsighted. He was so awkward in high school that he did not start for his high school team until he was a senior … and that was with his OWN FATHER coaching the team. He caught all of 33 passes in his entire career at SMU.

The Baltimore Colts did draft him out of college, but that’s because the draft had 30 rounds in those days — basically EVERYBODY got drafted. You would have gotten drafted. The Colts were pretty terrible in those days, and so somehow Berry made the team. “We didn’t have many good offensive ends,” the great Colt Gino Marchetti would say. “And he didn’t look like a seven-alarm fire himself. But he hustled all the time.”

Berry caught 13 passes his rookie year. He didn’t seem to have an especially promising future.

But two things happened.

One, Raymond Berry wanted to play so badly that he recreated the whole idea of what a wide receiver could be. No, he wasn’t especially fast, and he wasn’t particularly strong. But he had a football mind and an obsessive work ethic. He would run the same patterns over and over and over again until he ran them so precisely that he stepped in the same cleat marks.

In 1950, Silly Putty was introduced to America by an advertising executive named Peter Hodgson. And one of its first and most passionate buyers was Raymond Berry, who found his own use for it — he would squeeze Silly Putty constantly to strengthen his hands so that he never dropped a pass.

Berry would catch a thousand balls a day, every day — if he couldn’t find an NFL-caliber quarterback to throw to him, he would have his wife, Sally, throw to him in front of a soccer goal. But it was more than that. He would have special sessions each day where he would have the quarterback purposely throw bad passes that he had to somehow catch.

And he made sure to tuck the ball away every single time he caught it; this has been a fixation for Berry all his life. When he became a wide receivers coach and then a head coach, he would hound his receivers to tuck the ball away, even when just casually playing catch with teammates. Berry lost one fumble in his career. He has always insisted that it should have been ruled an incomplete pass.

As Jim Murray wrote, you would never find Raymond Berry without either a football or a bible in his hand.

The second thing that happened was that in his second year, 1956, the Colts signed a quarterback who had been kicking around in Pittsburgh, playing semi-pro sandlot football, a guy named John Unitas. The two connected immediately — Unitas marveling at Berry’s work ethic and understanding of the game, Berry appreciating Unitas’ intensity and accuracy as a passer. The two of them would make magic.

Berry “didn’t look like a seven-alarm fire,” but he built himself into a game-changing NFL receiver. (Walter Iooss Jr. /Sports Illustrated via Getty Images)

In 1957, Berry led the NFL in receiving yards. In 1958, he led the league in catches and touchdown receptions. In 1959, he led the league in all three categories — catches, yards and touchdowns. And in 1960, he had one of the greatest seasons in NFL history, catching 74 balls for 1,298 yards and 10 touchdowns.

Those 1,298 receiving yards marked the second-highest total in NFL history up to that point (behind only Crazy Legs Hirsch’s crazy 1951 season) … and if it doesn’t sound all the impressive, it’s important to note that (1) passing rules were much different in 1960 and (2) Berry did it in only 12 games.

Along the way, Berry had the single most important game in NFL history. That came in the 1958 NFL Championship Game between the Colts and Giants — still often called the greatest game ever played — when he made 12 catches for 178 yards and a touchdown.

But even those gaudy numbers do not fully describe his impact on that game and, in a larger sense, THE game. The Colts trailed by three with two minutes left, and that’s when Unitas and Berry took them on the original two-minute drive. Three times Unitas connected with Berry on long passes, even though the Giants were double-covering him on every play. The Colts kicked the game-tying field goal and forced the NFL’s first sudden-death overtime.

And then in the overtime, the Colts faced third and 15, and everyone watching across the country knew where Unitas was going. But the Giants couldn’t stop it, not even if they had put every defensive back on the roster on him. Berry unleashed one or two of his 88 moves, broke free, caught Unitas’ pass and broke away for 20 yards.

The Giants’ defensive coordinator that day was a guy who would become pretty famous — Tom Landry. He would invent an ultra-complicated defense that he called “the Flex,” and the Dallas Cowboys would win a lot of games playing that defense, and Landry said that Berry was one of the inspirations because you simply couldn’t cover him.

Oh, I should add here: Berry has said that he isn’t sure where the whole “88 different moves” legend began. It seems to have started in 1973, perhaps in his hometown paper of Corpus Christi. “He was a perfectionist,” columnist Louis Anderson wrote as a celebration of Berry being elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. “In his repertoire were what he called 88 different maneuvers in going downfield on pass routes.”

The New York Daily News joined in two weeks later.

“By actual count,” the Daily News wrote, “Berry had 88 different pass receiving moves. And he insisted on practicing all 88 every week.”

And it has been written many, many times since then, including on his Hall of Fame page. But some years ago, I asked Berry about it specifically: Did he really invent 88 different moves? He shrugged. “I didn’t count them,” he said.

This, in the journalism business, is called a non-denial denial.

Larry Fitzgerald has not “officially” retired, and that’s probably for the best because you get the feeling that the man could play forever. Great players like Larry Fitzgerald should never retire — they should simply be too busy doing other things. “I just don’t have the urge to play right now,” Fitzgerald told Jim Gray this summer. “I don’t know how I’ll feel in September, October, November …”

In some ways, Fitzgerald and Berry have little in common. While Berry was a late bloomer who was a longshot to even play professional football, Fitzgerald was essentially a prodigy. His father, Larry Sr., has been an iconic sports journalist in the Twin Cities for going on 40 years, and Larry Jr. spent his childhood surrounded by a couple of the greatest receivers in NFL history — Cris Carter and Randy Moss. Vikings coach Denny Green made him a ballboy.

He was an all-state wide receiver and then spent a year at Valley Forge Military Academy before becoming a phenom at the University of Pittsburgh. In his sophomore season, he caught 92 balls for 1,672 yards and 22 touchdowns and set an NCAA record for most consecutive games with a touchdown catch.

“You knew where we were going and what we were doing,” Pittsburgh’s quarterback Rod Rutherford would say. “But you couldn’t stop it.”

He absolutely should have won the Heisman Trophy that year — it’s pretty laughable that he did not. But as you probably know, wide receivers almost never win the Heisman. This past year, Alabama wide receiver DeVonta Smith did become the first wide receiver to win it in 30 years … it undoubtedly helped that he played for Alabama.

Fitzgerald was every bit as dominant — probably more dominant — in his sophomore season at Pittsburgh. But the voters gave the Heisman to Oklahoma quarterback Jason White — voters do LOVE giving the Heisman to Oklahoma quarterbacks — and Fitzgerald pacified himself by turning pro and becoming the third pick in the NFL draft.

So, yes, there was a completely different vibe with Fitzgerald. He was 6-foot-3, 220 pounds, breathtakingly fast, huge vertical leap and he had incredible body control — he was, physically, the perfect receiver. His first NFL catch was descriptive; he made a leaping grab over two defenders.

But here’s the thing: Fitzgerald is so much more like Raymond Berry than you would think. There are, after all, lots of ultra-talented wide receivers with size and speed and great leaping ability. Fitzgerald readily admits that when he came into the NFL, he thought that was all he needed. “You have the ability to be so much better,” quarterback Kurt Warner told him at one point in Fitzgerald’s second year.

“Kurt,” Fitzgerald said boldly. “I’m good enough.”

Warner scoffed and told Fitzgerald that he was MAYBE the fifth-best receiver he’d ever played with.

And that’s when it became clear who Larry Fitzgerald was … instead of taking offense, he took that as a challenge. And he became the hardest-working receiver in the NFL. Like Berry, he worked relentlessly on perfecting his routes and developing moves. And, like Berry, he worked on his hands. When you talk about the receivers with the greatest hands in NFL history, you start with Berry, Steve Largent, Jerry Rice.

But in the end, Fitzgerald might be the best of them all. You have probably seen the statistic — in his career (so far) Fitzgerald has 29 career drops in more than 2,300 targets. At the same time, he has 41 career tackles.

More tackles than drops? Sure, yes, that’s pretty impressive.

The other thing to say about Fitzgerald is that he made himself a COMPLETE player. That’s a pretty special trait for any player, but particularly for a college phenomenon who was the third pick in the NFL draft and was told repeatedly how special he was. Fitzgerald’s career numbers — 1,432 catches (second all-time), 17,492 receiving yards (second all time), 121 touchdown catches (sixth all-time) — are only a small part of his story.

He put up those numbers by catching passes from a startling array of quarterbacks — from Josh McCown to Matt Leinart to Derek Anderson to Kevin Kolb to Drew Stanton to Josh Rosen. He was the best blocking wide receiver of his time. He was the ultimate teammate, the rare great receiver who didn’t care about stats and didn’t demand the football.

And, like Raymond Berry, he was at his best in the biggest moments — in 2009, he finally made the playoffs for the first time. In the wild-card game against Atlanta, he caught six passes for 101 yards and a touchdown.

In the divisional game at Carolina, he caught eight passes for 166 yards and a touchdown.

In the NFC Championship Game against Philadelphia, he caught nine passes for 152 yards and three touchdowns.

And in the Super Bowl, a loss to Pittsburgh, he caught seven passes for 127 yards and two touchdowns.

That’s probably the greatest playoff run for any wide receiver ever.

At the end of his career — so far, anyway — Fitzgerald reinvented himself as a possession, slot receiver. That, too, tells you all you need to know about his versatility and his lack of ego. He caught 109, 107 and 109 passes from 2015 through 2017 when he was in his mid-30s — just about all of them over the middle. He just kept absorbing the hits and moving the chains. I’m not sure how many moves he invented in his career. Probably 88.