Raymond Berry blazed the trail, Marvin Harrison followed
INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – Raymond Berry was Marvin Harrison before Marvin Harrison.
He was the most prolific and decorated wide receiver in Colts’ history – that would be Baltimore Colts’ history – and one of the NFL’s most feared players.
He was one-half of a celebrated and difficult-to-deal-with quarterback-receiver tandem.
He was quiet, but methodical and lethal.
He was enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, Class of 1973, even though he never set out to have his bronze bust find a forever resting place in Canton, Ohio.
More than four decades ago, Berry stood behind a podium and thanked those who helped him reach NFL nirvana.
Saturday evening, it’s Harrison’s turn.
One of the greatest players in Indianapolis Colts’ history and the man who eclipsed all of Berry’s records will be enshrined as a member of the Class of 2016. For those who like round numbers, Harrison will be the 300th individual to join the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Berry, who retired as a player in 1967 after setting NFL records with 631 receptions and 9,275 yards, watched from afar as Harrison went about his business. They once were able to share a few minutes prior to a game when Berry visited Indianapolis.
“I always liked the way he approached the game,’’ Berry said.
The quiet excellence.
The withering consistency.
The tireless work with his quarterback during the offseason and in practice when only teammates were watching.
Berry spent 12 of his 13 seasons running routes for and catching passes from Johnny Unitas.
Harrison spent 11 of his 13 doing likewise with Peyton Manning.
“Marvin and I are a whole lot alike,’’ Berry said. “I got to play 12 years with John Unitas out of my 13 years. Marvin had exactly the same situation.
“Good grief, if you’re going to draw up a career for a wide receiver, you can’t come up with a better deal than that. That’s the best thing than can ever happen to you.’’
Harrison and Manning clicked immediately, and developed a synergy perhaps rivaled only by Berry and Unitas four decades earlier. Each pair could communicate with a look, a gesture.
“That just comes from working together,’’ Berry said. “When I sized up a defensive back that was covering me, I could go back into the huddle and say one word to John. We had our own language and our own code words.
“John would know that I was telling him I could get open on this particular pass route. Ninety percent of the time he’d call it. It’s a feel you get, and the experience year after year adds to that.’’
Manning and Harrison combined for 953 receptions, 12,756 yards and 112 touchdowns. All are NFL records by a quarterback-receiver tandem.
More than a few of the collaborations were improvisational in nature. With an indiscernible gesture, 18 would relay to 88 his desire to change a play pre-snap. It might be for Harrison to run a route that was successful three years prior against the similar defense the Colts were facing.
“You can’t substitute the rapport that happens between a quarterback and a receiver when they play together a while and they get to know each other,’’ Berry said. “You just get to know instinctively what’s going to happen. You get in game situations and it becomes automatic.’’
So tight were Berry and Unitas that occasionally Berry would needle his QB.
“I tried to convince John that without me he’d be next to nothing,’’ he said, laughing.
“I don’t think he believed me. He hit me upside the head.’’
Should Harrison seek advice on what to expect from the next few days in Canton, Berry is eager to offer counsel.
Brace yourself, Marvin, for the time of your life.
“There is no experience like it in life,’’ Berry said. “The Hall of Fame itself, just being there, is a reminder of the history of pro football. Then to actually see so many players you played with and against is truly something.’’
Berry, 83, has greatly limited his travels and won’t be in Canton for the enshrinement of the Class of 2016.
However, he’ll watch the telecast. And there’s every reason to believe at some point – probably when Harrison stands behind the podium as the leadoff speaker – he’ll remember the magnitude of his personal moment so many years ago.
“It was an unreal type of feeling,’’ Berry said. “It was like, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me. I’m here. How in the world did that happen?’
“All I ever wanted to do was play the game I loved. To end up in the Pro Football Hall of Fame was a totally unexpected result of that.’’