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A thoughtful voice in pro football wars

PLYMOUTH has its rock; pro football's Patriots have their Raymond Berry. In New England, both have come to represent solidity and fresh promise. In just 1 years as head coach, Berry not only has steadied the Patriots' ship, but sailed it into the Super Bowl. Considering that this team had never before won a National Football League (NFL) playoff contest, much less been to the championship game, it was a stunning achievement.

Equally stunning, however, was the way the Chicago Bears mauled New England 46-10 in the most lopsided Super Bowl ever.

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Though obviously disappointed in this result, the even-keeled coach expressed no lasting anguish over it when the subject surfaced during a preseason interview with the Monitor.

``I don't get affected too much by isolated games,'' he remarked. ``The only way I know how to approach this or any other job is to ask, `What's next?' It doesn't make any difference to me whether you're coming off a great success or a real disappointing failure, it's still the same job.''

Berry certainly doesn't mean that in a humdrum sort of way. Coaching, to him, is clearly a stimulating and rewarding calling. And last season was especially so.

``The appreciation expressed by the fans during and after the season was really one of the most satisfying experiences I've ever had since being in pro football,'' he says.

Berry has always relished a challenge, and some think he faces a particularly stiff one this fall. Producing an encore to the '85 campaign wouldn't be easy under the best of circumstances, to say nothing of the difficult times in which the Patriots find themselves:

Only days after Super Bowl XX, a story broke identifying a handful of key New England players as drug users. It was a blockbuster revelation that may have long-lasting repercussions.

Guard John Hannah, one of the best offensive linemen in league history, has retired, and the ranks of remaining blockers have been thinned by injuries.

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The team's ownership could change hands, which lends an air of uncertainty to the coming season.

The latter situation can't thrill Berry. He says the owner and general manager are the most important people in a coach's life, and he enjoys a very good relationship with the current father-son tandem of Billy and Patrick Sullivan.

Even if management changes are made, Berry is committed to staying. He has signed a new five-year contract, a switch from his playing days as a Hall of Fame NFL receiver with the Baltimore Colts, when he inked a succession of one-year deals.

``I never did believe in long-term contracts as a player,'' he says. ``I always felt that if I worked hard and produced, that I'd make more money the next year, and if I didn't produce I wasn't going to ask for any more anyway.''

So why the change of heart?

``Primarily because coaching is a different situation than playing, and I think it has something to do with making a statement about stability, commitment, and continuity.''

Berry has brought all three qualities to a franchise that has experienced more than its share of turbulence and frustration over the years. Indeed, Raymond was hired when trouble bubbled up midway through the 1984 season.

A former assistant coach with the team from 1978 to 1981, he was recalled from the business world when the Patriots fired head coach Ron Meyer, whose team was off to a 5-3 start. Meyer, however, had seen his relationship with both players and management deteriorate during 2 years and finally reach the breaking point.

At the time, Berry was still living in nearby Medfield, Mass., and working as a national sales manager for a company that manufactured caps and hats. He had plenty of coaching background, having served as an assistant at the University of Arkansas and with four pro clubs (Lions, Browns, Cowboys, and Patriots), but had never been the head man.

Now he came in cold, his only recent NFL experience having been as a pre-game chapel-service speaker for the teams visiting the Patriots.

Berry, however, had no misgivings about his time out of the game.

``I enjoyed the change of perspective,'' he says. ``During that period I had a chance to travel more. One of the things that happened to me was that I became more aware of what a completely unique country this is.''

A year ago he spent considerable time during the off-season visiting players in their homes. Though unusual by NFL standards, these house calls were in keeping with Berry's philosophy of valuing the individual and getting to know him better. In some cases, Raymond reportedly made some serious points about drugs, too.

Berry obviously is as concerned as anyone that the drug abuse be ended, but in granting this private interview, the Patriots indicated he was not inclined to discuss drug-related issues.

During our conversation, he also was protective of his innermost thoughts and beliefs.

Many observers, however, have sensed a mental bedrock that has nothing to do with football. During last season's playoffs, Boston Globe columnist Bob Ryan concluded that ``the most important thing in Raymond Berry's life is salvation, not winning the Super Bowl.''

Though Raymond doesn't go around preaching in public, he has been active in the Fellowship of Christian Athletes and basically conducts himself in a manner as sincere and down-to-earth as a country pastor's.

There's genuine humility in his voice, too, when he claims no master plan for what he's done with the Patriots.

``I work at this job one day at a time, and many days I have no idea what's going to end up being the most important thing that happened that day. I may have my ideas down on a little list and it may not work out that way at all.''

As a player, the meticulous and thorough Berry developed an almost scientific approach to pass receiving that was far ahead of its time.

A very low, 20th-round draft choice out of Southern Methodist University, he nonetheless went on to become a star as Johnny Unitas's favorite receiver. He had 88 different pass patterns he worked on every week in practice., perhaps the most famous being the sideline pattern that was virtually indefensible the way he and Unitas executed it.

Berry's attention to detail was evident in everything, from his habit of laundering his own uniform pants to ensure the right fit to the sun goggles he devised for use in West Coast games. He also possessed a passion for avoiding fumbles.

Under Berry, the Patriots have not forgotten the finer points. But on the whole, the team's head coach has adapted to the idea that attention to detail is not the be-all and end-all it once may have seemed.

What is paramount, he says, are ``people -- people with talent and people who are working together.''

Berry's ability to establish the team concept, to draw out the best from each player for the good of the group, accounts for New England's metamorphosis from an often-talented but self-destructing club into one capable of realizing its potential.

That didn't appear to be the case when the Patriots closed out the '84 season 4-4 under Berry and began 1985 by losing three of their first five games. After that, though, the can-do spirit caught on, as quarterback Tony Eason and later veteran replacement Steve Grogan led New England to victories in 9 of their last 11 regular-season games and three straight playoff upsets over the New York Jets, Los Angeles Raiders, and Miami Dolphins -- all on the opponents' fields.

Watching players attain beyond their preconceived limits is one of Berry's greatest satisfactions as a coach. The other, he says, comes from the support of the fans.

``Our product involves affecting people's spirit. It's elusive trying to define it, but when you read the mail these people write, you realize the staggering dimension of pro football's influence.''

This is a subject Berry has obviously pondered. ``We all have a sphere of influence,'' he observed. ``It's in the path that every one of us walks, and too often we walk totally oblivious to this fact. It's important to me that the influence factor of a professional football team be used properly. It's a responsibility.''

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