NFL Hall of Famer Raymond Berry Speaks of His Love for Jesus and Israel
In football lore, it is the Greatest Game Ever Played. On December 28, 1958, in front of 64,185 freezing spectators who filled Yankee Stadium in New York City and another 45 million television viewers, the Baltimore Colts defeated the New York Giants 23–17 in the first sudden-death overtime game ever.
The Colts’ wide receiver was 25-year-old Raymond Berry, who caught a record 12 passes for 178 yards from football legend Johnny Unitas. It was a spectacular performance, made all the more memorable because the game was the first in professional football history to be nationally televised. But winning the championship was not the most significant thing that happened to Raymond Berry that day.
I know because in July, I sat with the NFL Hall of Famer, now 80, in his home in Tennessee as we talked about sports, faith, and Israel. I wanted to hear all about his days of playing professional football, of coaching the New England Patriots to their first Super Bowl in 1985, and of his induction into the Football Hall of Fame in 1973. But most of all, I wanted to hear how he became a believer in the Lord Jesus Christ and a vibrant lover of Israel.
He showed me around his office, which is a football lover’s utopia. There’s a framed picture of Raymond Berry catching a pass on the last drive in regulation that tied the 1958 NFL championship game. Another of Berry with quarterback Johnny Unitas. Footballs and helmets signed by teammates, coaches, and rival players. A large poster from Super Bowl XX completely filled with signatures of the players and assistant coaches of the New England Patriots. The list goes on and on. With so much memorabilia around that football fans cherish, I couldn’t help but wonder what Raymond Berry would consider his most prized possession.
But what I really wanted to know was how he came to love Jesus and Israel. So I asked him to share his testimony. His answer took us back to 1958 and the Greatest Game Ever Played.
“After the game,” said Berry, “I was absolutely enveloped with an awareness that God had just done what had happened out there. God did it. What was the purpose of it? There’s got to be more to life than chasing a football.”
Two years later, at the beginning of preseason camp in 1960, his closest friend on the team, linebacker Don Shinnick, approached him. “He’d been watching me for about three years, and he’d decided it was time to talk to me. He had no way of knowing that in the three years that I’d known him, God was preparing my heart for this conversation. Don told me, ‘Raymond, I don’t think you’ve ever accepted Christ as your Savior.’
“I attended church growing up in Texas, but I had no idea what Don was talking about. I asked him how you go about doing it.”
Shinnick explained that he simply had to pray in faith.
“I admit I had no idea that the new birth had taken place. You don’t have to know a lot, you’ve just got to mean business about Christ. He knows the human heart. And when the trust is there, He comes in,” Berry said. “And that’s what I did.”
Gradually, he became aware that he had a whole new outlook on life. “I began to see my sin nature for the first time. I began to understand the need of why the Lord Jesus Christ came to the cross. It really hit me hard that my life did not belong to me, and I had the feeling that I really had to turn it loose.”
Several months later, Raymond said, God spoke to him and asked Berry why he never asked what God wanted him to do with his life. Raymond said, “I told God He was right and asked Him what He had in mind. I basically turned loose what was the most important thing in my life: playing football.”
Berry said he was willing to give it up and never play again, if that was what God wanted.
“And this is the most amazing thing about that experience,” he explained. “I turned loose what meant the most to me, what I loved the most, playing football. I had no idea if I’d ever play another game. A short time later, He spoke to me and said, ‘I don’t want you to get out of the game. I want to know you’re willing.’ I played another six years.”
When I asked Raymond about his interest in Israel, he laughed. “You know, this is one of the most significant things that ever happened to me as a Christian. Here I am in training camp. I had prayed with Don Shinnick in the car. I accepted Christ, and a week later I got a hamstring problem. So they sent me into Baltimore to see a doctor. In the doctor’s office I saw a magazine called The Jewish Hope. It was through that magazine that God introduced me to the Jews. I began to realize that He put in my heart a love for the Jewish people.
“I remembered reading that Napoleon called Jerusalem the hinge of history. Israel is key. It is one of the most significant little plots of land on the face of the earth. When God sees the world, Jerusalem and Israel are in the center. When you think about it, when the Lord Jesus Christ returns, where do you think His feet are going to hit? [He will stand on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem (Zech. 14:4).] When I think about taking a trip to Israel, I wonder if I’ll be there when it happens. Somebody is going to be there!”
Raymond, who today reads Israel My Glory, has visited Israel once and is going again in February.
As we talked, the conversation turned to Replacement Theology, a brand of Christianity that seems to be sweeping the world these days, teaching that God is finished with Israel and the Jewish people and has replaced them with the church. According to Replacement Theology, which Jewish people call Supersessionism, all the wonderful promises God has made to Israel for the future now belong to the church.
Before I could explain the belief system, Raymond indicated he knew what it was and said, “They better get their Bible out and read it.” Asked if he believed in the Rapture of the church, he immediately replied, “It’s going to be instantaneous. If it happens right now, we’ll go through the roof. And we’re going to go up to meet the Lord in the air, and we will be with the Lord forever.” It was Raymond Berry’s personal affirmation of 1 Thessalonians 4:16–17:
For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of an archangel, and with the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And thus we shall always be with the Lord.
His perspective of the United States? “I’m a World War II kid. I saw America at its best. To defeat the Nazis in Germany and the Japanese in the Pacific was a massive accomplishment. It was done with a lot of economic power unleashed by the American people. To see where it [the United States] is today is just depressing and sad. Self-interest has taken over above national interest.
“I can’t help but wonder, in the wrap-up of human history, just where we stand. America had God’s blessing on it at the beginning. One of the main purposes was to be a safe haven for the Jews. They have been able to immigrate here and live a free life, using their gifts—which are considerable. They have never been persecuted, and now…the red light on the instrument panel is blinking. When the leader of the United States of America takes an anti-Israel stance, which [in Raymond’s opinion] he is definitely doing, he is an adversary. The Bible says, ‘I will bless them that bless thee and curse him that curseth thee’ [Gen. 12:3, KJV]. The U.S. has been blessed because they blessed the Jews, and the instant they start cursing the Jews, we’re in trouble.”
Raymond’s message to our readers? “Get out your Old Testament and start reading. Get your antennae up about Israel and the Jews and God’s eternal love for them. Be aware that He said, ‘I will bless them that bless thee, and curse him that curseth thee.’ It is written in stone.”
It is not surprising that Berry looks at the Christian life much like his football career. “This matter of living the Christian life is like carrying out your assignment. There is a very interesting angle that’s not found anywhere in the world other than the Christian experience. And that is, the less you bring to the table, the more the Lord can operate.”
Today Raymond Berry is carrying out the assignment God has given him. The career God provided for him in football has given him a platform to minister to an untold number of people. He still receives fan mail and responds to each letter personally with a witness for his first love, Jesus Christ, and a piece of literature he has written. It’s nothing high-tech. He just has a simple card table stacked with things he has penned over the years and chooses something he feels will bless that individual.
He still accepts some speaking engagements and has an official website, raymondberry.com, which is almost a necessity in today’s world. But his heart does not belong to football. It belongs to Jesus—and to his wife, Sally, his bride of more than 50 years.
Before I left, I asked Raymond what he considers his most prized possession. He thought for a while but had no answer. He said he would have to get back to me. A few days later, he sent me his reply.
With trophies too numerous to count and football memorabilia that could fill a museum, Raymond Berry’s most prized possession is a picture his oldest child drew when she was six, in the early 1970s. It reads, “The Berry Family is going to God’s church today. They love God. The daddy teaches the children about God.”
This is a man who knows what is important in life. Early in his Christian walk, his desire was to follow Jesus’ invitation, “If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow Me” (Lk. 9:23).
Raymond Berry will be the first to tell you that he has not followed the Lord perfectly; he has made mistakes. But he is a sinner saved by God’s grace. And as long as God leaves him on this earth, he intends to keep “looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith” (Heb. 12:2).