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Ralph Vaughn: Sharecropper’s son grew up to meet, befriend boyhood hero

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Think for a few moments about when you were 11-years-old. Did you have a hero; maybe a movie star, a singer or an athlete? I did. Imagine how you would feel if that childhood hero later in life became a friend. Let me share a personal story.

When I was a child, my family was modest sharecrop farmers. We were not deprived, but I describe the situation as us being spared conveniences such as electricity and running water. Obviously, we had no television, only a battery-powered radio.

I remember one Sunday afternoon in December 1958 when visiting a cousin who lived about five miles from us. His maternal grandparents, who lived next door had a television. So, he and I went to their house to watch a football game; the nationally televised NFL championship between the New York Giants and the Baltimore Colts.

The game was a defensive struggle between the Giants with the top defense in the league and the Colts who were No. 2. The Colts had a potent offense with stars such as Johnny Unitas, Raymond Berry, Lenny Moore and Alan Ameche.

With regular time running out, the Colts rallied on the arm of quarterback Unitas to receiver Berry. Then with only a few seconds remaining, the Colts kicked a field goal to tie the game and take it into overtime, the first time in NFL history that a championship game was decided in overtime. The Colts later won when running back Alan Ameche plowed through would-be tacklers and crossed the goal line.

In that game, Raymond Berry caught a championship-record 12 passes including a touchdown. During the Colts’ game-winning drive in overtime, he had two key receptions for 33 yards.

I adopted two heroes that day: Johnny Unitas and Raymond Berry. Since our family could not afford a subscription to the Nashville Tennessean newspaper, we got hand-me-downs a week later from relatives. I scoured through the sports section, read and then cut out every article and photograph from that game which is now labeled “The Greatest Game Ever Played.”

During the next few years, I clipped every photograph of Unitas and Berry that was printed in The Tennessean, along with any articles that mentioned my two heroes. The routine continued until I became an adult.

About 10 years ago, I had an opportunity to meet Berry, who now lives in Murfreesboro. Wow, what a thrill it was for me; getting to know the football star who was bigger than life in my childhood eyes.

Something really special occurred recently when some friends and I sat down and spent an evening with Raymond. Like me, Larry Sims, Charlie Myatt, David Gilliam, Roger Haley and John Eaton were mesmerized by his recollections.

Raymond is a good storyteller. He recalled highlights of that 1958 game, which catapulted the National Football League into the major sport of today. He reminisced about growing up in Paris, Texas, playing on the high school football team, getting a scholarship to play at Southern Methodist University, and the thrill of being signed by the Baltimore Colts, then an expansion team.

Our four hours of conversation that evening flew by in what seemed like only a few minutes as we all hung onto every word that Raymond said. Our questions covered everything from highlights of his legendary playing days to being inducted into the National Football League Hall of Fame, and his coaching career that included taking the New England Patriots to the Super Bowl in 1985.

We all got a chuckle when he told about his first contract with the Colts; a whopping $10,000. Of course, everything is relative, but compare that to the multi-million dollar contracts that sports celebrities receive these days.
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