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Monday, September 06, 2004
Most people wait for these cutdown days with anticipation. I know on many occasions we have favorite players we hope make the team, though they are hanging by a thread. Most times, we’re happy with the decisions, because the players we love, whether they be named Green or Favre, make the team. Sometimes, we’re a little sad, because that young kid we saw giving his all at a practice or making a key play in the fourth quarter of a pre-season game goes.
But most of the time, the names of the cut get read and forgotten. Names that disappear from memory once the season starts.
One name has always remained in my head. His name was Louis Berry.
In 1988, I committed the worst crime that could be committed by a Packer fan. I worked for the Chicago Bears. It was two years after the Super Bowl Shuffle, and the Bears, while not winning any more Super Bowls, were still the team to beat in the NFC Central. I was die-hard Packer fan, which was obvious because at that point those were the only fans left. We stunk, the Bears were awesome. It was an icky feeling.
My job was to drive what I called the “Super Bowl Shuttle”, a small luxury coach that transported the players from their training camp dorm at UW-Platteville to the practice facility. Throngs of fans would line the sidewalks as they made their way onto my bus. I usually said good morning if they made eye contact, but otherwise, I was told, I was part of the furniture. Don’t talk to them unless they talk to you.
I have some great memories of those days. Guys who are semi-legendary rode my bus every day. Jim Harbaugh would come on the bus and tell me to turn off the junk on my cassette player and made my play country music. Mike Tomczak would ride in the back and I could always hear his voice above the others.
Mike Singletary would come on and I would feel intimidated just looking at him. He had an aura that made you jump to attention.
One day, I was transporting the players from the dorm to a party down town, where the local merchants gave the Bears a big picnic to say thanks for bringing them all so much money. I was told specifically that I was to transport the players only. No one else.
So, I’m waiting to take players back to the dorm, when there is a loud voice at my window. I turn, and it is Mike Singletary. “Stay Here. Don’t Move,” he says. I obey.
He comes around to the door a couple minutes later with his wife and a couple of kids. I open my mouth to say something. “Take Them Back To The Dorm,” he says. I close my mouth. He goes off to join his posse, and I take the family back.
His wife and kids are very nice, and we have a great conversation on the way back. I’m told not to talk to the players, so I feel free to chat with her. She then, of course, asks me to drop her off at her car two blocks from the dorm (another big no-no), and of course, I do it for her.
One of our huge rules was you only stop at the dorm and the field. Only there…no other stops. One day, I was driving late in the morning, and most of the players were at the field. A backup player on crutches comes out and gets on. He’s a very mean looking dude, and with me being from a small rural Wisconsin town, I’m a little intimidated by him.
We drive behind the dorms, with only he and I on the bus, when he suddenly yells, “STOP!” I, of course, instead of telling him the bus must remain in motion until the practice field, stop. “Pull In There,” he barks. I, of course, instead of telling him I can’t go off the required scheduled path, pull into a dorm parking lot. “Stay Here,” he orders, and instead of telling him I will get in trouble for delaying my route, sit and wait in the bus for nearly 10 minutes biting my fingernails and hoping my boss doesn’t see me.
Then, my reward is realized. As he comes hobbling out on his crutches, he is sneaking a girl out the back of his dorm. I smile to myself and chuckle…I’m aiding and abedding his little crime of passion.
As the girl approaches, I look a little more carefully. I recognize her. You know that annoying girl in high school who is involved in everything, is officer in every club, is the teacher’s pet, and ends up valedictorian? You know, the one you tried to ask out and got laughed at? Well, that girl coming out of the dorm was my high school valedictorian with this dude. I try and call her name, but she mysteriously has gone deaf. He put her in a car and hobbles back to the bus.
Now with a fine, sheepish smile on my face, I decide to ask this player about his night. He describes their adventures in fine detail, not leaving out any of the descriptions.
I am happy. Forget the job, this was worth it.
Guys like Ditka, the Fridge, McMahon never rode the bus. They had their little motor scooters to take, which led to a revolution is Southwest Wisconsin for years of everyone riding around in Spree gangs. It would be funny watching a bunch of Harley boys ride through town, then this little group of kids on these tiny motor scooters that sounded like an amplified electric razor.
But, to the point of my story.
I had the fortune of meeting the third string punter. He was one of the nicest guys you’d ever meet. As a punter, he really didn’t fit in much with the rest of the team, buddy-wise. The punter for the Bears at the time was the most cocky, arrogant guy I’ve ever seen, and wouldn’t stoop to socializing with his competition.
So, who did he talk to? Me. The bus driver.
Louis Berry was the from the Deep South, and kicked for FSU. He was an Honorable Mention All-American, and was competing for a spot on the Bears. He was always sit up near me and talk with me the whole way. He would show me some pictures from his college days, and talk about his family and girlfriend. He had an easy Mississippi drawl and often asked as much about me and my life as he talked about his.
I looked forward to him getting on my bus. Sometimes, he rode the other bus, and the other driver, a girl, would talk about what a great guy he was, also. He always had a smile and knew me by name, instead of “furniture”.
In 1988, the Bears were to play one of their preseason games in Sweden, so I got off for about 5 days while they left. I went back to my parent’s house for a while, and watched the Bears game on television. It was the way those shows from around the world used to look…kind of blurry and fuzzy, but I enjoyed it.
In the second half, Louis came into the game for a punt. He took the ball and kicked it…with the European feed, I couldn’t even see it, but the announcers all went “whoa!”. It was caught and the returner was tackled quickly.
It was a 52 yard punt. I was so happy I felt like I had kicked it myself. I recorded it and replayed it for my friends and family. They thought I was nuts.
A couple days later, I started driving again. I could see Louis’s smile all the way across the grass as he approached my bus.
“Hey, man…” he said, “didja watch the game??” I smiled and said yes. “Man, fifty-two yards! That shoulda opened their eyes a bit! They can’t cut me after that!” he gushed. He looked like a little kid at Christmas. I smile, and unfortunately, I believed him.
That day was Tuesday, and the players would be told at the practice facility that morning if they were cut. About 10:00, the other driver came over and told me the bad news. Louis had been cut.
“But he had a 52 yard punt!” I argued with her.
“Come on,” she said, with a sad look, “You really thought they would cut Byron Wagner?”
I stopped and thought. “Can I take him back to the dorm on my bus?”
“Nope, they took the cuts back by van. They’re going to drive him down to the airport in Dubuque.”
I drove back, feeling angry, as if it were me that had been cut. How could they cut such a great guy?
I parked the bus by the dorm after dropping some guys off, and looked through the mob at a van parked on the side. Some people were loading bags and boom boxes in it.
Having broken several rules at the request of players, I decided to break one myself. I got up out of the bus (a no-no) and left my bus unattended. I really didn’t care at that point. I pushed through the crowd and got to the van.
There, sitting in the back, was Louis Berry. He was looking down at his hands, muttering to himself. For a moment I watched him, as he seemed to be recounting all he woulda done, coulda done, and shoulda done. It broke my heart.
I called out to him…”Louis!”.
He looked up. A sad smile broke out on his face, and he called me by name. “You take care of yourself now, y’hear?”
Me? Take care of myself? Dude.
I turned and walked away. I wanted to say thanks, or I’m sorry, or tell him he’s a great guy. But all I ever got to say was goodbye.
From what I’ve seen, he never kicked in the NFL again. I don’t know what happened to him, or where he went.
Like so many other people that were cut, most Bear fans wouldn’t know the name of Louis Berry if you mentioned it to them. He wore an NFL uniform with his name and number, and that’s more than most of us ever got to do.
So, when these days arrive and I read the list of names that were cut, I sometimes step outside my box and think of these players as something besides inferior talent, players whose talents were just a cut under the rest, who were shaved from the roster like a peel from an apple, never to be heard from again.
And I think of an earnest Southern boy who would have given his left leg to be on a team, if he wouldn’t have needed it to punt with. If every NFL player had this guy’s attitude, we wouldn’t be dealing with half the problems caused by self-celebrations, drug suspensions, early retirements to smoke pot, or DUI’s.
We’d just be able to watch the game and be able to root for the person as well as the player. It’s too bad those people don’t get to make the roster as often as those who act as if they are entitled to being there.
"It is difficult to stand up to your enemies, but even more difficult it is to stand up to your friends."