Looking back: Jim James involved in hoax

Published 10:14 am Friday, July 15, 2016

July 15, 1966

In early July of 1966, the newly formed Norfolk Neptunes football team of the Continental Football League was conducting tryouts at Larchmont Field in Norfolk. One Monday morning, in Franklin, a group of men, while sitting around drinking coffee at Parker Drug Store, came up with a scheme to send a local man to the tryouts.

Jim James, Community Relations Manager for Union Camp Corporation in Franklin, even though he was 40 years of age, was designated to pose as a serious football player and be the “recruit.” James explained the hoax this way: “I already knew Ed Boothe, Neptunes’ offensive coach and former Franklin High School head coach; and, last year, I met Neptune Head Coach Gary Glick. We thought we could fool the Neptune coaching staff, including Boothe and Glick, and maybe get a contract. We wanted to see how far we could go. We had to figure out a way to disguise myself so that I could fool Coach Boothe.”

“After kicking the idea around for a while, it seemed too good not to ‘give it a go,’” said James.

A playbook was acquired. Franklin High School football players Welton Deshields and Dickie Surace drilled James as a pro end. Franklin Bronco JV football coach, Dick Lassiter, came up with a pair of size 14 football shoes last worn by former Bronco player Norman Steadham. Arnold (Sandy) Dempsey, a former University of Virginia quarterback now employed by Union Camp, dug up an old football jersey.

“The job of assembling my tryout uniform was completed by Hap Purnell of Steinhardt Hardware Company and Jeff Marlowe of Union Camp,” said James. “To make my shorts look authentic, they stenciled ‘property of the Baltimore Colts’ on the seat and ‘Colts’ on each leg. Then, they washed them out until the lettering faded so they would look like they belonged to a real old-timer.”

Dr. Robert L. Putze, an obstetrician at Southampton Memorial Hospital and a neighbor of James, provided the medical advice. “He told me how to handle myself at practice so I wouldn’t die,” laughed James.

When all was in readiness, James and two of his cronies drove to the Neptunes’ Sunday afternoon tryouts at Larchmont Field in Norfolk. In order not to be readily recognized by Glick and Boothe, James kept a towel around his neck and his baseball cap pulled down over his eyes.

After waiting for the rest of the players to start going through their workouts, James slipped out of the car and approached one of the coaches who was not in on the gag. He introduced himself as “James Berry,” brother of Raymond Berry of the Baltimore Colts. He said he was 30 years old and had spent two years on the Colts’ taxi squad. The rangy James made his claims believable when he made two impressive catches on the first two balls thrown his way.

Carefully noting this display of dexterity, Coach Glick commented, “Good hands, time him in 40 yards, Bill.”

He was talking to Assistant Coach Bill Ralph who was actually in on the plot.

“Berry” (Jim James) lined up and took-off on the run.

“He made the trip in 4.8 seconds,” said Ralph.

“He’s a lot faster than he looks,” said Glick. “The form sheet says he’s 30 years old and that’s a little old for our league. But, 4.8 seconds for 40 yards, he must really be in shape.”

Shortly thereafter, practice ended and the players departed for the shower rooms. And, the coaches retired to their cubicle to discuss the players’ individual performances.

A few minutes later, a knock on the cubicle door interrupted the coaches’ session and in walked the fictitious “Berry,” but the real Jim James. By that time, all of the coaching staff had figured what was going on. A reporter for the Virginian-Pilot, who had been quietly watching the plot unfold, later filed a story on the shenanigan and soon thousands read of the exploits of that “other Berry.”

“The coaches all had figured something was up by the end of practice,” said James, “but they enjoyed it too.”

James said the most amusing anecdote in his afternoon of dodging beefy linebackers and trying to ward off heat prostration occurred during one of his frequent rest periods by the ice chest.

“This big blond youngster, about 22 years old, had really been trying hard out there,” said James. “In fact, he had tried so hard that he had made himself sick and Coach Glick suggested that he go over in the shade and rest. While we sat there I suggested that if he took it a little easier and didn’t wear himself out, he would probably make a better showing.”

“I know about taking breaks at the right time,” James told the youngster. “When you’re 40 years old, you learn to take it easy.”

“You mean you’re 40 years old and you’re going through this stuff?” the young man asked. “Man, you ought to be dead!”

“That did it for me,” said Berry (Jim James). “I now know how Jim Gillette, Warren Councill, Asa Johnson, Harold Atkinson, Albert Faison, Martin Pearson, Billy Atkinson and all the other Franklin-Southampton old-timers feel. When you cut your age by 10 years and they still think you’re too old, it’s time to quit.”

CLYDE PARKER is a retired human resources manager for the former Franklin Equipment Co. and a member of the Southampton County Historical Society. His email address is magnolia101@charter.net