Five days prior, Perry and the rest of the Ohio State Buckeyes sealed the biggest win of the Urban Meyer era, knocking off No. 1 Alabama, 42-35, in the Sugar Bowl. Ohio State had less than a week left before it would take on No. 2 Oregon for the first CFP National Championship.
The story of the Buckeyes’ dream season led to the season’s biggest media gathering at OSU’s football facility. Ohio State head coach Urban Meyer kicked off the festivities with a press conference in the team meeting room. As his Q&A wound down, he was asked about his junior weakside linebacker.
“He's one of my favorite guys,” Meyer said, opening with the de facto response for anyone discussing Perry. “He'll be a captain for us next year. He's a guy that just does everything right, everything right. He's already had multiple job offers outside of football from Real Life Wednesdays. He's a guy I'd hire in a minute if he wants to coach. He's a guy that just represents the Perry family and Ohio State the right way. Normally, there's a high correlation between that and playing very well on the field, and he's doing it.”
Following Meyer’s press conference, Ohio State’s future captain strode over to the indoor field, where 14 tables lay waiting. Taking his assigned seat at the 30-yard line, Perry spent 48 minutes answering questions in such as way as to highlight his teammates, his opponents, his coaches, his family members, the media and just about everyone else in the world except himself.
He did make the occasional concession, though. When pressed about Meyer’s comment regarding his job offers, Perry confirmed he’d been offered a post-football job after spending his summer working in commercial real estate at Continental Realty.
“People say, ‘I want to be a lawyer, I want to be a doctor or firefighter.’ I said, ‘I want to be competitive and go out there and eat what I kill,’ and commercial real estate is a great place to be able to do that,” Perry said, noting that he’s been interested in that field since fourth or fifth grade.
After the interview, his quip about his real estate dreams was relayed by reporters to Gene Smith. The OSU director of athletics mentioned Perry’s full-time job from the internship and said it wasn’t hard to understand how that happened. “What time is it?” Smith asked rhetorically before glancing at his watch. “4:14? I’d hire him at 4:15. He’s a stud.”
That’s the thing about Perry, the 6-4, 250-pound warrior who doubles as the human embodiment of genuine modesty – if you want to learn about his greatest moments as a student, an athlete or a person, it’s best if you ask anyone but the man himself.
Four days earlier and 1,000 miles away, a postcard landed in an Orlando mailbox.
On the front was a World War II scene of soldiers emptying out of a Higgins boat, wading through the English Channel to reach the shores of Omaha Beach in Normandy, France. On the back was a handwritten note from Joshua Perry.
It was addressed to Joshua Chambers, a then-five-year-old boy undergoing treatment for acute lymphoblastic leukemia.
That the two Joshuas are even aware of each other is one of life’s little miracles. The younger Joshua was diagnosed with cancer in February 2013 and finished his first round of treatment in spring of the next year. His father Jeremy – originally from Perrysburg, Ohio – had shipped off a batch of fundraiser bracelets to a grade school friend with whom he’d recently reconnected. They were distributed at the school where she worked – which happened to be the same suburban Columbus school that employs Perry’s mother Georgette.
Really, what are the odds? “It’s a long shot, that’s for sure,” Jeremy said, his answer punctuated with a laugh at the understatement.
A signed picture of Perry arrived in the mail soon after. It was a simple but sincere gesture that would have more than sufficed, but the picture turned into messages, which turned into texts, which turned into FaceTime video chatting sessions. The bond between the two families grew to the point that when the postcard arrived, Joshua read it while wearing scarlet and gray pajamas made for him by Perry’s mother.
Perry’s most famous gesture came in May 2014 after a setback sent Joshua to the hospital. Perry asked if there was anything he could do, and the family suggested rounding up some players to film some sort videos encouraging Joshua to fight through his trip to the emergency room. Not long after, a series of video messages from Ohio State football players began arriving. The list of well-wishers solicited by Perry included Darron Lee, Raekwon McMillan, Curtis Grant, Devan Bogard, Doran Grant and Craig Fada. The greetings contained the same encouragement: “Be brave,” the paraphrased sentiment of Joshua 1:9, the youngster’s favorite Bible verse.
“The little things he gets are always a big deal, but when they come from Joshua it just means that much more,” Jeremy Chambers said.
Meyer, who is fond of gleaning motivational techniques from the military, had his players write letters “home” prior to the Alabama game to give them one more person to think about and play for. Perry knew where his was going.
“I was thinking about him and I knew he would appreciate it,” Perry said. “I just told him, ‘We’re going to be brave just the same way you were and cheer loud for us when you’re watching the game.’”
Perry and the Ohio State defense got the job done.
Examples of Perry’s selflessness didn’t end there. Or, rather, didn’t start there.
One year earlier, in the fall of 2013, an interview session with Perry ended with a small-talk question about the green wristband he was donning. Not yet joined by Joshua’s Be Brave wristband, the brain injury awareness wristband stood out.
Perry mentioned he wore it to support his childhood friend Tyler Batten, noting that his position as a starting linebacker at Ohio State gave him a platform to spread awareness of brain injuries.
“Technically, I shouldn't be alive right now,” Batten told BSB in November 2013. “I should be dead. The doctor thought I would be dead within the week and then the month, and I'm not dying. Then they said I would never walk or talk again and even graduating high school was a stretch. College wasn't even an option back then. It wasn't even thought of. And now I've graduated high school on time and I'm going to Otterbein University.
He added: “Joshua is always there for me and I can always count on him. He's just a great person, and his whole family was there for me when I was in the hospital.”
For Perry, the visibility that comes with national broadcasts (and nosy reporters) offers him a chance to help people or causes that might not otherwise receive such exposure.
“Being able to express myself and have these outlets where people can listen and become more aware of these things is a great thing,” he said.
The act of support from Perry has continued far longer than Batten anticipated, outlasting even himself.
“My mom had them made after the accident,” he said. “Nobody really knew anything about my injury. It’s cool. Honestly, I thought (Perry’s) would be off by now because I’m not even wearing mine. It’s honestly without words – it’s indescribable. It just means a lot.”
More than three years after the accident, you can still see a green wristband in pictures of Perry on the football field.
In the summer of 2014, investment specialist Taylor Vickery quickly realized one of the interns was not like the others she’d previously worked with.
For starters, she said, “He dressed like a GQ model.”
More compelling than that, though, was his interest in real estate. As Perry worked with the investment sales team, Vickery noticed a genuine interest in all aspects of the job from top to bottom – a trait not often seen in interns.
“We were doing a lot of selling of investment properties with him,” she said. “Rather than leasing out commercial space we were doing actual sale aspects of it. He helped our team with that. He was super intelligent and very eager to learn about real estate. I asked him what he would do if he didn’t play football and he said he was very interested in commercial real estate.
“Everything about him said that he’s going to go far in life.”
At the conclusion of his internship, Perry was extended an offer to join Continental once his football career came to an end. Vickery said she couldn’t recall any other athletes earning a similar opportunity.
A few months later, Vickery and her co-workers watched as the company intern won a national championship.
“We were so proud,” she said. “We all joked around the office that we taught him everything he knows. It made the season so much more fun to watch because I could relate so much more. I’m certainly a Buckeyes fan, but knowing someone who made a really big impression on me is on the football team is really cool.”
On July 31, 2015, Perry stood behind a ballroom podium at the McCormick Place Convention Center in Chicago. As one of two players chosen to represent the Big Ten student-athletes at the Big Ten Football Kickoff Luncheon, Perry had the honor of addressing an expansive room packed to the gills with men and women who paid more than $100 per seat.
In a seven-minute speech, Perry delivered an impassioned plea that asked his fellow student-athletes to understand the power that they can wield and utilize it in a way that effects positive change. Citing his teammate Cardale Jones’ creative dismissal of a Twitter heckler who belittled him after the quarterback tweeted out the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter, Perry noted the reaction to Jones’ action was positive.
“We don’t just play ball. We don’t just do what we do as athletes,” Perry said. “We have a voice, and we can use that voice for good.”
Perry’s belief that football can offer student-athletes a platform to speak out and serve the greater good is not a new one. Lauren Fisk, his 10th-grade speech teacher at Olentangy High School, said she saw it in Perry as a teenager.
“He was very well educated on social issues that high schoolers don’t normally pay attention to,” she said. “You could have adult conversations with him where he’d offer totally different perspectives and give you a lot to think about. You couldn’t really get that from the average high school student.”
As for the speech? Fisk’s Michigan fandom, which Perry is still determined to convert into support for the Buckeyes, didn’t prevent a glowing review of her star pupil.
“I was really, incredibly proud,” she said. “Just to be able to see him on a stage like that delivering his message was amazing. It just shows that he’s much more than an athlete and there’s a whole lot more to him in terms of what he wants to accomplish in life.”
The Total Package
Perry’s warning against pigeonholing athletes as one-dimensional cretins could also work in reverse: For all his exploits off the field, the senior linebacker happens to be pretty good between the lines, too. A second-team All-Big Ten selection in 2014, Perry delivered a 124-tackle season that ranked third at Ohio State over the past decade.
Against Penn State, arguably the most frustrating offensive performance of the season for the Buckeyes, Perry’s 18 total tackles sparked a defensive effort that allowed Ohio State to escape with a double-overtime win. PSU running backs Akeel Lynch and Bill Belton were held to a combined 46 yards on 21 carries, with 11 of those stops made by Perry.
In an ironic twist, the last of the many brilliant plays he made ultimately helped obscure the most productive game of his career. On Penn State’s first offensive snap of double overtime, Perry teamed with McMillan to stuff Lynch for no gain. That stop forced Penn State into passing situations, and three plays later Joey Bosa recorded the most famous sack of the year to seal the win.
“He just always seems to be in the right place at the right time and having him in front of me is a great feeling,” safety Tyvis Powell said. “I don't really have to worry too much about the run because he definitely is getting it done somehow some way.”
Perhaps the most fitting description of Perry’s football-life balance was, appropriately, issued by his roommate Camren Williams. As with most of Perry’s teammates, it didn’t take long for an answer about football to circle back to leadership and his personal traits.
“On the field, he’s incredibly successful,” Williams said. “He’s a leader. He’s a guy that does everything right. He’s a smart guy, too, with all this talent. Off the field, he cares about the community, he cares about himself spiritually and all those things. He’s a guy who has it all. He has it together. He’s in a small group of people where he’s an elite athlete and an elite person, as well.”