Perry Finds Path Toward a 'Better Life'

Nick Perry is the youngest of nine siblings, with a 27-year age gap between he and his eldest. Many of them are married, many have kids and all have jobs. And after announcing his intent to enter the NFL draft Tuesday, soon Nick will too.

USC defensive end Nick Perry is just too big to hide.

At 6'5, 250 pounds, boasting tree trunk legs and a pair of massive arms built for cutting trees down, Perry is as perfectly built for his position as Michelangelo's David was for the idea of man.

But he is equipped with more than just a solid physique. The lineman also has a speed that defies his size. He's constantly ready to pounce quarterbacks and he shreds running backs' routes like pulled pork.

"I'm a created player that you make on the video games," Perry said half-jokingly.

Except opponents aren't laughing.

And his defensive impact has reverberated through the Pac-12 Conference.

Perry is the one player that comes to mind for three different head coaches -- Washington's Steve Sarkisian, California's Jeff Tedford and Oregon's Chip Kelly -- when they were asked to name the best defensive player their teams had faced this season.

The 21-year-old redshirt junior announced his intent to enter the NFL draft and forgo his senior season of college on Tuesday, and a collective sigh could be heard along the west coast.

"I have come to the conclusion that this is the best decision for me at this moment," he said in a statement. "I am confident in my decision and I am ready for this long and hard journey in the next phase of my career."

Many presume he's leaving for financial reasons. Others figure he's just talented enough right now to play at the next level.

But make no assumptions about Perry.

Because to do so would mean you have to know him.

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"Usually he doesn't say a whole lot at all," teammate Devon Kennard said.

"Nick's really, really quiet," said USC head coach Lane Kiffin.

"You kind of got to break through for him to open up to you," fellow defensive end Wes Horton said.

Even to insiders, that barrier is thick, penetrable only after time and, perhaps, a little bit of muscle.

Perry won't invite discussion.

And while he won't reject you, he won't welcome you, either.

But he wasn't always this way.

Humility Breeds Success

Perry got into football by chance, as a way of fitting in with a cousin. At the age of eight, he began playing with the Eagles PAL team, a league similar to the nationally popular Pop Warner, but specific to players living in inner-city Detroit.

"I was just an average player playing the game," he recalled.

As the years passed, 'average' appeared in his rearview mirror. Passerby saw him… pass by.

I could see you playing on Sundays, Perry remembers a coach telling him.

He was 12 at the time.

"But that stuff never got to me," said Perry. "I just took the approach of getting better and playing the sports that I loved."

That didn't include football. After a year switching between defensive end and linebacker, Perry quit.

He just didn't like it when he first played. So his dad let him stop.

Love and basketball: To Perry, it was one and the same. Hoops was his main focus as a child. As he remembers the memories, he loses focus. Perry's initially tough facade weakens.

"I was somewhat good," he said, a smile creeping onto his face. And with one look, a boyish Perry emerged, so dissimilar from the grownup body he owned.

A power forward, Perry helped his team reach the state district semifinals in high school. But his family suggested he give football another try.

And only then did he taste true success. As a senior at King High, the then 17-year-old won a state championship with the Crusaders, the first public school in Michigan to do so.

"I was so proud of him, I didn't know what to do," Nick's dad Joel remembered. Joel's hopes that his son would become a basketball star soon vanished when he realized a bigger opportunity awaited.

Perry was just too big, too fast and too skilled not to pursue football. The sport was the best opportunity for him to succeed in the long term.

"I never really realized the potential that I had," Perry said.

He may not have realized the potential, but he saw the possibility.

"As a brother you see him growing up and you notice he's a shy kid but very humble," Nick's brother Noel Perry said. "I think that's what makes him such a good football player. He knows where he came from.

"And he knows what he has to do."

"Nicholas"

Twenty-seven years separate Perry and his eldest brother.

Two sisters and six brothers have protected their youngest sibling Nicholas for 21 years. Many of them are married, many have kids. All have jobs. Soon, Nick will too.

Man this guy is more mature than people his age, his siblings often heard people say about their baby brother, the burgeoning football star, who looked far from being the youngest in any family.

"If you've got siblings that are 30 and 40, in order to hang out with them and be around them, they're not going to want you to be immature," Noel said.

"So when you get to be 19 or 21, you feel like you're 35."

When he was 14 or 15, Perry didn't feel that much older. Like many teenagers, Perry acted out.

Now a gentle giant who remains tightlipped about anything inches from his heart, Perry used to be much different.

"I made a lot of noise when I was younger," Perry recalled. "But as I matured, I learned how to be humble."

"Usually he doesn't say a whole lot at all. But it's good because when he does, everybody listens," teammate Devon Kennard said.

That maturity stemmed from years of guidance under his father, Joel, the biological link to all of Perry's siblings.

As a young military man, Joel Perry had his first child at age 18. He married his oldest son's mother, but divorced soon after. A second marriage, to the mother of Nick's brother Noel, was unsuccessful after two decades. The third time became the charm as Joel is celebrating 25 years of marriage to Nick's mother.

Brother Noel said people often ask about the disparity in ages, or have questions about their kinship.

"It comes up, but there's no [real] difference," he said.

Joel agreed. Despite the decades of years and 2,300 miles between father and son, Nick's father tries to be apart of his youngest son's life.

"Are you having an exquisite afternoon, Nicholas?" reads a typical text Joel sends Perry almost daily.

But really, it's been an exquisite three years for the Trojan. In the 2011 season, Nick has made fish food of quarterbacks, bringing constant pressure on top of his 9.5 total sacks. Ed Orgeron, former head coach of Mississippi who has served as the Trojans' defensive line coach for nearly a decade, was Perry's teacher.

With that coaching from the famed Orgeron, coupled with that frame and that maturity, Perry's draft stock is expected to rise. But in the eyes of Joel, Noel and the entire Perry family, Perry hit the ceiling long ago.

"I tell him to do the very best he can do," Joel said. "He's surpassed all that."

Growing up, Perry played football because it was something to do. Joel, now a retired employee of the Ohio-based Dana Holding Corporation, a company that produces vehicle parts, expected his son to follow suit in a similar trade.

"I just kept him in sports because there ain't nothing [dangerous] in sports," he said.

"Everybody has experienced some form of the street," his brother said. "From that we can avoid that pitfall of the street for him."

But he couldn't completely avoid it.

"They're proud of me right now," Perry said. "That I even came this far."

Except if he hadn't come this far, across the country to Los Angeles, none of this might have happened.

California Dreaming

Perry's physical speed, coupled with a lightning-quick vision, comes from his childhood. But not from playing chase with his siblings, who had kids of their own. And not in the house, because Joel didn't want Nicholas running around anyway.

It came from living in Detroit.

"Every corner you went around it was trouble," Perry said. "That was Detroit. I had to get out of there, one way or another.

"In Detroit everything is deteriorating. It's like there's no life there, almost in a sense. You have a lot of bad neighborhoods, a lot of gangs and drugs, all the negative things that I don't quite see here, as much."

Perry talked about friends who were on the same teams as him growing up, but they never found their way out.

"The potential I saw in them that they could be great football players was something I tried to get them to understand," Perry said. "That you don't have to do these other things. You could focus on something the right way and get there."

But they weren't as lucky as Perry.

"I kind of went through some things, hung out with the wrong crowds, made some bad decisions," Perry remembered. "But I always had people in my corner that steered me clear of that stuff and kept me on track."

Being the youngest taught him to sit down and keep quiet until his work was done. Being the 'baby' taught him how to avoid being a baby about going to a place like Los Angeles, entering a world like college, with little certainty.

"I came out here [to Los Angeles] all by myself and here I am, four years later. Standing on my own two," he said.

"I wish I could have helped him get situated," his father said.

"It's very diverse here," Perry said. "It's very different. There's a lot of caring people out here."

It's About the Prep, Not About the Hype

Perry really could have played anywhere.

Rated the fifth best defensive end in the country as a senior in high school, East Lansing, Ann Arbor, Miami and Los Angeles were his top-four destinations.

"I came to the point where I started to be in the newspapers," Perry recalled. "From there everything just kind of took off."

"[Detroit] took him out of this distraction of being from -- I say a big, major city -- but one of the big deals in a major city, knowing that ‘Hey I'm still only a small fry in this big world,'" Noel said.

Michigan fans were spurned as their state's star chose the entertainment capital of the world. Before going to USC, the furthest Perry had traveled was Alabama when he was younger.

"He wasn't naive, with all his brothers and other family members who helped him stay grounded. With all that I think why he chose USC is he felt he could do it and be on his own," Noel said.

He could have done it on his own at Miami, too. But Perry said it wouldn't have gotten him to where he is today.

"I had a lot of fun there but I knew that the fun…I wouldn't be focused at a place like that," he said.

The Pete Carroll era lured him in, the NFL pipeline got his head swirling. The idea of being a Trojan, despite the distance, got him one step closer toward his goal.

"I would like for him to get a degree in something," Perry's dad said. "When he's in college…I'd like for him [to get] a decent job and make money.

"Make better money than I made."

Mission accomplished.

Uncle Nick Says It Best

Perry figured it out early. Despite not getting on the field right away, redshirting his freshman season, the years spent in Detroit helped him avoid future mistakes in Los Angeles. He buckled down at USC when most freshmen were bottling up.

As soon as he became a starter, he shared his information with younger players, like redshirt freshman George Uko, who calls Perry "Uncle Nick."

"He teaches me everything," Uko said, who is two years Perry's junior. "We room together during game week, he tells me how to prepare, tells me what to do -- this, that."

A season that needed Perry's utmost focus -- hours in the weight room, on the practice field and in the film room -- also included time to be in the classroom, proving a mentor to Uko.

"He's always in my head about what I'm doing. Even outside of class, inside class. He's like, 'What are you doing, where you going?

"He makes sure I'm on the right path because he always says he notices my abilities. Always telling me what to do, what to prepare." Uko said. "And you know he's on his [own] way."

Perry isn't just on his way anymore. He's arrived.

Silent, But Deadly

He didn't need more than two seasons to prove his worth. NFL scouts must be in Candy Land watching the speed rusher's film. Built like a pass-rushing outside linebacker, Coach Lane Kiffin said there are probably 10 to 15 people like Perry in the world.

"To have a player that comes around the edge and not just in the passing game but as we've seen in the run game. Sometimes those plays start to break outside and he makes those."

When asked to evaluate his play, as if he were an NFL scout, Perry said it's the little things that make him such a special athlete.

"What are you doing when the play is on the other side of the field and what kind of effort are you giving?" said Perry. "Are you a hard worker? I've showed a lot of that stuff on the field. It's up to them to make that decision whether or not I'm good enough."

They likely will decide Perry is more than capable. USC has had at least one defensive end drafted since 2004, except in 2007 when Trojans Lawrence Jackson and Kyle Moore returned for their senior seasons.

Perry probably knows that statistic because he is a planner first. His goal of making it in the league has been in the works since that day when he was just a 12-year-old boy trying to get off the Detroit streets.

And even though it was a ways away, Perry knew this opportunity would come. It's why he hardly watched the NFL growing up.

"I always wanted to play there so I didn't want to spoil myself by watching a lot," he said.

And because his family never spoiled him either, because football wasn't as much about this game he loved as it was about work.

"I think because most of his siblings are married with children, doing the family thing, we go to work to support our family and I think on the field he knows he has to go to support his family," Noel said.

Even if it wasn't on the field, Perry would still have found a way.

"I'm not a businessman, I'm a business, man."

In the summer of 2011, Perry stayed in Los Angeles to focus on offseason workouts and football. He joined a few other players and a handful of non-student athletes interning with USC's athletic administration.

About 10 students were given the same task: looking through 12,000 records about donations and tickets for a new database the school was creating.

His work ethic "was unbelievable," Maya Canfield, who oversaw the interns on the project, said. "The sort of work that we were doing, it's really tedious and mundane, but he came in with a great attitude every day."

When the faculty had a meeting to discuss the long-term impact of the project, Canfield decided to invite Perry to sit in. He was the only person she asked.

"Some of the other interns would have to take a break and do something else for the day…they would need a break," she said. "With Nick, he was able to focus on it, every day, 9 [a.m.] to 5 [p.m.]. Not complain. He sort of asked questions and got the larger picture on it."

During the three-month internship, Canfield and Perry began discussing the lineman's interests outside of football.

"Through this project, he understood why we were doing it and the problems that we were facing," said Canfield. "He was always interested in the larger picture of the athletic world and the business world."

To Perry, the internship was an opportunity to learn more about consulting, a field in which the public policy major knew little. He thinks he'd want to be a businessman someday. Although he isn't sure what avenue of business, he knows who he wants as his boss.

"I want to be the man of my own company," Perry said authoritatively.

"It's kind of fortunate that I'm in the position I am right now, that I can think about the better things and what I want to accomplish and make those things happen."

A life filled with 'better things' seems inevitable for Perry. No matter what city he ends up in or what career he ends up doing, his family has taught him how to make that better life for himself.

And it all started with his father, who wanted all his kids to have a better life than he did.

"He really outdid me," Joel said. "He did exquisite."


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