One huge problem exists writing about Petal native and football legend Ray Perkins, who died Wednesday three days after his 79th birthday: Where the heck do you start? There’s just so much to tell…

You could begin with the fact that as an NFL coach he hired both Bill Parcells and Bill Belichick, and both those pro football masterminds consider Perkins a mentor. Or you could begin with the fact that as a player, he starred for both Bear Bryant and Don Shula. Bryant called Perkins the best offensive player on two Alabama national championship teams.

“He’d have been our best player on defense if we had put him over there,” Bryant said.

Or you could start with the fact that he caught passes from Joe Namath and Snake Stabler in college, and then caught passes from Johnny Unitas and Earl Morrall in the pros. Or that he drafted and coached the great Lawrence Taylor with the New York Giants. Perkins famously went to North Carolina to scout Taylor. They talked for a few minutes and Taylor asked Perkins: “Don’t you want to watch me work out?” Perkins responded: “That would be a waste of your time and mine. I’ve seen enough.”

Or we could start where it all started for Perkins, which was at Petal High School or in the service station right across the street. For all his four years of high school, Perkins, a carpenter’s son, opened the Sinclair gas station at 6 a.m. before he went to school. He also worked on his school lunch break so the owner, Marcus James, could go eat his lunch. And then he would close the station after he finished practicing whatever sport he was playing late in the afternoon or early evening.

“I was 14-years-old when Mr. James, who was like my second father, gave me the keys to the station,” Perkins once told me. “Here I was, just a kid, and he was trusting me with his livelihood. He taught me about work ethic and about responsibility. And I made enough money to buy my first car, a 1955 Ford Fairlane. Mr. James co-signed the note.”

Perkins could take a car engine apart and put it back together. Same with transmissions. One problem: More often than not, his clothes were soiled with grease and oil when he went to school, which led to his nickname, “Grease.”

Mike Garren, who now lives in Pearl, was a high school teammate of Grease Perkins.

“He was a gifted athlete, but he still worked at it harder than everyone else, too,” Garren said. “He had the speed to run around you, but most times Ray would just run flat over you. He was so strong.”

Bryant sent his trusted lieutenant, Dude Hennessey, over to scout a big, strong back from Lumberton who everybody in the South was recruiting. Lumberton happened to be playing Petal that night. Hennessey went back and gave his report to the Bear, who signed Perkins instead of the other guy. Bear didn’t regret it, either. Alabama was 30-2-1 for Perkins’ three varsity seasons.

You should also know that years and years later when Bryant stepped down at Bama, Perkins took his place. Talk about filling big shoes – can you imagine? Somebody had to be that guy. Perkins was 32-14 in four years as head coach at Alabama. That was between stints as head coach of the New York Giants and Tampa Bay Bucs.

Our careers – mine and Perkins’ – intersected many times over the years. I covered him when he coached as an assistant at Mississippi State in 1973, when he was the head coach at Bama (1983-86) and later when he coached in the 1996 Super Bowl as offensive coordinator of the New England Patriots. I knew him then as a non-nonsense, often taciturn coach.

Later on, I got to know him much better. Perkins had retired and was living off the fifth tee at the Hattiesburg Country Club. We had played some golf together, and then I got a tip, in 2010, that Perkins was coaching junior high as a volunteer at Presbyterian Christian in Hattiesburg. So I drove down to Hattiesburg for a practice to check it out. And there was Perkins, who had played and coached in Super Bowls, teaching 13- and 14-year-olds where to line up on defense. He had once coached people such as Lawrence Taylor and Phil Simms, and now he was coaching kids who didn’t yet shave.

Why, I asked him?

“If I wasn’t doing this, I’d probably be on the golf course or doing something else that didn’t amount to anything,” Perkins replied. “If I can take a couple hours each day and contribute something to these kids’ lives, why shouldn’t I?”

I remember thinking: These kids have no idea who that old man is and what he has achieved. Perkins laughed when I told him that.

“It’s just as well,” he said. “I think I get as much out of it as they do. I’ve found that I really get a kick out of working with a boy on something one day, and then watching him do it a whole lot better the next. These are good kids. I enjoy making them feel better about themselves.”

A few years later, Perkins, then in his 70s, came out of retirement and coached Jones Junior College for a couple seasons. Again, here was a guy who had coached at the highest levels in packed stadiums and on national TV, now coaching before hundreds. Jones went 14-5 over those two seasons, shared the Mississippi Juco South Division title one year and then won it the next.

Perkins seemed to be having more fun then than he had as a coach for the New York Giants. I told him that post-game when we sat in his small, humble office. Replied Perkins: “This is better, more fun, more rewarding. It’s because of these kids. It’s because I am watching them grow.”

You could tell he meant it. And he said this: “If I died right here, in this office, drawing up plays and coaching football, that would be like heaven to me.”

Rick Cleveland, a native of Hattiesburg and resident of Jackson, has been Mississippi Today’s sports columnist since 2016. A graduate of the University of Southern Mississippi with a bachelor’s in journalism, Rick has worked for the Monroe (La.) News Star World, Jackson Daily News and Clarion Ledger. He was sports editor of Hattiesburg American, executive director of the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame. His work as a syndicated columnist and celebrated sports writer has appeared in numerous magazines, periodicals and newspapers.
Rick has been recognized 12 times as Mississippi Sports Writer of the Year, and is recipient of multiple awards and honors for his reporting and writing.