It's been no gain minus the pain

Maryland: Injuries have dogged Terps senior tailback Bruce Perry, but he finds comfort in time spent with his baby daughter.

Gator Bowl

College Football

December 25, 2003|By Kevin Van Valkenburg | Kevin Van Valkenburg,SUN STAFF

COLLEGE PARK - On the days when his body hurt the most, when it seemed like nothing - not painkillers, not ice, not hours of therapy - could quell the throbbing pain in his ankles, shoulder and groin, Bruce Perry would limp to his car, point it north on Interstate 95 and drive.

It was something he did often, travel home to Philadelphia, but when things were at their worst, the drive meant that much more, because it was all he could do to stay sane. Even at 75 mph, it seemed like the trip took forever. Outside his window, the landscape barely moved. The University of Maryland, with all of its frustrations, grew smaller in his rearview mirror, until eventually it disappeared.

By the time he pulled into Philly and rushed indoors to hold his baby daughter, Kaylah, in his arms, any pain - physical or mental - had been erased and replaced by one singular emotion.

Joy.

"I can't even describe what it feels like," Perry said. "When I look at her, it's like I'm looking at my twin. Every day when you wake up, what's the first thing on your mind? For me, the first thing I think of is her. What's she doing today? When can I see her again? You know you've got somebody that's going to love you through anything. Through the worst of the worst. That's my daughter."

No questions

For the past two years, the question "How do you feel, Bruce?" has made him want to scream. For a time, he simply stopped answering it, and then he stopped taking questions at all. And who could blame him? Each time someone - be it a football coach, a teammate, a reporter or Perry himself - declared that he was back, that he was finally healthy, that he "looked like the old Bruce," another injury, another run of bad luck would derail the whole thing again. Even he wondered sometimes if football was still for him. The game that had once come so easily, after all, had not been fun for quite a while.

If he were anyone else, he might have been written off long ago. After all, in football, injuries happen. Dreams fade, and new stars emerge. But it's impossible to forget the way Perry put Maryland on the map in 2001, running for 1,242 yards and scoring 10 touchdowns during the Terps' surprising trip to the Orange Bowl.

Outside of All-America linebacker E.J. Henderson, no player shined as brightly as Perry did that season, when he was named the Atlantic Coast Conference Offensive Player of the Year. When Maryland won its first ACC championship since 1985, going 10-2, it seemed like Perry, just a sophomore, was only getting started.

Instead, Perry, now a senior, will conclude his career at Maryland in the Gator Bowl on Jan. 1 against West Virginia, and he'll take off his uniform for the last time, ending an odyssey that was thrilling at times, cruel at others. Even after missing significant time this season with injuries to both ankles, it seems clear, had he stayed healthy, he might have achieved greatness. He has rushed for 646 yards on 127 carries (5.1 yards an attempt) and in his final regular-season game last month, against Wake Forest, he gave everyone a glimpse of how magical things sometimes were for him at Maryland, when he rushed for 237 yards and three touchdowns in a 41-28 win.

It was such a thrill, it was almost worth the two years of sleepless nights, the countless games he had to miss, the questions about his toughness and hours spent in the training room. Almost.

"People are always going to remember your last impression," Perry said. "Hopefully, that's how they'll remember me. I was on such a high that day, I just about bumped my head on the goal post."

Coach's doubts

Ralph Friedgen's first impression of Perry, the son of a law-enforcement officer and a firefighter, was not nearly as heady. In spring 2001, Friedgen was a first-year coach entrusted with the daunting task of turning around a program that had experienced nine losing seasons in its previous 10 years. Perry, a redshirt sophomore who had backed up LaMont Jordan in 1999, was an undersized running back (5 feet 9) with deceptive speed and strength. Both were hungry to earn people's respect.

Friedgen, though, wasn't certain Perry was the guy he wanted carrying the ball in Maryland's power running game. An All-American at George Washington High School in Philadelphia, Perry preferred to dance around tacklers instead of running over them. Friedgen wasn't convinced the style would work, and had his doubts about Perry's ability to stay healthy for the course of a season.

"He relied a lot on his speed, like a lot of high school running backs," Friedgen said. "He wanted to go east and west instead of north and south. That's a lot harder to do once you get to college."

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