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Drop a famous professional athlete in an inner city church and you can pretty much guarantee a buzz amongst the congregation. At the New Birth Baptist Church in North Miami, excited chatter begins the moment Miami Heat center Alonzo Mourning -- disqualified from today's playoff game against the New York Knicks for punching an opposing player -- arrives to atone for his swings. Just moments before a gospel choir shouts open the Sunday service, Mourning parks his six-ten frame in a front row pew.
Although Mourning alone adds extra electricity, another athlete is present in church today, a professional football player even more revered in this neighborhood. Brett Perriman rose from the James E. Scott housing projects to star in football at Northwestern High School, then the University of Miami and the National Football League. While his ten-year professional career as a wide receiver took him to New Orleans, Detroit, Kansas City, and finally to the Dolphins, he never really left Liberty City. Every off-season he returned to speak in churches, visit schools, and sponsor community fundraisers. Most visibly, he hosts an annual football camp for the at-risk kids of Gwen Cherry Park, located next to the Scott projects.
Perriman, however, slips into the New Baptist service unnoticed. He and his wife settle into seats that afford them a view of the choir and of the pulpit, but that also afford the congregation a view of them, which Perriman doesn't really want. "I like to lay low," he whispers. When a less conspicuous spot opens nearby, he and his wife relocate.
Perriman doesn't remain hidden for long. The Reverend Victor Curry welcomes Mourning, igniting warm applause, then adds, "Friends, we also have a man here who asked us not to say anything. But --" Curry pauses to let the laughter fade "Brett Perriman is in the house." Necks crane in search of the football star. Perriman does not stand up. "A lot of time our athletes are not going out and doing the right things," the preacher says. "As I said on the radio the other day, Brett is doing a lot of good work in our community. So, Brett, I want you to know: We got your back."
Perriman shifts uncomfortably, lowering his head until Curry moves on to the sermon. God, Curry proclaims, is a refuge and a strength, a very present help in times of trouble. "Turn to your neighbor and say, 'Weathering the storms of life.' Find somebody else and say, 'Neighbor, weathering the storms of life.' Now find somebody who really looks like they need to hear this and say, 'Neighbor, weathering the storms of life.'"
Perriman reaches across the pews and repeats as instructed. Several neighbors make an extra effort to clutch his hand, knowing it belongs to a man who is weathering his storms in the public arena. Two months ago robbers shot and killed his younger brother Garyn, the second of Brett's seven brothers to be murdered. Three weeks later the Dolphins released Perriman after he failed a team physical.
Not only is Perriman weathering these storms, he seems to be doing so by redoubling his commitment to Miami's inner city. Only two weeks after Garyn's murder, for instance, Perriman followed through with another long-scheduled football camp in Gwen Cherry Park. He accepted the presidency of the Northside Optimist Club. Currently he is organizing a gun buy-back initiative, a charity concert, and is speaking these days at even more churches, day-cares, and schools than ever.
"Let me tell you what I've discovered in life," Curry says, tearing through his sermon as if he were speaking directly to Perriman. "You have absolutely no control over what people do or say. But what you do have control over is how you respond to what people do or say."
Amens peal across the hall. Perriman is one of the men shouting.
The first paramedics to arrive out front of the C-Town Food Mart, 6642 NW Second Ave., on the afternoon of March 29 assumed they had another dead drug dealer. Garyn Perriman's body lay in the road, shot twice in the head and once in the upper torso. Why did they think they'd found a drug dealer? Because about $4000 in gold jewelry remained on Garyn's lifeless body.
He had arrived home that day from a trip to Daytona Beach. His live-in girlfriend, the mother of his small boy, was fixing macaroni and cheese on the stove when he returned. "I needed some milk," recalls Barbara Miller, "so I asked him to run and get me some. I told him I only needed the skinny kind. I didn't need no fat milk. As he was walking out the door I said, 'Don't I get no kiss?' He came back in, hugged me and kissed me. That was the last time I saw him alive."
Police say Henry Thorton killed Garyn to steal his largest necklace, a gold rope he'd bought in Daytona. Thorton, age 21, has been charged with first-degree murder. His alleged accomplice, Adrian Lee Adams, age 23, has been charged with felony murder and armed robbery.