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.
When Brett Perriman heard about the shooting, he was at one of his homes, near the Dolphins training facility in Broward County. (His primary address is on Williams Island in North Dade.) He made it to the C-Town market in less than fifteen minutes. By the time he got there, Garyn's body was already covered with a white sheet. A quart of milk lay on the ground nearby.
At age 28, Garyn was the youngest Perriman brother. (Brett is second-youngest.) Like some of his older brothers, Garyn, who went by the street name Coota, had fallen into a life of small-time crime not uncommon for black men raised in Liberty City. His record reveals a string of arrests on felony charges for robbery and assault.
His death echoed the 1990 murder of his older brother Randy. Brett is vague on the details of Randy's death. "I don't know the whole nine yards of his story," Perriman admits. "Across the avenue where we lived were certain areas that were high-drug-traffic areas. When you are in an environment where you are always surrounded by drugs and crime, chances are higher of you getting caught up in it. Eventually it led to his downfall."
Perriman's football prowess, and the millions of dollars he has earned because of it, helped him avoid his brothers' fate. He knows this. The talent he showed for the game, starting as an eleven-year-old receiver for the Northside Optimist Club, provided him a different path. "I had some brothers who got in trouble when I was younger. They tended to kind of influence me. They made sure I stayed away from crime. When they got in trouble they told me, 'You don't got to do this. You've got a chance to be successful in life. Go ahead and take it.'"
While he acknowledges the role sports played, he passionately believes that education -- coupled with religion -- was the most important ingredient in his success. He passes on this belief at his football camps, which are designed primarily to teach neighborhood boys that there are alternatives to crime. So strongly does he believe this that he chose to hold this year's camp as scheduled, only two weeks after Garyn's murder. In memorial, each camper received a T-shirt emblazoned with Garyn's picture.
As Perriman and twenty other NFL players signed autographs, denounced drugs, and preached the virtues of education, the Miami Dolphins coaching staff huddled across town, debating their picks in the upcoming college draft. The coaches spent a third round on Larry Shannon, a wide receiver from East Carolina. A few days after the draft, Perriman was asked if he was worried the new player would take his position away from him. "Nah," he said confidently.
Why not? He'd always found a way to succeed before. Although he didn't play football at Northwestern until his senior year, he caught more passes that season than any other receiver in Dade County. His extraordinary speed helped him win a starting job at the University of Miami, a school loaded with talent. He survived the pros for ten long years despite a string of injuries. Playing for the Detroit Lions in 1995, he and receiver Herman Moore caught more passes than any other tandem in the history of the franchise.
Yet the Dolphins promptly released him on April 22. Two knee surgeries in the last six months caused Perriman to fail his team physical. The release leaves him free to sign on with the team if he regains his health, and he openly talks about returning in 1999. But the odds are long. The average NFL tenure is less than five years. At age 32, he's pushing the envelope no matter what his health status. "He won't be back with the Dolphins this year," reports his agent, Drew Rosenhaus. "He'd love to continue to play, but there is a lot of doubt. I think his injuries to his knee are potentially career-ending. Right now the focus is on getting healthy. I don't know if he can."
Perriman acknowledges that he is not physically ready to play this year. And because of the murder, he says, he isn't mentally ready, either. "I'm taking this year off to recover," he announces, with some positive spin. "While I do, I'm applying myself to the development of our community. I'm disappointed in the route it has taken. Instead of improvements it has gotten worse."
It's a typical weekday morning for Perriman and, typically, he's in a hurry. He guns his mammoth Lincoln Navigator through the small side streets of Liberty City as he makes his way to Charles R. Drew Middle School, where he's scheduled to talk to the students about his brother's murder. Tangela Sears, Perriman's personal assistant, briefs Perriman on his itinerary. "You're going to discuss the importance of education, sports, gun violence, and growing up in the Scott projects," she says, reading off a list in a manila folder.
Perriman reaches over to flip through the folder. Under his breath he repeats the items on the list, audibly emphasizing the words "gun violence." In the back seat sits Barbara Miller, Garyn Perriman's former fiancee. Miller hasn't been able to eat anything but soup since the shooting, causing her weight to plummet. (She's dropped four dress sizes in less than a month.) Perriman thought it would be a good idea to keep her company.
Perriman is an attractive man. At five-ten he's not particularly tall for a football player, but his body is lean and powerfully built. He is wearing a cocoa-color Italian suit, one of 25 suits he had custom-tailored for him last year. His shoes are alligator skin. His scalp and face are shaved clean, except for a pencil line of black mustache. On his wrist is a diamond-studded watch, on his finger a large diamond ring. He oozes status.
"Brett, what's up!" shouts a student the moment Perriman pulls up to the school. When he actually enters the building, the chorus of "Yo, Brett!" grows deafening. He strides down the main hall, looking each student in the eye, reaching his hands out to the little boys who know him from his football camps. "Hey, Brett!" calls out a student who happens to be Perriman's nephew. "You still pulling all A's?" Perriman asks. School staffers join the throng. "Brett!" cries a young woman. She wraps her arms around his chest.
"You're a teacher?" Perriman looks incredulous. "Now I know I'm getting old. I remember you when you were a student at Northwestern."
He is steered into the faculty lounge, which doubles as a small closed-circuit television studio. Two students are set to interview him, but not before pictures are snapped with several teachers. Once the interview begins, Perriman sticks neatly to the outline, dispensing homilies about his brother's death, the senselessness of gun violence, and how he can identify with the students because of his own upbringing in the neighborhood. Principal Ronnie Hunter beams.
"They hear me preach it all the time, but it's like I'm a parent," Hunter explains. "It's great to have someone come in who is known in the community as a role model to tell them the same message. They listen better."
The interview over, Perriman is shuttled to a classroom full of drowsy students and told to speak for half an hour. He tells the students about how he flunked seventh grade because of bad conduct, and how that motivated him to improve academically. As poor black children, they have strikes against them, he says. He insists those strikes can be overcome.
Perriman is not the most vibrant orator in the world; his speech is clear and smooth, but he tends to drift from one message to another. Still, he shows a particular talent for connecting with his audience. His concern comes across as genuine. "You are not a troublemaker," he informs one boy, who asks about overcoming a bad reputation. "You are not a head case. You can do it. Everything that has happened in the past is in the past. Y'all special. Anytime you need to talk to me, anytime, anywhere, you can reach me. I will talk to you. I will help you out."
This statement is basically true. Sears says that Perriman may receive 50 calls a week from organizations or individuals looking for him to make an appearance or help out financially. "Brett wants to do so many things that if I wasn't here, he'd try to respond to all of them, which can't be done," she says. "As it is he's got 50 things going on at once."
Sears hooked up with Perriman about a year ago. She holds a full-time position with the Department of Children and Families, aiding foster parents. Her duties for Perriman, for which she is paid, are at least another full-time job. She schedules his appearances, works with the media, and plots the bigger picture with him, deciding which community problems they will address. Two years ago Sears lost a brother to AIDS, which motivated her leap into activism. "We both believe it is part of the grieving process to go out in the community and attack the issues," she notes.
By the time Perriman finishes speaking to a second class, he is running late for an appointment with County Commissioner Barbara Carey. He quickly collects a certificate of appreciation, pumps hands with principal Hunter, and hurries off to the Joseph Caleb Center in Liberty City.
Carey has enlisted Perriman for her campaign against the celebratory firing of guns on the Fourth of July and New Year's Eve. At her request, he has agreed to tape public service announcements for radio and television. "Who better to be a spokesman than someone personally affected by stray bullets," Carey says when the meeting convenes in her office on the top floor of the center.
It wasn't stray bullets that killed Garyn Perriman, of course. Still, more young people are killed by guns in Miami's black community than die of natural causes, according to Carey. "Brett didn't know the role in life that God offered him," she says. "It is to save lives and fight for a better tomorrow. That's his God-given gift. His other talent helped him to be a role model and to achieve success. Now this talent is a way that the whole community can profit from the bad things that have happened to him."
Perriman nods. Carey answers questions from a lone newspaper reporter while Perriman sits silently. He is scheduled to talk to the commissioner about the gun buy-back program he wants to start, but she indicates she has to run off to another meeting. He says he'll discuss it with the television reporters waiting downstairs. "Oh, the media's downstairs?" Carey asks. "Then I'll go down with you." He glances at his beeper as if reading a message, then tells Carey that the reporters have just left. When the commissioner turns away, Perriman smiles at Sears.
That Perriman can recognize Carey's disingenuousness is a testament to his own political savvy. Sadly, he's grown accustomed to politicians who seem more driven by PR than action. "A lot of our community leaders need to take more of an initiative," he says after Carey leaves. As he speaks, he tears into a lunch of roasted chicken provided by the commissioner's office.
Perriman himself is well positioned to run for public office. "Based just on name recognition and what he's done in the community, he would do well politically," opines former Miami city commissioner Richard Dunn. "Coming up from the area, the Scott housing projects, would be an asset. And money should be no problem for him. I think he would do well."
Is politics in his future?
"It will be," Perriman says quickly. "I don't want to jump on anyone's toes just yet, but it is in the plans."
That said, he insists he won't even think about moving to Miami to run for the seat currently occupied by Art Teele, should Teele be indicted as expected. For now he wants to accomplish as much as he can through sitting politicians like Carey, who he notes did participate in a vigil honoring his late brother. "I like to be indirectly involved in politics, out of the limelight," he says, finishing his chicken. "You want to be in a position where you can get the politicians to do their jobs better. With my business skills and my personality, I can get that done."
Barbara Miller, nibbling on a crust of freshly delivered potato pie, can't help but speak up. "This man," she says gazing at Perriman, "he's going to be the mayor someday."
Lunch over, Perriman heads to radio station 99 JAMZ (WEDR-FM 99.1). He has plans for an urban music concert against gun violence. He wants 90,000 people to attend, and he wants all the proceeds to fatten a scholarship fund created in his brother's name. "Everything happens for a reason," he says, returning to his brother's death. "The things we go through are for a reason. Then we can identify the problem. And then we can attack the problem."
Jerry Rushin is the radio station's general manager. He invites Perriman, Sears, and Miller into his office, which is overrun with CDs and music posters. Perriman spells out his vision for the concert and says he has a reputable promoter already onboard. From Rushin he'd like some advertising and, if possible, a musical act or two. The meeting is informal; there are no contracts to sign, no date for the concert has even been set. Sitting behind his desk in a padded leather chair, Rushin says he is more than willing to help, as soon as he sees the specifics. He also speaks of the leadership vacuum that Perriman discussed over lunch. "You know, you shouldn't have to be the one doing this," Rushin says, referring to the charity scut work. "There are other [community leaders] who are supposed to be doing this."
Perriman laughs. "There are a lot of leaders and activists in this community, but it's hard to find an active community leader," he cracks, repeating a phrase he and Sears often employ. He tells Rushin that he still plans to return to the Dolphins next season, though he allows for the first time today that his goals may be changing. "If this becomes my main focus," he tells Rushin, "if my energies need to be here, then maybe I will just go into this full-time. I'm going to do the most I can wherever I can do it."
It's late afternoon by now. Perriman leaves Rushin to swing by New Birth. He needs to sign some papers for a smaller charity gospel concert he is promoting later this month. And he is in discussions with Victor Curry about expanding the football camp concept across the county. "At these camps there's not going to be any football, though," Perriman says. "We will focus solely on the importance of education, of staying off drugs, and of stopping gun violence." The plan, no more than a concept at present, is to reach more than 100,000 kids.
He and Sears head into the church offices. Barbara Miller stays in the back seat of the Navigator, saying she'd like to rest. "Nobody knows how much he really helped me out after Coota was killed," she says softly. "He really helped me out. He lent me money and he got things in order for me. He helped out with the bills, and now he's trying hard to be my friend. Nobody knows these things, because he does them real quietlike." She looks out the car window at Perriman disappearing into the church. "He's in a lot of pain. He just don't show it to nobody."
When Sears and Perriman return, he is in high spirits. His business appointments concluded, he turns up the volume on the rap music that thumps from the stereo system. As the vehicle cruises down NW Seventh Street, Perriman twists his torso in time with the beat while he cocks his head back to warble the refrains. He is up. He shows no signs of the anguish Miller mentioned.
Indeed, Perriman is remarkably detached when speaking about Garyn's murder. "At the time, I felt feelings of revenge," he explains. "I am helping the police department to bring these people to justice. But vengeance now is out of my heart. The feeling in my heart is one of forgiveness. Even of them. They took my brother, [but] it was his time to go."
As it is for most people who grow up Miami's inner city, death has been a regular visitor in Perriman's life. This year, it is Garyn. Before, it was Randy. Most devastating was the loss of Perriman's mother Charlene in 1989. This is the one death that Perriman has trouble shaking off.
He remembers how she used to call him every single day when he was at UM. "The phone would ring and I'd tell everyone that was my mama. And they'd laugh and say, 'How do you know?' And I just knew. I'd pick up the phone and sure enough it was her."
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Charlene was 46 years old when she died of heart failure. "I was playing for New Orleans," Perriman recalls. "I had to fly down to the hospital to see her. She was on life support, and I was the one who had to make the decision on whether or not to turn off the machine. My father was there but they knew they couldn't trust him, that I was the only one who could be counted on to make a rational decision. The doctor told me that she could live on life support but she would be a vegetable for the rest of her life. I know my mama, and I know that she never wanted to live like that, so I told them to turn off the machine.
"Afterwards, the pain inside me just built up tremendously. I went back to New Orleans, but there was just this huge pressure, this enormous pressure building up in my chest. It kept building and building. My blood pressure went up too, getting so high that the team physician told me that I was killing myself. He said that I had to let her go or I was going to go myself. But the pressure just kept building. Then one day it all just came out. I started crying and crying. I cried for five hours at least. I was on the ground, rolling around, just crying. When I finally stopped, the pressure was gone. My blood pressure dropped back to normal. I could go on. I still miss her. I miss her every day." The anguish in Perriman's voice is obvious.
He speeds toward Liberty City, where he will drop Sears off. Mother's Day is three days away. Perriman plans to throw a party in Charlene's honor. He's reserved a picnic pavilion at Amelia Earhart Park and intends to fill it with food, drinks, family, and his closest friends. Together they will celebrate the woman who was the touchstone in almost all of their lives. According to Barbara Miller, Garyn was as close to his mother as Brett was. Every Valentine's Day, every birthday, and every Mother's Day the two of them would drive out to the cemetery to visit Charlene's grave. This year, Brett Perriman will make the trip alone.