A smile came over Raider Coach Art Shell’s face during training camp whenever he spoke about Gerald Perry.
As if he knew a secret no one else knew, Shell said he was not worried about any problems his newly acquired starting left offensive tackle had during the preseason.
“I’m not concerned about Gerald Perry now,” Shell said at the Raiders’ Oxnard training camp in July. “I need him in September.”
With this as his game plan, Shell had Perry sit out several early practices to rest his left knee, which he had surgery on nearly two years ago.
And after Perry suffered an injured triceps in the Raiders’ first exhibition against Green Bay, Shell kept Perry out of the team’s final four exhibition games.
Shell is counting on Perry, an unrestricted free agent who signed in March, to fill a huge hole in the offensive line once the regular season begins.
“With Gerald, it’s simple,” said Shell before the Raiders’ 20-19 victory over the Rams on Saturday. “The more time I give him to recover, the better he’ll be. I want him down the road.”
With the regular season almost here, it’s time for Shell to let his secret out.
“Believe me, I’m glad that I’m here,” said Perry, who will start against the Minnesota Vikings at the Coliseum on Sunday. “This is the place I’ve always wanted to be.”
Shell and the Raiders have made it clear during training camp that they need Perry, but it has also become apparent that Perry needs Shell and the Raiders.
In his previous five years in the NFL, Perry gained a reputation as a gifted tackle with unfulfilled potential.
He was drafted in the second round by Denver in 1988 and played three seasons with the Broncos, including Super Bowl XXIV, before he was traded to the Rams on draft day in 1991.
In two injury-plagued seasons with the Rams, Perry had a difficult time living up to expectations. No matter how well he played or how often he played while injured, Perry seemed to disappoint the coaching staff, including offensive line coach Jim Erkenbeck.
“Potentially, he’s a Pro Bowl player, but there’s a lot of distance between doing it and potential,” Erkenbeck said a year ago. “For whatever reason, he hasn’t done it. If you’re hurt, that’s unfortunate. But whether you’re hurt or sick or a bad player, all of those mean you’re not on the field, and if you’re not on the field, then you won’t be going to the Pro Bowl.”
After last season, Perry was left unprotected to pursue opportunities elsewhere, which did not help his reputation around the league.
“I’ve matched up against him a few times when he was with Denver, and you can tell he was a solid football player,” Raider defensive end Greg Townsend said. “But you had to wonder what the story was with him and why he was switched to so many teams.”
Perry, 28, says he thinks his legal problems have kept him from being regarded among as one of the league’s top offensive linemen.
Since Dec. 12, 1988, Perry has been arrested 10 times in assorted incidents ranging from soliciting a prostitute to sexual assault. He was convicted twice in Colorado, serving nine days in jail in February of 1989 and 65 days in the summer of 1991 for sexual assault and violation of probation. In 1990, he was limited to nine games with the Broncos after being suspended because of his off-the-field problems.
A combination of immaturity and alcohol led to his problems with the law, Perry said.
“I’ve made some mistakes as far as my judgment in the past,” said Perry, who says he has attended Alcoholics Anonymous since his problems off the field began. “But I’m moving on with my life. I really feel that I’m striving and headed in the right direction now, and that’s all I can do.
“I can’t forget about it, but I don’t want to think about it every day of the year either.”
Perry acknowledges that he has had a roller-coaster NFL career. He hopes playing for Shell and the Raiders is the move that can really get his career on track.
“I’d like to think that I’m coming into my own now,” Perry said. “I’ve learned a lot in my years in the league, and its time for me to have a Pro Bowl-type season playing for a winning team.”
Perry says he feels comfortable with Shell.
When he signed with the team, Perry knew about the similarities he shared as a player with Shell:
Both are big men: Shell is 6 feet 5 and weighed 285 pounds during his Hall of Fame NFL playing career. Perry is 6-6 and 305.
Both men grew up in South Carolina: Shell was raised in in Charleston; Perry grew up in Columbia.
Both were two-sport standouts at small black colleges: Shell was an all-conference selection in football and a center on the basketball team at Maryland State (now called Maryland-Eastern Shore). Perry was an all-conference tackle in football and a power forward in basketball at Southern.
“It’s an amazing type of feeling,” Perry said about his relationship with Shell. “I can’t really explain the level of admiration and respect I have for him. After all, he’s a Hall of Famer who played the same left tackle position I play now. He knows what its all about.”
Under Shell, Perry has at times demonstrated the ability the Raiders need to shore up their offensive line.
“He’s just a real natural left tackle, and that’s not an easy position to play,” Raider center Don Mosebar said. “He’s a bright guy who has picked up everything pretty quickly.”
Said Perry: “I’ve put things behind me as best as they can be. But so many people have their own thoughts about you whether you are doing well or not. It’s like you have a tag on your back no matter what you do.
“The key for me is that I’m happy now with a very supportive wife, who has always been there for me,” he said. “With my two kids, my life is better now. I’m focused now on my family instead of being non-focused. I know what’s important to me now.”