Not every NFL player gets to play 20 years like Tom Brady. Most won’t play five seasons. But for a select few, they’ll have one season, game or play that is truly historic. This offseason, we’ll highlight those special NFL performances in our “Moment of Glory” series.
Vernon Perry was at a Super Bowl function a couple years ago, celebrating his old Houston Oilers teammate Robert Brazile being voted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, when he saw Dan Fouts.
Fouts remembered Perry, even if Perry probably doesn’t get enough public recognition for one for the greatest defensive performances in NFL postseason history.
On Dec. 29, 1979, the Oilers went into a playoff game against Fouts’ San Diego Chargers without quarterback Dan Pastorini, star running back Earl Campbell and top receiver Ken Burrough. Perry set an NFL record with four interceptions and added a blocked field goal in a stunning 17-14 upset. The Chargers never got over the loss. And Fouts never forgot Perry.
“He looked at me and said, ‘You son of a bitch, you got four interceptions off me,’ ” Perry said with a laugh.
You wouldn’t expect to find Perry on the list of greatest defensive performances in playoff history. He had 11 career regular-season interceptions. He was a starter for just three-and-a-half seasons. He was undrafted and never made a Pro Bowl. He was a rookie in that record-setting game at San Diego after spending three years trying to make the NFL.
Yet, he had a day any player would dream of.
Vernon Perry an unlikely playoff hero
Perry’s record is especially unbelievable because he was a long shot to make an NFL roster.
Perry went to Jackson State, where he was teammates with Brazile and Walter Payton. Perry had a fantastic college career but scouts thought he was too slow for the NFL. He went undrafted. The Chicago Bears picked him up but cut Perry before the season because they were deep at defensive back. After spending 1976 out of football, Perry went to a workout for the CFL’s Montreal Alouettes in Houston. The scouts were impressed.
“I did everything right,” Perry said.
Perry signed with the Alouettes and picked off nine passes his rookie year. He was a cornerback in the CFL but his old college teammate Brazile told Oilers coach Bum Phillips that his old college teammate could fill Houston’s hole at strong safety. The Oilers signed Perry and he started right away in 1979.
The game against the Chargers was magical. There are 14 four-interception games in NFL history. Perry’s is the only one that happened in the playoffs. And his biggest play that day might have been a blocked field goal that he scooped up and returned 57 yards. That play swung the momentum of the game.
In the 40 NFL seasons since, only four players have picked off four passes in a regular-season game.
“It could be broken in a regular-season game, but a playoff game?” Perry said. “It’s been going on for 40 years, and I’m still holding it.”
The Oilers found that the Chargers were tipping off plays, and defensive coordinator Eddie Biles picked up on whether San Diego was passing or running. Perry, however, said he didn’t know what was coming.
“I said, ‘Why didn’t you tell me?’ If you’d have told me, I’d have had 10 interceptions,” Perry said.
It was a performance of a lifetime. And it happened against Fouts, a Hall of Famer.
“I was just happy to run around and cover guys, and I guess the ball just came my way,” Perry said. “I guess they wanted to go at me because I was a rookie.”
Perry proud of NFL career
Perry continued his hot streak the next week in the AFC championship game, picking off Terry Bradshaw and returning it 75 yards for a touchdown. Perry happily tells the story of Bradshaw recently mentioning his name on a Fox broadcast. Perry wasn’t watching but said his phone blew up when it happened. The Steelers won that AFC title game in controversial fashion, with Mike Renfro’s touchdown being ruled out of bounds for the Oilers though he was clearly in. It was one of the key plays that led to the NFL adopting instant replay reviews.
Even though Perry was a standout as a rookie in the 1979 playoffs, that was the peak of his career. Having been out of football a year and in the CFL for two, he was 26 years old as a rookie. He was with the Oilers for three more years, the New Orleans Saints for one and then he went off to become a teacher in Mississippi.
“The game of football was fun to me,” Perry said. “It didn’t matter how much money we made. We just loved the game.”
Perry is living in Mississippi, retired from teaching. He spends his days golfing, fishing and “staying busy.” Every year he, Brazile and other former players give away 500 bikes to needy families in Jackson around Christmas.
Perry said he’ll get reminded of his big game, especially when he is back in Houston. He says it’s still surreal to think he set an NFL playoff record that might never be topped. He doesn’t have any regrets that his career didn’t last longer.
“You’re talking about a kid that didn’t get drafted and worked his butt off to get to the league,” Perry said. “It was fun while it lasted. I got those five years in the NFL. They were five good years.”
And he’ll always have his one incredible NFL moment.
”Things happen for a reason. Maybe it was meant to be,” Perry said. “I showed the world Vernon Perry could play.”
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