Malcolm Perry during June mini-camp, after signing with the Patriots for a second time. (Photo byPaul Rutherford/USA TODAY Sports)
Malcolm Perry’s uniform of the day on Wednesday, June 8 featured a white towel hanging from the back of navy blue shorts. His hands were in white receivers gloves. The block number marking his white practice jersey was a blue “19.” Missing from the sides of his silver helmet was the ‘Flying Elvis,’ the logo always facing forward.
In some respects, Perry was the one looking ahead.
This was the second of three scheduled days of the Patriots’ 2022 mandatory mini-camp. The practice, held on a lower field absent fanfare behind Gillette Stadium, was a tough one for Malcolm. There was a dropped pass, a muffed punt, a lap to run.
Five and a half months earlier, he’d signed with New England for a second time. Perry had long seemed fit for Foxborough and perfect for Bill Belichick. He was true Navy blue and gold; an honest-to-goodness, all-time great at a place, in a program beloved by Belichick.
All-time leading rusher in Army-Navy history. Midshipmen record holder for single-season total offense and rushing yards. Commander-In-Chief champion who capped an 11-win senior campaign by running for 2,017 yards, most by a quarterback in FBS history.
Smart. Majored in quantitative economics. Tough. Opted to be a Marine. Athletic. Returned kicks, ran, received and passed as a quarterback, slotback and quarterback again.
Unsurprisingly, the Patriots showed strong interest in Perry before the 2020 Draft. However, Miami chose him in the 7th round. A year later, the Dolphins waived Perry and the Pats claimed him. He was on their opening-day roster but rendered inactive with a foot injury. Perry landed on injured reserve and was eventually released. After a short practice-squad stint in New Orleans, he rejoined the Patriots in January.
Technically, Perry was on a futures contract. Increasingly in the coming weeks, he would wonder if it was time to put football behind him.
“This whole offseason was mentally different than any other offseason that I’ve had in my whole football career,” Perry says. “Just the passion to get out on the field and become better at what I do, it wasn’t necessarily there. I wasn’t lazy. It wasn’t hard to get up and it wasn’t hard to go to work. But it was hard to dial in and put that work into what I knew I needed to be better at.
“It was just hard to work at football and want to be the best at what I did in football, which is what I’ve been doing since I was nine years old. Every offseason my mind is laser focused on ‘whatever I wasn’t good at last season I’m going to be good at this season.’ I kind of repeated that process my whole life.”
Tugging at Perry, starting with his heart and reaching into his mind, was a passion to serve. Unlike teammate Joe Cardona, whose eight-year Patriots career has mostly coincided with officer duties in the Navy Reserve, Perry’s military service was delayed. He still owed five years, active duty.
To Perry, it wasn’t an obligation. The Corps was his calling. As spring arrived, its summons resonated so strongly that resisting its pull became harder and harder. Not that anyone studying and sweating alongside him had any idea.
“He was a guy who came in everyday like it was a work day,” Patriots receiver Jakobi Meyers said. “A real humble, quiet guy who’d go about his business, make his plays and go home.”
Perry looked up to Meyers. A lot. He respected the leadership in the receivers room of Nelson Agholor and fellow ex-Fin DeVante Parker. Greatly. He appreciated the selflessness of other active-roster long shots and practice-squad candidates Kristian Wilkerson and Tre Nixon. Very much.
Wilkerson and Nixon, in particular, became after-practice and off-day workout partners. And good friends. Yet none of them knew what only a few could: what it’s like to choose between NFL opportunity and a yearning to serve.
One who can is retired Adm. John Stufflebeem. In 1975, after hay fever initially disqualified him from being a Navy aviator, Stufflebeem signed with the Lions as an undrafted free agent. Detroit’s head coach Rick Forzano had come from the Naval Academy, where Stufflebeem learned to be a 1 1/2-step punter under Steve Belichick and earned his nickname and future call sign, ‘Boomer.’
Part-time officer and part-time punter, Stufflebeem kicked in three training camps for three different coaching staffs in Detroit. All while repeatedly being denied appeals to the Navy to let him fly fighter planes like his father did.
In 1979, the Lions’ Monte Clark, two head coaches removed from Forzano, wanted to end Stufflebeem’s ‘part-time’ status and promote him to full-time punter. General manager Russ Thomas offered a contract.
“My head swelled bigger than I could put my helmet on very, very quickly,” Stufflebeem quipped recently on a Zoom call. “But there was something still nagging at me.”
On the advice of mentors, including the elder Belichick, Stufflebeem held off signing anything. In time, his fifth appeal was heard and he was finally accepted into flight school.
“To put it, succinctly, I felt like I had the heart of a warrior,” said Stufflebeem, whose first pro coaches included Bill Belichick. “I found out that I could play in the NFL. I found out that I had the skill, I had a confidence that I could make a squad and play for some period of time — I was getting feedback from coaches — so I thought, ‘Well, I know I can go do that now. But what I don’t know is if I can really succeed as a warrior, as a leader of men. And I said, ‘I’ve got to go find out.’
“So, in ’79 I basically had a falling out with Monte Clark and I refused to sign this new contract. For all intents and purposes, (I) walked away, trading uniforms. I traded my football uniform and put on my flight suit, (went) through my flight training and the rest is history.”
More than three decades of it in the Navy, from flying combat missions to presiding over Pentagon press briefings post-9/11, during the war in Afghanistan. Today Stufflebeem consults in the private sector, providing crisis management and media training. He regularly visits Foxborough, sometimes advising his good friend Belichick.