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Offseason | 2022

Spagnola: The Rare Treat Of Don Perkins


FRISCO, Texas – These two memories will never be forgotten.

Five years ago, I met Don Perkins for the first time. Myself, Roxanne Medina and Blake Silverthorn of the Dallas Cowboys television department went to Albuquerque, N.M., to interview the Cowboys Ring of Honor running back for a Cowboys Legends Show documentary.

Four months later, on Aug. 21, at age 79, Don and his daughter Judy Wykoff made the trip from Albuquerque to Frisco, Texas, for the Dallas Cowboys commemoration of the Ring of Honor Walk, a gathering of 16 of those 17 living members of the Ring of Honor, all one by one posing in front of their raised blue numbers along the Star District sidewalks.

Here is what I wrote of that second meeting:

Well, when Perk arrived on his golf cart to his location, accompanied by his daughter Judy Wykoff, a guy walked up with a wheelchair to assist him to the spot where his No. 43 rests. Perkins looked at the wheelchair, and I could see it in the six-time Pro Bowler's eyes, like he was saying, "I'll be damned if I'm going to be wheeled behind the number I carried for 6,217 yards."

Nope, these still are very proud guys. Grabbed his cane and walked on his own the short distance to then pose for pictures behind that 43. Judy and I exchanged knowingly smiles at his determination.

That will be our last meeting. Don Perkins passed away at the age of 84 on Thursday in Albuquerque, and here is my piece written for the Dallas Cowboys Star magazine five years ago, the inspiring story of a life well lived.

There are times in our lives we are fortunate to uncover a living treasure. One of those occurred this past April, 2017, for me, having been dispatched to Albuquerque, N.M., to interview Don Perkins.

Don played for the Dallas Cowboys from 1960-68. He was a fullback/running back. The only Cowboys player to precede him into the hallowed Ring of Honor is Bob Lilly. And that guy is known as Mr. Cowboy, the first player the NFL expansion franchise ever drafted. The first Dallas Cowboys player ever inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, thus putting Don Perkins in pretty high cotton.

Can't tell you the hundreds of times walking through Texas Stadium over 25 seasons, looking up and seeing the name Don Perkins on the stadium façade, right up there with the likes of Lilly and Mel Renfro and Randy White and Tony Dorsett and Don Meredith and Roger Staubach and Tom Landry and Tex Schramm.

Can't tell you how many more times now these past eight seasons at AT&T Stadium, looking up into the Ring of Honor and seeing the name, Don Perkins.

Funny, sometimes you've seen, but you never really see, if you know what I mean.

Sometimes you've heard, but you never really hear.

These other guys, nearly every one of those now 22 guys in the Cowboys Ring of Honor, I have met. Actually spoken with them. Maybe even interviewed them. Knew their stories, forward and backwards.

But Don Perkins, no sir. Never had met him. Never had talked to him. Never had even written a word about him that I can remember, other than maybe in historical or statistical reference.

Now I had heard about this selfless running back who had become the heart and soul of those early Cowboys team from the old-timers having covered the Cowboys during their early days. They had raved about the guy simply known as "Perk" back in the day.

They would always recite the little jingle of "Hey diddle-diddle, Perkins up the middle," somewhat a swipe at Tom Landry's conservative play-calling during those early years. Sort of when in doubt, give it to Perk.

I had heard extensively about "Perk" from Walt Garrison, his eventual replacement at fullback upon retirement. Walt, who arrived in 1966, couldn't say enough good things about Perkins. He would tell me about how "Perk" was one of the best football players he had ever played with; how he was one of the smartest football players he had ever played with; how he was the greatest teammate of guy could ever have.

"Perk was unbelievable, and he could block," Garrison would begin. "I learned more about blocking from him than anybody. And he was littler than I was but he could knock those big guys flat on their back. And he was a heckuva runner, he was great. I learned from one of the best.

"And he helped me. So I asked him one day, 'Perk, why are you trying to help me, I'm trying to beat you out?' And he said, 'Walt, I want to go to the Super Bowl.' He said, 'If you're better than me you ought to play.'

"But I never was."

And the dirty rotten shame of the matter, I never really bothered to research his story – ever – to know even a smidgen about his career, about his life.

Until that day in April, the 9th, on the outskirts of Albuquerque, where he resides closely under the watchful eyes of two of his daughters, Karen Walter and Judy Wykoff. Grandson Wyatt was there, too, for quite a history lesson.

At age 79, Don was quite engaging. Quite funny. Quite introspective. Still quite humble and self-deprecating. His eyes alert and expressive. His smile disarming. His memory somewhat fading, but remembered details about his life, about his career, about having lived in Dallas and what it was like for an Black kid growing up in Waterloo, Iowa, somehow ending up in Albuquerque, N.M., and then of all places, Dallas, Texas, to construct a Ring of Honor career, before retiring as somewhat of an iconic figure in the Albuquerque community.

Let him summarize the journey in his own words:

"I grew up in Iowa. I didn't think I was good enough to make a college team, so I chose to come to New Mexico, because it was the furthest away and I thought I could get a job at the meat packing plant or tractor factory when I got cut from the local football team (University of New Mexico)."

Well of course, that didn't happen. Let him continue.

"And when I get the $1,500 bonus to go to the Cowboys, I said wow, that's a lot of money," again figuring he would get cut, and then just "come back and finish school . . . I get to keep the $1,500 and I'll come back and finish school and get a job at some place in New Mexico. But I made the team and I kept making the team. I never believed that I was really a good football player, but I kept making the team and I kept going to the Pro Bowl and this kept happening year after year.

"About the late 60s, I was going to the Pro Bowl. I went to six Pro Bowls and those were kind of exciting. I found myself in the backfield with Jim Brown and I said, 'Wait a minute, what am I doing in the backfield with this guy?' I watched him play when I was in college. And now I'm in the backfield with him. It was quite a revelation to me, and I stayed a long time with the Cowboys."

Long enough for this to be mandatory knowledge for any card-carrying Cowboys fan:

· Perkins finished his nine-season career, with 6,217 rushing yards, to this day, only Emmitt Smith, Tony Dorsett and now Ezekiel Elliott having more in franchise history.

· Perkins led the Cowboys in rushing five consecutive seasons, only Emmitt, Tony and Zeke tallying more consecutive seasons leading this storied franchise in rushing.

· His seven seasons leading the team in rushing is third all-time in club history, only Pro Football Hall of Famers Emmitt and Tony having more, with Zeke attempting to tie this season.

· His 1,500 career carries is fourth, yes, to only Emmitt, Tony and Zeke.

· His six seasons leading the team in rushing touchdowns is fourth to just the Cowboys holy trinity of running backs.

· His 42 career rushing touchdowns is eclipsed by only Emmitt, Tony, Marion Barber and Zeke, but let's remember Perkins did all this playing 14 -game seasons.

· In 1961 was voted NFL Rookie of the Year.

· He went to six Pro Bowls, with only eight Cowboys players ever going to more – five of them enshrined in the Hall of Fame and possibly two more on their way (DeMarcus Ware and Jason Witten). And get this, the six Pro Bowl appearances are as many as Staubach, Troy Aikman and Rayfield Wright, all Hall of Famers.

Pretty fancy company, and can't believe I never took the time to realize all this.

And for a little added perspective of just who Don Perkins was, having played just eight full seasons for the Cowboys (missed that first season after fracturing the fifth metatarsal in his foot), when he retired after the 1968 season, his sixth going to the Pro Bowl by the way, only four running backs in the history of the NFL had rushed for more yards: Jim Brown, Jim Taylor, Joe Perry and John Henry Johnson.

And remember, for most of those eight seasons he was a fullback, and in those first five playing for teams never having a winning record.

Who knew?

Just his name in that Ring of Honor does not do his career justice.

His teammates, knew though, and not just Garrison.

This from Ring of Honor member Lee Roy Jordan: "Don was probably the quickest running back I've ever seen. His first three steps to full speed was unbelievable. And his blocking ability was another factor that just was unbelievable."

Lilly, again the only Cowboys player to beat Perkins and Don Meredith into the Ring of Honor, remembers this: "Perkins was smart as a whip. He was a great competitor, and he was really nice to me as a rookie, him being a second-year man."

Remember this, too: And Perkins was the first Black teammate Lilly, from Throckmorton, Texas, and then TCU, ever had, and was one of the first three Black players to play for the Cowboys.

Lilly learned all he needed to know about Perkins one training camp during a scrimmage. The quarterbacks were off limits to the defensive unit. Everyone else was fair game. That included the running backs this day during a full-speed blitz drill.

"I never will forget Perk, I was going to jump him, and I could jump pretty good, and I jumped up and he hit me in the legs and I turned about four flips and hit the ground," Lilly says. "I said to myself, 'I'm not going to do that again.'"

And it wasn't just his football ability that impressed his teammates.

"Smart," says Pettis Norman, the tight end arriving in Dallas in 1962 from J.C. Smith College in Charlotte, N.C. "Kind of a quiet guy, but smart. One heck of a football player. You would enjoy talking with him. He didn't just come up and start a conversation with you. Just a very, very nice person.

"He was one of those stars who did well playing football and also outside of football. Very smart."

His career start to football was quite coincidental. Remember, he was going to high school in the mid-1950s. Segregation was a way of life in many states. Perkins grew up in a segregated part of Waterloo, a "poor part of town," as he says. As he tells the story, when back then, "I was one of the few Black people, black Americans, Negroes, that went to high school."

But he could play sports – all-state halfback in football, captain of the track team, played basketball – "so they wanted to keep me in high school, and they found me jobs to keep me interested in school while staying in the poor part of town."

There had to be something more about Perkins, too. His senior year in high school he was voted student body president, a rare honor for a Black student in a barely integrated school. He never thought, even though his name was well-known in the state of Iowa, he would ever be college material.

But how about this: Some guy back then named Marv Levy, a former assistant coach at Coe College in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, landed an assistant coaching job at the University of New Mexico in 1954. He remembered this kid named Perkins from Waterloo.

And by1956, off Perkins went, to Albuquerque and the University of New Mexico, thanks to Levy, who eventually became the school's head coach in 1958, and you probably know the rest of his story, eventually taking the Buffalo Bills to four consecutive Super Bowls, though losing all four, the final two to the Dallas Cowboys.

Perkins didn't know a soul in Albuquerque. In fact, when he first got there, and because he was a man of color, couldn't find a place to stay before moving into the dorm when school began. Well, Levy put him up at his house. Sort of a Blind Side story way before Michael Oher's, a white family taking in a Black student.

His became a storybook career with the Lobos. From 1957 through 1959 – freshmen were ineligible to play during those days – the halfback set 12 school records. Unprecedented, his No. 43 was immediately retired following that final '59 season. He now stands as one of four Lobos football players with retired numbers, along with Bobby Santiago, Mike Williams and some guy named Brian Urlacher. Their huge, billboard-sized pictures stand high atop the west stands of University Stadium for all to see driving by.

Perkins also has been understandably inducted into the University of New Mexico Hall of Fame but also the state of New Mexico Sports Hall of Fame. He is a household name in Albuquerque. In fact, he is so well-known, saw his Cowboys No. 43 jersey hanging on the wall of the ever-popular, on-campus Frontier Restaurant, where our crew ate later that afternoon.

Next to his on the other corner wall: Picture of John Wayne, the all-time cowboy. How All-American is that?

"Racial division was profound all across this country at this time," Perkins says. "There were white cabs and there were colored cabs. And you'd have to, we'd have to, at airports, you'd wait for a colored cab to pick you up. So Marv Levy was a good person in that he wanted me as a player, but he had to run the risk or the, whatever in the conversation, of him letting a Black man stay at his house."

Then came coincidence No. 2, or might this be No. 3 or 4 in his case.

So turn to the next page in his journey. He would be NFL Draft eligible that 1960 season. But in those days the draft was held in November of the previoius season. So, the 1960 draft was on Nov. 30. 1959, and at that time the Dallas Cowboys were not yet the Dallas Cowboys. The city and then owner Clint Murchison had not been granted the first NFL expansion franchise until Jan. 28, 1960.

That's right, the Cowboys didn't draft Perkins. The Baltimore Colts did, and not until the ninth round. But Murchison, anticipating being awarded the franchise, actually signed Perkins to a personal services contract ahead of time, eventually giving the Colts a ninth-round pick in 1962 for the rights to keep Perkins.

And that was fine by him, since once again he didn't think he would be good enough to stick in the NFL, and Dallas was a lot closer than Baltimore when it would come time to return to Albuquerque to finish out his degree.

"Maybe I underestimated myself, but I think I left high school with the expectation that I would come back and finish my high school thing, because I was going to the University of New Mexico, but I wouldn't make the team there," Perkins says. "Then I left the University of New Mexico thinking I would come back and get my degree as soon as I got cut from the Cowboys team, but I stayed and I stayed and I stayed."

Brother, did he ever.

Stayed long enough to make his mark, not only on the Dallas Cowboys football team, not only on the franchise's record book, but also on the city of Dallas, at the time going through a tough transition with no more than creeping integration, as slow a process in Dallas as anywhere else in the deep South.

Perkins stayed long enough to become part of the first Cowboys team to actually win a game, the 1961 season-opener against Pittsburgh after the 0-11-1 1960 inaugural year. Became part of the Cowboys' first non-losing season, that 7-7 year of 1965. Became part of their first three winning seasons (1966-68) of the eventual NFL-record 20 straight. Played in the franchise's first two NFL Championship games, losing both to the Green Bay Packers and Vince Lombardi in 1966 and then the ever-historical 1967 Ice Bowl.

Just a magnificent career before deciding to hang 'em up prior to the start of the 1969 training camp. Some say he did so because he wanted his family to live year 'round in Albuquerque instead of having to put up with housing inequality for players of color during that period of time in Dallas history. In fact, he and his wife and four kids would move back to New Mexico every off-season, all four born during his stay with the Cowboys, remembering their birth years to be, "'60, '63, '65 and '68."

He chuckles when suggested that was the reason for his retirement, like to somewhat avoid the issue, then saying, "Well, that was part of the truth, but the other part was Walt Garrison was going to put me on the bench if I hadn't retired. And Walt and I talk about that. We are good friends to this day. Walt says that, 'No Perkins, you would still been in there.' I said, 'Nah, nah,' because he was playing more and more."

Maybe it was twofold, not wanting to get benched by the Cowboys and the continued segregation in his life when deep down he knew this wasn't right.

But maybe the real beauty of our visit was that his two daughters, Karen and Judy, along with Judy's then 9-year-old son Wyatt, were part of this priceless walk down memory lane. His girls weren't quite old enough to remember his playing days, or really all that much about life in Dallas.

Wyatt, well he was all ears for this history lesson. And if you think about it, Perkins is a walking encyclopedia on U.S. history.

Don Perkins was born March 4, 1938, in Waterloo, Iowa, a black man in America. Just think, his life began at the tail end of the Great Depression. He has lived through Pearl Harbor, World War II, D-Day, the Korean War, the Cold War, the assassinations of President John Kennedy, Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, the height of racism and segregation in this country, Vietnam, integration, the 1960 inception of the Dallas Cowboys, the first man to walk on the moon, Watergate, the fall of the Berlin Wall, 9/11, the election of the first Black president in the United States and unfortunately lived long enough to witness the despicable Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection at The Capitol in Washington D.C.

He has participated in this country, too, beyond his football playing days. After retiring back to Albuquerque, he had worked as a football television analyst for CBS and ABC. He had been the director of the Work Incentive Program for the State of New Mexico Department of Human Services. He had worked with church groups, Fellowship of Christian Athletes and had served on both the Executive Board of US West and the Board of Trustees for University Hospital.

He became great friends with former New Mexico Gov. Bruce King and his wife Alice, a three-term governor, to the point the girls remember playing hide-and-seek in the Governor's Mansion. The Perkins name is somewhat of an institution in the city of Albuquerque, maybe even statewide New Mexico.

"Growing up here in New Mexico after the fact, he was a big thing here and it was to the point when we went to restaurants, and pretty much wherever we went, people were bombarding him for autographs because most of New Mexicans are Cowboys fans, and so that was always a big deal and kind of funny as well," Judy said.

And the girls' reaction to that attention: "Just kind of silly because it was just dad," Judy says.

Karen's take has always been this about dad: "What strikes me most, what impresses me most is, alongside his notoriety is his humility," her sister Judy nodding touchingly, "Yeah . . . yeah."

And you really had to be there to see Perks' interaction with his grandson, the youngest of 11 grandchildren.

What does Wyatt like about his grandpa?

"We just hang out, play checkers and have dinner with him," he says.

"But I've never beat him."

Grandpa Perkins, with a twinkle in his eye, interjects, "Wyatt, don't you owe me some money?"

"No I don't," Wyatt insists.

"Oh, just thought I'd ask," Perk playfully says.

When asking Wyatt if there was anything he'd like to say to his grandpa while we were recording the interview, the youngster says, "I'm really glad you are known to be my grandpa."

Perkins: "I'm really glad I am your grandpa, but you owe me money though. We'll try to forget that."

Wyatt then looking at Perk says, "And I also love you."

He hugs Perk, who says in like, "I love you, too."

OK, I'll admit, wiped a tear away from my eye.

Must have spent a good couple of hours with the family, reminiscing about his career, his life, his journey from Waterloo.

While his daughters don't remember much about Dallas, they do remember having been there for his Ring of Honor induction ceremony on Nov. 7, 1976. Perkins and Meredith were inducted on the same day, the Cowboys beating the Giants that day, 9-3, at Texas Stadium

"We were there, we were there for the induction," Karen says. "I remember it being huge, just huge."

Judy, the younger of the two, says, "I don't remember the first time I saw (his name in the Ring of Honor), but I remember being proud. I remember thinking, 'Wow, that's dad, that's pretty cool.'"

And for me, ever since that April 9th day of 2017, just way cool now seeing the name of Don Perkins up there among all those Cowboys greats at AT&T Stadium.

Especially now that I understand thoroughly why he is up there among the franchise legends, finally having met the man and learning his life's story.

Don Perkins 43, all this breathing life into what previously had been just a name and number to me for all these many years.

What a treat.

And maybe now, for you, too.

May Perk rest in peace.

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