GREEN BAY — Only hours before the NFL draft, William Tandy received a text message.
It read: “I will always remember when you said one day I could play in the league. My dream is coming true.”
Tandy didn’t have to look at who sent it.
For it was Tandy who told a 12-year-old Nick Perry that one day he would play in the NFL. Only hours after Tandy received that text and 10 years after he made his bold — or in his mind-not-so-bold — prediction, the Green Bay Packers used the 28th overall pick in the draft to select Perry, the pass-rushing specialist from USC who likely will be their starting right outside linebacker this season.
Tandy isn’t an NFL scout. He isn’t a college coach or even a high school coach.
No, he coaches youth football when he’s not busy running Upward Bound, a program at Wayne State University in Detroit that helps first-generation college students from low-income families.
It was in the well-known, inner-city Detroit youth football program called The Westside Cubs, which was founded in 1957, that Tandy met Perry and first predicted greatness.
How did Tandy know?
Before Perry came through the Cubs, he was preceded by the likes of Braylon Edwards, Antonio Gates and Larry Foote.
“You could see that there was something special about him,” Tandy recalled last week. “If Nick had a support system and took his academics seriously, you knew with his capabilities on the football field that he was going to be able to play on Sundays.”
Dale Harvel knew it, too.
Though Harvel coached Perry for only one season at Detroit’s King High School, he had seen enough of Perry to know what he was getting when nearby Mackenzie High School closed — a casualty of Detroit’s economic hard times — after Perry’s junior year.
“I watched Nick play for several years while he was at Mackenize on the west side, and he was a phenom,” Harvel said. “He did things that you don’t coach.”
Harvel laughed when he was asked what Perry did at King.
“What didn’t he do?” Harvel said. “At Mackenzie, he pretty much played strictly rush end, but I used him differently. If your tendency was to run inside, I’d play him at the three-technique defensive tackle. If you threw it, we’d move him to end or linebacker and let him blitz standing up. He was even a tight end on offense; probably could’ve been all-state. He had eight touchdowns and was a phenomenal blocker.”
And Shawn Howe knew it, too.
When he arrived in Los Angeles in early 2011 as USC’s defensive line coach, he quickly realized Perry had all the makings of a big-time NFL player even before he coached him.
“When I was first getting into the business, I was at N.C. State when we had Mario Williams, Manny Lawson and John McCargo, who all were first-round picks,” Howe said. “When you see Nick, you’re like, ‘This is one of those guys.’ He’s a Mario-type guy. He’s a freak.”
From a big family, Perry, the youngest of nine children, had more than just the physical attributes needed to play big-time college football and eventually in the NFL. Sure, Tandy and others were amazed by Perry’s on-field attributes, but there was more to him than that, even if sometimes he needed a little help.
From a rough section of Detroit, Perry took full advantage of Tandy’s youth football program, which is about more than football.
“Our kids are coached by men who are college-educated, spiritually based and are about the social and spiritual development of these young men,” Tandy said. “We have a motto: ‘God, books and ball.’ We try to make sure these kids are very well grounded. It’s in a very rough neighborhood. By no means is it in an area where we get kids with very strong family support, so we are coaches and fathers. And we took a very special interest in Nick, and the fruits of his labor paid off.”
Perry never succumbed to the lure of the streets, according to Tandy and Harvel. With eight siblings, it would have been easy for his parents, Joel and Debra, to lose track of the baby in the family.
“I’m not saying his background was tough, but I would imagine like most families in Detroit, they had their challenges,” Harvel said. “Nick was always a good student and was respectful. This is not one of those stories of a kid out in the street, but he had his challenges.”
Said Tandy: “Nick lived and grew up in a very rough area, but he stayed focused.”
Howe saw that focus in Perry, who couldn’t get enough coaching.
“The one thing that always stuck out to me about Nick that reminded me of a guy like Mario is that Nick was always infatuated with watching tape of NFL (pass) rushers,” Howe said. “He liked us to get tape of the NFL guys that were really doing it well.”
Perry left USC after his junior year, a season in which he led the Pac-10 with 9½ sacks. Few doubted that he was ready either from a football standpoint or a maturity level.
“He’s not going to be out there talking (expletive) and dancing around,” Howe said. “That’s not him.”
After the hoopla surrounding the draft died down, Perry texted Tandy again. Perry wanted to talk with Foote, who is Tandy’s nephew, about what to expect in the NFL. Foote, a veteran linebacker with the Steelers, obliged.
“Larry and I would talk to him in a three-way call, and he was telling Nick about being responsible, saving his money and about what he needed to do in camp,” Tandy said. “My last text to him was about going to camp.”
The text read: “Go down there and don’t take anything for granted. (Try) like you’re a seventh-round pick.”
Tandy knows Perry is much more than that. He has known it since Perry was 12.