Feb. 4, 2009 should have been the best day of Jonathan Perry's young life.
Eight Dunbar seniors signed letters of intent to play college football that day. Perry, a 6-foot-3, 195-pound quarterback and one the most recognizable and talented Poets, wasn't one of them.
As Perry watched his teammates, with whom he won two 1A state titles, accept their scholarship offers under a bright media spotlight, emotions were decidedly mixed.
"I mean [I was very happy for my teammates] but it definitely did hurt to see them all sign," Perry said. "But I just felt like my time was coming and it just meant that I had to work harder in order to get what they got."
More than three months later, Perry's time came. He became Dunbar's ninth Division I-bound senior after signing with the University of Alabama at Birmingham almost two weeks ago.
Perry's route to UAB was anything but direct. In his first two years of high school at Samuel L. Banks, Perry dug himself into a large academic hole which appeared insurmountable to several interested programs.
"A lot of schools started finding out my grades were bad and schools started backing off," Perry said.
Morgan State and Liberty both stepped forward with scholarship offers before Signing Day, Perry said. But he was reluctant to accept without being 100 percent certain of his decision.
"I mean a lot of people were saying nothing bigger was going to come and I should take what I had," Perry said. "Actually, I just wanted to get out of the city of Baltimore. I wanted to get away from home. That's why I didn't go to Morgan. Liberty, they didn't think I was going to qualify. But I just waited, I trusted myself, I prayed a lot and something came through. I just didn't want to take an offer and not be happy where I ended up and then regret it."
Perry appeared ticketed for junior college after passing on those offers. Hutchinson (Kan.) Community College emerged as a potential destination after Dunbar coach Lawrence Smith circulated Perry's highlight tape.
Meanwhile, back in Baltimore, Perry was furiously attempting to raise his grade point average in the event a Div. I school expressed interest late. He retook three core classes online, and stepped up his performance in the classroom. According to Perry, his GPA jumped from a 1.8 before Signing Day to a 2.68.
"I've been working hard and I [have been getting] 80s and 90s in my classes, and that's what helped," Perry said. "I might finish with a 2.75."
In April, the Hutchinson staff played host to some coaches from UAB who were in the market for a linebacker and quarterback. Perry said the Blazers staff saw his tape on their trip to Hutchinson and were impressed. Once they took a look at Perry's transcript and saw how much progress he had made in the classroom, a scholarship was offered.
Perry was almost positive he'd commit to UAB, but he wanted to see the campus first before making things official. This required Perry to board an airplane for the first time in his life. On May 15, Perry flew from BWI to Atlanta to Birmingham, where Blazers assistants Kim Helton and Jay Chapman awaited his arrival.
Perry received a steady dose of Southern hospitality during his visit. He enjoyed seeing the football and academic facilities, and was particularly impressed with how "everybody's nice down there." The thin quarterback depth chart coupled with his comfort level made his decision easy. Perry signed his housing and financial aid papers before leaving Birmingham.
"[The coaching staff was] happy," Perry said. "They were just saying how they wanted me and how they signed a junior college quarterback that didn't qualify, so they were saying it worked out better for them because I was ... coming in as a freshman and that would help the team also. ... I could see myself going down there and maybe a year or two, just taking over and being the face of the program, hopefully."
While Perry's recruitment was anything but ideal, the struggles have undoubtedly made him more appreciative of what he's earned.
"I just think before I transferred to Dunbar, I went through a lot of adversity," Perry said. "I always believed that struggle builds character, and adversity just reintroduces you to yourself. I just feel that's going to motivate me. ... There's a chip on my shoulder now."
Baltimore Sun photo by Jonathan Perry by Kenneth K. Lam