Malcolm Perry was on the verge of beginning a third season in the National Football League when he made a decision that surprised many.
Just days before the start of 2022 training camp, the New England Patriots wide receiver announced he was retiring from professional football with the intent of resuming his military career as soon as possible.
Perry, a 2020 graduate of the Naval Academy, had been contemplating the move for some time and was at peace with the decision.
“I kind of felt my time in the NFL was coming to an end, just mentally and physically,” Perry told The Capital Gazette last Friday afternoon at the Guinness Brewery in Halethorpe.
The Naval Academy and Notre Dame alumni associations held a joint luncheon to celebrate the 95th meeting between the two institutions, which was held Saturday at M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore.
A pair of former Navy and Notre Dame players were the guests of honor at the event. Perry represented the Midshipmen, while Baltimore Ravens offensive tackle Ronnie Stanley represented the Fighting Irish.
Perry, who had previously declined media requests to discuss his sudden retirement, explained the reasoning behind his decision.
“I still had a burning desire to go serve and fulfill the commitment I signed up for when I went to the Naval Academy,” Perry said. “I kind of came to the conclusion that I was ready to call it quits and go do something that means a lot to me, my family and my country.”
Just three days earlier, legendary New England coach Bill Belichick praised Perry’s commitment to service while reflecting on the upcoming Veterans Day. Belichick, who grew up in Annapolis and has deep ties to the Naval Academy, did not try to dissuade Perry when informed he was ready to trade his football cleats for a pair of combat boots.
“We had a number of conversations and I have a ton of respect for Malcolm and the decision he made,” Belichick said. “I’m sure he’ll be a great teammate and a great Marine and I’m glad he’s defending us and he’s on our side.”
Perry was a four-year varsity standout at Navy, making his collegiate debut in the most sensational of ways. Starter Tago Smith got injured during the season opener against Fordham and Perry was literally pulled out of the stands at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium.
After missing three days of practice due to illness then playing in the junior varsity game on Friday, Perry did not dress for the opener and thus sat in full uniform among the Brigade of Midshipmen.
When Will Worth took over for the fallen Smith, Navy was suddenly without a backup quarterback because third-stringer Zach Abey was suspended for the game. With Navy comfortably ahead, Perry came off the bench and made several nice runs while leading a 90-yard drive that produced a field goal.
So the legend began.
Perry alternated between quarterback and slotback as a sophomore and junior, rushing for 2,269 yards and 18 touchdowns over those two seasons. It was all a prelude to one of the greatest individual seasons in Navy football history.
Head coach Ken Niumatalolo and offensive coordinator Ivin Jasper tailored the offense to suit Perry’s skill set and he literally ran wild as a senior. The 5-foot-9 speedster set the Football Bowl Subdivision single-season record for rushing yards by a quarterback with 2,017 and scored 21 touchdowns as Navy went 9-2, captured the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy and upset Kansas State in the Liberty Bowl.
Perry was simply spectacular and the NFL scouts took notice. He was selected in the seventh round of the 2020 NFL Draft by the Miami Dolphins as a wide receiver. It was the same scenario faced by another record-setting Navy quarterback and fellow Tennessee native — Keenan Reynolds.
Reynolds was a sixth round pick of the Baltimore Ravens in 2016 and made the transition to slot receiver well enough to spend three seasons in the NFL. He played in one regular season game with the Seattle Seahawks.
Reynolds holds the Navy career record with 4,559 rushing yards — 200 more than Perry, who sits in second place. Reynolds also holds the FBS career record for rushing touchdowns with 88.
Perry played in nine games with the Dolphins as a rookie, recording nine receptions for 92 yards and a touchdown. Miami waived Perry prior to the start of the 2021 season and he was claimed by New England.
Perry made the Patriots’ opening day roster, but was inactive due to a foot injury. He landed on injured reserve and was eventually released. New Orleans signed Perry to the practice squad for the remainder of the season, but he chose to rejoin the Patriots on a futures contract.
Perry participated in New England’s rookie-free agent mini camp in June and that would be the last time he suited up in an NFL uniform. While continuing to work out daily at the team facility in Foxborough, Perry found himself thinking more and more about the mandatory five-year commitment that he was allowed to put on hold to pursue pro football.
“This whole offseason was mentally different than any other offseason I’ve had in my whole football career,” Perry told New England Patriots radio play-by-play announcer Bob Socci. “Just the passion to get out on the field and become better at what I do, it wasn’t necessarily there. It wasn’t hard to go to work, but it was hard to dial in.”
Desire to serve
Perry grew up in Clarksville, Tennessee, and starred at Kenwood High, earning All-State honors as a junior and senior. Both parents, Malcolm and Bonny Perry both served in the United States Army and were stationed at nearby Fort Campbell.
As an athlete, young Malcolm dreamed of playing in the NFL. As a career choice, he longed to one day wear the uniform and follow in the footsteps of his service member parents.
After significant reflection and much soul-searching, Perry realized his heart and head were all-in for serving the military commitment without further delay. Once the decision was made, the hardest part for Perry was informing Belichick, who had believed in his abilities and provided two separate opportunities to make the Patriots roster.
“It was an easy decision, but it was a hard process. Going to talk to Coach Belichick about it and letting him know what I wanted to do was tough,” Perry said. “Ultimately, I’m happy with my decision and looking forward to what the future holds.”
Perry was worried Belichick might be disappointed that the slot receiver was giving up pro football and might try to persuade him to at least go through training camp. It was the complete opposite as the future Hall of Famer was proud of Perry and offered encouragement.
“Obviously, a big life decision for Malcolm and one that you know I and, as an organization, we have total respect and appreciation for,” Belichick told the media last week. “That’s real-life football. There’s real bullets out there, you know? We coach and play a great game, but that game — that’s for all the marbles. Anybody that’s in that arena we have the ultimate respect for.”
Belichick has a long history of helping former Navy players make the giant leap from serving to playing in the NFL. It began with standout safety Chet Moeller, who was discharged from the Navy after being diagnosed with diabetes. Moeller signed with the New York Giants in 1980 while Belichick was an assistant, but wound up getting cut.
Wide receiver and returner Phil McConkey also used his connection with Belichick to sign with the Giants after fulfilling his five-year commitment as a Navy helicopter pilot. McConkey wound up playing six seasons in the NFL and he played a pivotal role in New York’s 39-20 defeat of the Denver Broncos in Super Bowl XXI.
Belichick later signed former fullbacks Kyle Eckel and Eric Kettani to free agent contracts with the Patriots. By far the most successful Naval Academy graduate to play for Belichick is Joe Cardona, who is in his eighth season as the starting long snapper for the Patriots.
Belichick has always given former Midshipmen the benefit of the doubt, a byproduct of knowing how special academy graduates are.
Belichick grew up in Annapolis and was totally immersed in Navy football through his father. Steve Belichick, who died in November 2005 at the age of 86, is the longest-serving assistant in Navy football history — working as an advance scout and special teams coordinator from 1956 to 1989 under seven different head coaches.
Having built a relationship with Belichick is one of many aspects Perry will appreciate about his pro football experience. The 25-year-old is honored to be on the short list of Naval Academy graduates taken in the NFL Draft and will always remember catching his first career touchdown.
“Coming from the Naval Academy, it’s very rare to make it in the NFL. Just getting a shot in the first place is amazing and I’m truly thankful,” Perry said. “I enjoyed every single second of my NFL experience. Just being out on the field competing each day and getting to know so many great teammates … it’s definitely something I’ll remember and cherish the rest of my life.”
Perry is currently back home in Clarksville waiting for paperwork to be processed and command decisions to be made enabling him to be recommissioned as an officer. When that happens, he will report to Marine Corps Basic Quantico for The Basic School.