Rookie Jerry's biggest strength: toughness

Flowery Branch — Peria Jerry almost died one day on the practice field.

That was the major hurdle he overcame on his way to starring at Mississippi and becoming the Falcons' first-round pick (24th overall) in the NFL's 2009 draft.

There were other hurdles, including weight problems, lack of interest and alleged laziness as he followed a family tradition, climbing the football ladder out of rural Mississippi to the NFL.

But for a fast-acting coaching staff, none of this would have happened.

Back on a sweltering hot day in 2004, Jerry was on the practice field at Hargrave Military Academy in Chatham, Va.

"He got dehydrated, and his whole body locked up," Hargrave coach Robert Prunty said. "We had to rush him to the hospital. His potassium was so low. Man, I thought I was going to lose that kid."

Jerry, described as quiet and shy by those close to him, was fighting an internal battle.

"He wasn't telling anybody that he wasn't eating or drinking," Prunty said. "He was trying to lose weight."

It's what Jerry did after the life-threatening experience, one that landed him in a hospital, that really shook Prunty.

"He wanted to come back out the next day," Prunty said. "I've had some good ones come through here, but as far as toughness, I've never had a player as tough as Peria Jerry."

Of course, he wasn't allowed back on the field as quickly as he wanted, but he returned to action a week later.

But let's rewind to how Jerry got to Hargrave in the first place.

He played at Mississippi powerhouse South Panola High as a sophomore, but didn't play his junior season. There are several versions for what happened.

One was that he was kicked off the team, which Jerry denies. Another, which the Falcons list as the reason, is that he was injured. However, Jerry said he lacked interest and didn't want to play.

"I kind of drifted away from everybody and everything," Jerry said. "It wasn't like I got kicked off the team or anything like that."

He came back for his senior season and helped South Panola win the 2003 state championship while playing middle linebacker. He signed with Mississippi in February 2004, but didn't qualify academically. So it was off to Hargrave, which counts 39 NFL players as alumni of its post-graduate program, with Jerry being the latest of six first-round picks.

Despite a coaching change at Mississippi from David Cutcliffe to Ed Orgeron, Jerry honored his commitment.

"I knew that my Mom couldn't afford to come watch me play if I had gone hours away from home," Jerry said. "I made the decision to go right up the street, 20 minutes away, so that she could come see me play."

He battled injuries throughout his career in Oxford, Miss., but was an all-SEC second-team pick as a junior and a first-team pick last season. He led the SEC with 18 tackles behind the line and scored a touchdown on a fumble recovery.

"He got the other guys to play at a great level so that he could do his job and not get double-teamed," said Auburn defensive line coach Tracy Rocker, who coached Perry last season at Mississippi. "If he just wanted to be selfish, he was going to get double-teamed."

Jerry wanted to make it to the NFL like his cousins Dwayne Rudd, a linebacker who played from 1994 to 2002, and Kory Chapman, a running back who has two Super Bowl rings.

Another cousin, Jamarca Sanford, was drafted in the seventh round this year by the Vikings and another, Derek Pegues, was an All-SEC defensive back at Mississippi State who went undrafted.

Jerry is closest to Chapman, who has been passing along some NFL advice.

"Really just stay focused and do what's got you here," Jerry said. "That includes studying your playbook. Just being yourself. I think that advice will carry me a long way."

Despite all he's come through, Jerry will face another hurdle if he plans to play early in his NFL career.

"The holding rules in college are not as [liberal] as the holding rules in the NFL," Falcons defensive line coach Ray Hamilton said. "The biggest thing with rookie defensive linemen is making sure that they know how to use their hands."

Jerry considers the discipline imposed on him during his time at Hargrave as critical to re-directing his life and career.

"It teaches you about being accountable and being places on time," Jerry said. "They were real big on that. I think that helped me."

Because of what he saw from Jerry at Hargrave, Prunty expects to see him excel in the NFL.

"He's not going to back down from anybody on the football field," Prunty said.