Ravens WR Breshad Perriman’s agonizing road to a first NFL catch
OWINGS MILLS, M.D. — It was the first day of Ravens training camp, 2015, and all eyes were on the first-round pick, wide receiver Breshad Perriman, as he ran streaking up the sideline on a go route, past his defender, and as Joe Flacco lofted him the ball.
The Ravens had drafted Perriman to replace Torrey Smith, who’d left in free agency, as the team’s speed threat on the outside, the receiver who could stretch the field and open up room to work underneath for Dennis Pitta and Steve Smith. It was a crucial role, and for the majority of that first practice Perriman looked the part. Big, fast, explosive. He burst in and out of his breaks, caught the ball in traffic, and routinely got open with his speed.
Down the right sideline now, Perriman leapt and spun in one motion, catching the ball at the highest point. It was the type of catch No. 1 receivers routinely make. But as he came down he landed awkwardly and fell to the ground, driving his right knee into the earth in the process. Perriman got up slowly and walked off under his own power, flanked by a trainer. He felt something in his knee but didn’t think it was that serious. “I probably could’ve caught it a different way,” he would later say of the play. “I probably didn’t have to fall either.”
After practice when the media dutifully asked about Perriman’s condition, Ravens coach John Harbaugh told them, “It’s not serious. It’s all sound. He’ll be back as soon as the knee feels a little bit better. It could be as early as tomorrow, or a couple days at most.”
It was the first practice of his first training camp. Of course Perriman would be back.
He would miss the entire year.
In the weeks after the injury, there seemed to be some confusion about Perriman’s status. The media continued asking for updates, and Harbaugh gave vague answers. The way he described the situation, the Ravens’ medical staff was flummoxed by Perriman’s knee. As the weeks went on and Perriman remained sidelined, the team’s confusion seemed to turn into frustration, as evidenced by a series of Harbaugh quotes compiled by The Baltimore Sun.
Six days after the injury Harbaugh described it as a “sprain, bruise, tendon, or whatever,” and explained that the trainers were holding Perriman out. Nineteen days after the injury, after Perriman had an MRI, Harbaugh told reporters, “It came back essentially normal.”
He added, “It’s just gone slower than our doctors anticipated it would.”
This was all the public knew then about Perriman’s status because the Ravens did not make him available to the media. The diagnosis eventually came out as a sprained posterior cruciate ligament.
“I’m trying to remember what they told me the initial timeframe would be,” Perriman says now, furrowing his brow, thinking. “I really don’t remember. I knew I was going to be out a little bit. They were going to stay on top of it, day to day, just to see how it feels. I knew I was going to be out a couple weeks or so. That wasn’t a secret at all, to me. It was straightforward. There wasn’t any confusion between me and the training room and the coaches.”
Nearly two months passed before Perriman returned to practice in a limited role. A few days later he was warming up before a Ravens game—not to play, but for rehab—running routes and testing his knee, when he took off on one last post route and felt … a pop. Perriman stopped and crouched down, putting all his weight to his left side, praying that would relieve the pain in his right knee. He had a brief conversation with a trainer, still in much pain.
In the following days, Harbaugh told the media that Perriman had suffered “no new injury of any kind” and again attributed Perriman’s absence to a “slow-healing ligament.”
“He’s probably had one of the all-time, slowest-healing sprained PCLs ever,” Harbaugh said. “That’s nothing against him. That’s just the way it is. It’s just tough.”
In fact, a doctor told Perriman that he had further damaged the ligament. “I was on the verge of healing,” Perriman says. “That little pop I felt was more of a tear.”
In November, without Perriman ever seeing the field, the Ravens shut him down for the year; his ligament wasn’t healing fast enough. Around that time, too, he fell into a depression. In between rehab, he had been coming to the facility, attending meetings, studying film, taking notes. Bobby Engram, the receivers coach, would quiz him on specific concepts, trying to keep him engaged and productive. It was a mental grind, especially if he had no hope now of returning to play.
After a while, Perriman couldn’t even stand to watch the Ravens play in person. The team stumbled to a 5-11 record in 2015, their first losing season since 2007 and the first under Harbaugh, due in large part to several key injuries. Besides Perriman, at various points they lost Flacco, their franchise quarterback; starting running back Justin Forsett; two starting linemen, Jeremy Zuttah and Eugene Monroe; Pitta, the starting tight end; starting defensive end Chris Canty; and two vocal veteran leaders, Terrell Suggs and Steve Smith.
Perriman’s parents flew up to see him every home game, regardless. They kept him company and watched the games from his home near the team’s training facility. His mother, Laundria, cooked him chicken and rice and cleaned the place, as Perriman analyzed the game with his father, Brett, who played receiver for 10 years in the NFL himself. Brett gave running commentary, pausing the game and rewinding it, pointing things out to his son.
Brett had always been part father, part coach. He had taught Perriman everything about the position. Before Perriman’s college games at Central Florida, Brett would call with a pep talk and last-minute reminders. He harped on details and always gave his son honest and harsh critiques. Come fast off the line. Keep your routes sharp. Watch how you catch the ball.
“He always told me,” Perriman says, “I can be great, I’ve just got to put it all together. He really wanted me to be great, be one of the best in the league. That’s what I want too.”
When his parents weren’t in town, Perriman leaned on Tray Walker, his closest friend on the team. After the Ravens drafted them three rounds apart in 2015, the two realized their families knew each other from the Miami area. They became fast friends. Every day after practice they hung out at each other’s houses. They went to the mall, played video games, explored their new city.
Sunny and upbeat, Walker kept Perriman balanced.
“I won’t lie, he got me through some hard days,” Perriman told the Ravens’ team website. “It was difficult. If he hadn’t been there, I would’ve gone crazy. He was basically the only one—or one of the only ones—who knew everything about my situation. He was the one person I could come to and tell everything about how I was feeling.”
Perriman started wheezing when he heard the news. His father had had a stroke. Perriman couldn’t breathe. Was it a panic attack? He thought about checking himself into a hospital. Then he frantically searched for a flight that would get him to Baltimore to Florida that night. But it was too late to fly commercially. He thought about chartering a private plane.
“I told them I’d pay for a jet—anything,” he says.
That was in May 2016. About seven weeks earlier Perriman had been in the Miami area when he got word that Tray Walker had been in an accident. Walker was riding a motorbike on the street at night when a SUV struck him in a four-way intersection. Police later told reporters that Walker was wearing dark clothes and had his headlights off. Perriman had rushed to the hospital then, and he was there that night among Walker’s family and friends as Walker went into surgery. After doctors pronounced Walker dead, Perriman called his mother and silently sobbed into the phone.
Now his mother put her foot down against him chartering a plane, so Perriman flew out first thing the next morning. He found his father barely fighting for his life. Doctors told the family that Brett had about a three percent chance of surviving. “Well,” Laundria told them, “you’re going to fight for that three percent.” Breshad stayed at the hospital for about two weeks, keeping his father company around the clock with his mother and brothers, even sleeping at the facility. “He didn’t want to leave his father’s side,” Laundria says of Breshad.
When doctors came around with updates on Brett’s condition, though, Perriman would excuse himself. He clung to the little good news that trickled in, the slow progress Brett seemed to be making. “The way [Breshad] deals with things, he holds it in,” Laundria says. “He only wanted to deal with the positive. He only wanted to deal with the outcome he wanted.”
Meanwhile, Perriman was missing time he could’ve spent training at the Ravens facility. Time he could’ve been building a rapport with Flacco, gaining Harbaugh’s trust and preparing for his first healthy season. His mother tried reasoning with him: There’s nothing you can do here. You know your father would be upset if he knew you were missing work.
Perriman still didn’t want to leave. But on his last day at the hospital, his father had a good day and squeezed his hand, which Perriman took as a sign he could go.
A few weeks later Ravens OTAs started and Perriman worked his way back into form, making up for lost time. He was showing off that speed and athleticism, when he ran a fade route and spun around to catch the ball on his back shoulder — and landed awkwardly again.
“Didn’t look like much,” says Engram. “He kind of twerked his body in a different way. One of those freak things again.”
Perriman had partially torn his ACL in his other knee.
Perriman prayed. More than he ever had. Whenever he had a free moment alone throughout the day, he forced himself to pray, until it became a habit. He took a few seconds, made the sign of the cross and said a few words for his father, for his family, for himself. Each morning, as he woke, he also read that day’s passage in “Jesus Calling,” a book of daily devotionals that Engram had given him, and sent a picture of it to a group of family and friends.
They prayed for him, too. From time to time his mother texted him a Bible verse that his great-grandmother had sent her. From Second Chronicles, Chapter 20, Verse 17. “You will not have to fight this battle,” it reads. “Take up your positions; stand firm and see the deliverance the Lord will give you, Judah and Jerusalem. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged. Go out and face them tomorrow, and the Lord will be with you.”
His grandmother went a step further. At one point last year, when Perriman was rehabbing his knee, she brought her pastor to see him. The pastor prayed over Perriman for his health. For him to stay encouraged and protected and guided.
Just before training camp this year Perriman got a haircut. He asked the barber to shear off the signature dreadlocks that he had been growing since college and now hung now past his shoulders. He wanted it all gone. He felt about three or four pounds lighter after.
“Fresh start type of thing,” Perriman says.
His partially torn ACL hadn’t required season-ending surgery after all. Instead he received a stem-cell injection and rested and returned to practice in the fourth week of August, giving him just enough time to regain his bearings and get up to speed in time for Week 1.
Perriman FaceTimed with his father every day, as Brett made his own recovery: months of rehab, regaining some of his cognitive function, learning to walk again. “Every day the doctors were scratching their heads, like, he’s a miracle,” Laundria says.
Brett had his good days and his bad, like when he would forget his son even played in the NFL. He still wasn’t sharp enough yet to give his son those incisive critiques on his routes and his hands.
Brett was feeling well enough, though, that he attended the Ravens’ season-opener in Baltimore in a wheelchair. He watched as his son made his first NFL catch. Lined up wide to the left, Perriman ran a go route matched up one-on-one against the Bills’ Stephon Gilmore. Perriman leapt and snatched the ball over Gilmore’s outstretched arm for a 35-yard gain.
Afterward, the half-dozen or so family members who had come to the game all went to Jimmy’s Famous Seafood to celebrate. Among all the commotion, Brett remained mostly quiet, which is how he gets when he’s deep in thought and in a reflective mood.
“He told me ‘Good game,’ ” Breshad says. Then he chuckles and shakes his head. “But he told me I only played at a quarter of my potential.”