One day in the late summer of 2018, Bennett football coach Steve McDuffie got a phone call in his office from Juan Phillips, the veteran police resource officer for Buffalo Public Schools.
Phillips told McDuffie he had been summoned to discipline a man-sized eighth-grader named Rashard Perry, who was acting up and belligerent at his school. He might want this kid. Football could be a useful outlet for his aggression.
“OK, bring him over here,” McDuffie said.
Perry walked into the Bennett gym with an angry frown on his face. McDuffie laughed when Perry mentioned that his brother was a star on the football team. McDuffie asked him what was wrong with him. Perry said everyone was picking on him.
“I said, ‘Stop feeling sorry for yourself. Get your big butt up there and start doing some pull-ups!’” McDuffie recalled. “He looked at me, went back and did the pull-ups. I told him to do three more sets and I’d be right back.”
McDuffie assigned Perry to his junior varsity. By midseason, it was clear that Rashard was too good for the JV level, so Steve elevated him to the varsity, where his brother, D’Jae Perry, was an all-Western New York running back and linebacker.
“He was an instant star for us,” McDuffie said. “He was 13 years old at the time! I’ll never forget, we were playing Lancaster in the Section VI title game. He comes out of the game and says, ‘Coach, I can’t make a play! They’re double-teaming me!’
“So, I looked at him and I laughed and said, ‘Are you the only one they’re doubling out there?’ He looks at me and says, ‘Yeah’. I said, ‘Well, you’re doing your job’.
“And you know what, the rest is history.”
There’s still a lot more history to be written. But for five years, Perry has been a stalwart on a Bennett team that became a two-time sectional champ and state AA finalist, a dominant two-way lineman who is one of the favorites for the Trench Trophy awared annually to the top high school lineman in all of Western New York.
On Sunday at 3 p.m., Perry will play his final high school game as Bennett takes on Newburgh of Section IX in the state title game at the JMA Wireless Dome in Syracuse, where the Tigers lost to Carmel, 42-12, in the state AA final a year ago.
The Dome also happens to be the place where Perry will play college football. Earlier this year, he committed to play for Syracuse, a Power 5 program in the Atlantic Coast Conference.
“It feels good to be doing it there,” Perry said with a smile. “It’s like the final high school chapter is where my college story will begin. Winning would make it even better.”
Bennett has been burning for another chance at a state title since walking off that field last December. They were riding high, having cruised to the final, before falling flat in the Dome. Perry said the Tigers thought it would be easy, and that in the end the Carmel players seemed to want it more.
“I failed to do the job last year for my seniors to give them that final hurrah,” Perry said. “It definitely left a bad taste in my mouth. I’m the senior now. This year’s seniors knew they had to push it, to push everything.
“That means I had to go 100% during practice, workouts, all that. You really have to motivate the team. Not only did I have to train, my team had to get stronger, because the weakest link has to be just as strong as the strongest one.”
Perry committed to an offseason training program that he described as “very hard and intense.” He added muscle to an already powerful frame, at one point going from 232 pounds to 265. He’s listed at 6-foot-3, 245 pounds.
“I had only one goal in mind,” he said, “which was to get back to States and this time win it. I knew that I had to make plenty of sacrifices — physically, mentally. Just all-around, everything had to change. Diet-wise, how I watch film, all that type of stuff.”
McDuffie praised all of his seniors during a Wednesday media session at Bennett for their dedication, discipline and hard work. It was vital, of course, for the team to see that Perry, the big-time college recruit, was holding himself to the highest standard.
“Rashard is one of those kids that leads by example,” McDuffie said. “He hasn’t missed a workout in five years. Not one. I think his dedication and commitment speaks for itself. There’s no way you look like that if you miss a workout.
“I think he’s willing himself to be great.”
It showed on the field, where Perry had 8.5 tackles a game, 13 sacks and 13 quarterback hurries for the Tigers. Numbers can’t begin to measure his impact. The kid who got double-teamed when he was 13 sometimes attracts triple- and even quadruple-teams as a senior manchild.
“You practice against somebody like that every day, it makes you better,” said Bennett’s senior offensive lineman and co-captain, Jason Gwan. “So, when you go to other places and face other guys, it’s a lot easier than blocking your teammate.
“He’s a very good player, obviously. Multiple scholarship player, big-time player, and a potential Sunday night player.”
Local high school football observers say the same thing, that Perry could one day wind up in the NFL, following in the footsteps of former Bennett star Isaiah McDuffie (the coach’s son), a linebacker and special teams ace for the Packers.
“Being in the NFL has always been my goal,” said Perry, whose favorite players growing up were Von Miller, Aaron Donald and, of course, his older brother, D’Jae.
“Right, now, I’m not focused on that, but it is my main goal to get there.”
Perry, the son of Douglas Perry and Celine Luper, understands the challenge that lies ahead. When he got to know some of his fellow recruits at Syracuse, he realized just how much skill and dedication is required to reach that level.
“They’re all good players,” Perry said. “Every one of them are stars of their own high schools. Everybody wants to be great there. You have to work 10 times harder. I already had that mindset, being instilled from Coach Duff’ all these years. He said, ‘The best players play.’ If you slack, it’s next man up.
“You’ve got to be humble. I saw how people can get too big for their britches, get ahead of themselves. They think they don’t to have work anymore. But the hardest worker, who strives to be great just like you, could easily take your spot in the future.”
Bennett has been humbled more than its share lately. Two years ago, the Tigers were ousted from the sectional because one player tested positive for Covid. Last year, they had to compete in the state playoffs on three days’ rest when the game was rescheduled when Rochester McQuaid had a Covid outbreak.
In October, the section forced Bennett to forfeit four division wins for failing to file the proper paperwork for a freshman transfer. For a time, the players wondered if their state title hopes were finished.
“When we learned our season wasn’t over and we still had a chance, that’s what we built off,” Gwan said. “We’re not worried about the wins and losses, we just know we still have a chance to play, a chance to win.”
Win or lose on Sunday, one chapter of Perry’s football life will end. The next will begin next year at Syracuse. Knowing how big-time programs operate, there’s a good chance he’ll redshirt and have another five-year football career ahead of him. Perry, who said he has mostly As and Bs in the classroom at Bennett, said he plans to study sports science in college.
“As I see it, if you want a longer career the best way for me is learning more about the body,” he said, “since my whole job is my body. Make sure it lasts as long as possible.”
He’s come a long way since that angry eighth-grader showed up in McDuffie’s gym. What would Perry tell that kid now?
“I’d tell him to keep striving,” Perry said. “Regardless of what happens, always know that Bennett your home. Everybody is rooting for you, and how mature you will get in the future.”
Just keep pulling yourself up, and there’s no telling how high you can go.