‘I never lost hope’: Ronnell Perkins reaping benefits after staying at MU

Perkins grew up in University City in a football family where he continues to give back.
Redshirt senior Ronnell Perkins runs downfield after intercepting South Carolina quarterback Ryan Hilinski's pass in Missouri's end zone. The 100-yard interception return is now the longest in school history. Madeline Carter

Ronnell Perkins has waited for his moment.

A three-star recruit out of University City High School, Perkins shined as a receiver and defensive back. Dominant football programs from across St. Louis attempted to get him to transfer. But Perkins wanted to stay at his local high school.

Perkins committed to Missouri on Aug. 7, 2014 over Illinois, Iowa and Purdue among other schools.

In his redshirt freshman season, Perkins was a playmaker. He played in all 12 games and started four. His 43 tackles, including a career-best 10 in a comeback win over Arkansas, helped earn him a spot on the SEC All-Freshman Team.

But he faced his first battle with adversity before his sophomore season.

In what could have been a breakout year for Perkins, he tore his hamstring and only started two games for the Tigers. His 27 total tackles were a step down from the previous season.

“It was hard, but I always knew that I would end up in a place that I wanted to be in,” Perkins said. “I never lost hope.”

Another challenge came Perkins’ way during his junior year when Missouri moved him into a hybrid role between safety and outside linebacker. After the position change, he finished with a career-low 18 tackles, making just three starts.

In January, the NCAA levied sanctions on the Missouri football program for academic misconduct that included a bowl ban. Perkins and the other seniors could have transferred without having to sit out for a year. This, others believed, seemed like a perfect reason for Perkins to leave.

But that never crossed Perkins’ mind.

“I just built relationships and I just wanted to fight through it,” Perkins said. “If I went to another school, who knows what could have happened to me. I just decided to ride it out and work hard.”

Backyard football in the Perkins house was different.

When the three boys, Ronald Jr., Ronnell and Ronnie came home after grade school and finished their homework, Ronald Perkins Sr. took them outside for practice.

“It was mostly drills and training,” Ronald Perkins Sr. said. “I taught them every position. From quarterbacking, to how to run the ball, how to run routes, how to play defense and how to get in a three-point stance.”

Those practices paved the way for the boys to become successful in high school and college.

Ronald Perkins Jr., the oldest son, played football at the College of DuPage as an offensive guard and nose tackle.

In high school, Ronnell and Ronnie overlapped by one year at University City. Ronnie, now a sophomore defensive end at Oklahoma and 2018 ESPN Freshman All-American played varsity with Ronnell as a freshman.

“I don’t like to brag but it was awesome,” Ronald Perkins Sr. said. “It was so awesome seeing both of them dominating at the same time.”

Ronald Perkins Sr. played junior league football and always hoped to play in high school and college. He never did, though, because he had to work after school. But his love for the game reflected onto his boys and now he is seeing his dream live out through them.

With Missouri leading 24-14 midway through the third quarter against South Carolina, the Gamecocks drove inside the Tiger five-yard line. Memories of the 2018 third quarter collapse in Columbia, South Carolina loomed as the Gamecocks faced third-and-goal.

The call was a play-action pass. Perkins, playing at safety, didn’t bite and quarterback Ryan Hilinski threw into tight coverage. Perkins stepped in front of the pass and returned it a school record 100 yards for a touchdown. The play sealed a 34-14 win in the conference opener.

“I looked right at [Hilinski] and he looked me right in the eyes and he threw it right to my chest,” Perkins said.

While he didn’t expect his first career score to be that easy, the touchdown validated his perseverance and dedication to the Missouri football program.

This wasn’t Perkins’ first game-changing play of the season. Against West Virginia, he intercepted quarterback Austin Kendall with Missouri already leading 10-0. Missouri went on to score on the next drive in a dominating 38-7 win.

Coming into the 2019 season, Perkins had yet to record an interception. This year, he’s helped lead a revamped Tiger defense that struggled mightily in its opening week loss to Wyoming.

“He deserves it because he’s not only his time, but his everything, his heart into this program,” Cale Garrett, senior captain and linebacker, said. “He’s truly a Mizzou man. I know he loves it here and we love him too.”

Before Perkins took the field against Troy on Oct. 5, he had a FaceTime call to answer.

It was his younger cousin, Isaiah Harris, a sophomore varsity football player at University City. Oftentimes, Perkins answers these calls and there’s 30 other kids trying to talk to him.

“He always talks to me,” Perkins said. “I never act like I’m too good.”

When Perkins was in high school, he didn’t have that type of peer mentor. He was the first athlete for his high school coach, Carl Reed, to play college football at a Power Five school.

“It was a different feel,” Reed said. “There wasn’t a lot of hope for some of those kids. Guys like him worked hard and they came together because they wanted to change their situation.”

As he excelled at University City, his games became a must-see for younger kids. They looked up to him and saw a different path to getting their college education.

“He changed the culture of what a kid from U. City felt like he could do,” Reed said. “It was a real special time for all of us.”

When Perkins comes home during his breaks, he’s always mentoring and helping the younger kids in University City. Coaches are always asking Perkins to come and speak to their teams.

“Back home, there’s a lot of kids who look up to Ronnell,” Ronald Perkins Sr. said. “He works out [with them], throws the ball and gives advice and knowledge on how to get to where he got.”

The mentorship Perkins gives these kids mirrors what he learned from his dad in the backyard.

“I just try to let them know that you can make it out,” Perkins said. “You can live your dreams. You just got to work hard and fight for it.”

“I’m living my dream. I’ve thought about this since I was seven.”

Ronald Perkins Sr. never realized how many fans Perkins had until he started playing at Missouri. He’s still surprised when people see him at grocery stores or gas stations and tell him that they knew he was going to be a star.

“That makes me proud,” Ronald Perkins Sr. said. “My heart is always proud.”

Edited by Wilson Moore | wmoore@themaneater.com

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