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Perkins a Unique Kind of Role Model

    Don Perkins, interview subject, admitted he was hazy about the details of his greatest day as a New Mexico Lobo. It had taken place, after all, more than 47 years ago.
    The interviewer was ready, willing and able to help.
    Too ready, willing and able, perhaps.
    "Well, Don," I told him, "the date was Nov. 21, 1959. In your final game as a Lobo, you rushed for 136 yards and scored three touchdowns in a come-from-behind 28-27 victory over heavily favored Air Force.
    "With your 49th yard gained, you became the Skyline Conference's all-time leading rusher. The following week, you would have your No. 43 jersey retired and be named Associated Press Back of the Week. Later, you would be named a third-team AP All-American."
    Well ... OK. I didn't remember all that— just most of it. Perkins, who starred at UNM as a running back from 1957-59 and with the Dallas Cowboys from 1961-68, was this Albuquerque kid's very first sports hero.
    I've since gotten over it; really, I have. Still, at this point in the interview, I could sense Perkins getting a bit uncomfortable.
    Athletes, he believes, are not heroes. Accordingly, his Albuquerque home contains no trace of his Lobo and Cowboy roots.
    One would never know Perkins is a member of the Albuquerque/New Mexico Sports Hall of Fame, the UNM Athletic Hall of Honor and the Cowboys' Ring of Honor. No trophies, no plaques, no photos, nada.
    "I don't need it for myself," he explained, "and I've got kids and grandkids that are very important to me. I don't think they need to come over to grandpa's house and see a shrine to the National Football League and college sports.
    "I don't think an athlete is any better than a teacher, any better than a reporter, and I never have. ... Because (someone else) is driving a bus and I'm playing football, does that make me better? No, no, no."
    Still, even at age 68, honors related to his remarkable football career keep coming. On Feb. 15, in recognition of his contributions to the Cowboys, he'll be inducted into the Texas Sports Hall of Fame.
    It's not exclusive company, but it's fast company. Perkins will join baseball legend Ernie Banks, NBA great Clyde Drexler, auto racing's A.J. Foyt, rodeo star Ty Murray, bowler Billy Welu, his former coach Tom Landry, several of his former Cowboys teammates and many others.
    Among those joining him in the class of '07 are Olympic decathlon gold medalist Rafer Johnson, Heisman Trophy winner Billy Sims and current Cowboys owner Jerry Jones.
    Perkins was quick to say he's appreciative of the honor— and just as quick to say it's not something he longed for or needed.
    His football career, he said, was its own reward.
    "I had a good experience here at the University of New Mexico and had a good run with the Cowboys," he said. "We started off as an expansion team, not winning anything, and by the time I quit after the '68 season, we were taking the (Green Bay) Packers, who were the premier team at the time, to the wall.
    "So, it was a rewarding kind of thing."
    It wasn't rewarding enough, however, to keep Perkins in uniform after the age of 30.
    Concerns about his long-term health, he said, played no role in his decision to leave at his peak. That's merely a side benefit.
    "I'm in good health," he said. "... I'm a walking fanatic. I'm very conscious and cognizant of what I eat."
    Simply put, Perkins was ready. Neither the money (such as it was back then) nor the status of the NFL could keep him in Dallas past what he saw as his prime.
    "I knew I wasn't going to get any bigger, any stronger, any faster," he said. "Skill can carry you a long way as a lineman, even as a wide receiver. But as a running back, you rely primarily on instinct, quickness and God-given speed.
    "You don't do that very well on the top side of 30."
    It was also, Perkins said, a matter of pride. He had seen other running backs stick around too long and be relegated to kickoff- and punt-coverage teams.
    Though Perkins mentioned no names, one example might be former teammate J.D. Smith.
    A 1,000-yard rusher for the 49ers in 1959, Smith came to Dallas in 1965 at age 33. In two seasons with the Cowboys, he carried 93 times for a 3.3-yard average.
    That wasn't for Perkins.
    "It's so easy to notice in team meetings with the coaching staff who (the coaches) are directing their comments to," he said. "They're talking to the guys who are gonna be out there playing, not the guys that were playing last year, two years ago, that kind of thing.
    "I didn't need that. It's a thing that's inevitable if one doesn't know when to say, hey, it's over. You've had your run. Get out, get a job, have a life."
    Life after football for Perkins was pretty much just that.
    He did work both nationally and locally as a TV football analyst, but spurned a chance to be a Cowboys assistant coach.
    He came back to Albuquerque full time— he lived here in the offseason throughout his Cowboys career— raised his family and worked in various capacities for the city of Albuquerque. He's done some acting in local theater.
    Now, he cares for his wife, who's battling cancer, and dotes on his 10 grandchildren. Grandson Anthony Perkins, of Northglenn High School in the Denver area, signed Wednesday with the University of Colorado as a defensive back.
    Anthony, Don said with a laugh, also was looked at by Nebraska and several other schools that "never gave Grandpa a sniff."
    Nebraska's loss; New Mexico's gain.
    The Texas Sports Hall of Fame's, too.
    Catch Rick Wright's column at www.abqjournal.com. E-mail him at rwright@abqjournal.com