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Remembering the Steelers Lowell Perry, the First African-American Coach in Modern NFL History

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This piece is about a great All American Player who, in typical Steeler fashion back in the old days, suffered a career-ending injury before he finished his sixth game.  BTSC interviewed Perry's widow, Maxine and his son, Lowell Perry Jr.  Both wife and son expressed how grateful they were to the Rooney family.  Perry was a young man in a strange town laying in a hospital for 13 weeks, his dreams of playing football shattered.  Art Rooney made sure he wasn't a stranger for long.

Lowell Perry was a college phenom.  At the University of Michigan he played receiver and safety.  He was an All-American who never left the field.  The Steelers selected him in the eighth round of the 1953 NFL draft, a very high draft choice considering Perry was committed to the Air Force ROTC for three years before he would see a Steelers uniform.

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The Steelers patience was finally rewarded in 1956.  Lowell Perry was everything they hoped for and more.  In just five-plus games he scored two touchdowns, including an electric 75-yard touchdown reception.  He averaged an incredible 24 yards-per-reception and also racked up huge chunks of yardage returning punts and kickoffs.  He even carried the ball twice for 37 yards.  Unfortunately, one of those carries ended his playing career.

"It was a naked reverse against the Giants in the sixth game," lamented his son, Lowell Perry, Jr.  "He was close to the sidelines when Rosey Grier, Dick Nolan and another guy all pounced on him.  He landed on one of those steel yard markers."

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Maxine Perry, Lowell's wife whom he met at a college party after a love-at-first-sight introduction, was in attendance that November day at Forbes Field.  She was ushered into the training room where she knew instantly that her husband's life was about to change dramatically.  It happened that quickly.  Perry fractured his hip and pelvis and never played again.  Those were the neanderthal days of medicine when surgeries and reparations were not nearly as sophisticated.  Perry was a young man in a strange town lying in a hospital room for 13 long weeks, his NFL dreams shattered along with a hip and pelvis.

"It was frightening and heartbreaking," recalled Mrs. Perry.  "Thank God for Mr. Rooney.  He visited Lowell daily and assured him he would always have a job in the Steelers' organization.  Mrs. Rooney would visit also.  She baked pies and cakes.  It was unbelievable.  Art Rooney will be with me forever.  I can't even think about that man without getting emotional."

Art Rooney's kindness and strength did not surprise Maxine Perry.  She had witnessed his character before her husband's first season even began.  The Steelers went to Jacksonville to play a preseason game.  There was a parade for the players, the White players that is.  The Black players were standing at the curb.

"The White players didn't know what was happening," remembered Mrs. Perry.  "They wanted my husband to join the parade, but the Black players weren't allowed.  They were also registered at a different hotel.  Mr. Rooney was incensed.  He flew down the next day and told the team that never again would the Pittsburgh Steelers be subject to discrimination."

The very next year Pittsburgh had a scrimmage scheduled in Atlanta.  When Rooney learned that Black players were in a different hotel, he cancelled the scrimmage.

True to his word, Rooney did offer more than just emotional support.  When Perry was finally released from the hospital Rooney offered him a job.  In 1957 Lowell W. Perry became the first African-American coach in modern NFL history.  He coached the receivers.  The next year Perry worked in the Steelers' scouting department.  While employed by the Steelers, Perry went to law school at Duquesne University.  He had great vision for a future outside of football.  In 1966 Perry claimed another first when CBS hired him as a color analyst.  He became the first African-American to broadcast an NFL game to a national audience.

Once a Steeler always a Steeler, even for less than six games.  Perry went back to Pittsburgh for various alumni functions and took his son, Perry Jr., with him.  On one of those trips Art Rooney invited Perry Jr. to work the 1973 training camp.

"That's the kind of guy he was," said Perry Jr.  "He put me up in the dorm and let me eat with the players in the cafeteria.  His sons, Dan and Artie, were just as nice.  The warmth of the Rooney family is something I will never forget."

Perry Jr. had a summer vacation that would make any Steeler fan green with envy.  He hung out with Mel Blount and Glen Edwards, played basketball with the guys and warmed up Terry Bradshaw on the sidelines.  He was invited to team meetings and soaked it all in.  Perry Jr. was entering his senior year in high school.  He starred as a quarterback in football and also excelled in basketball and track.

"I remember Mr. Rooney introducing me to Joe Greene.  He was bigger than life.  When we shook hands his fingers ran halfway up my forearm.  I decided right then and there I was going to play basketball in college," quipped Perry Jr.

Both Lowell Perrys went on to successful careers as public servants.  Junior graduated from Yale, worked in the front office of the Seattle Seahawks for a decade and is now the chief executive officer of Big Brothers and Big Sisters of Middle Tennessee.  Senior became the first African-American, another first, to run a major U.S. manufacturing facility when he worked for Chrysler in the 1970s.  Senior chaired the Equal Employment Opportunities Commission under President Gerald Ford and was director of the Michigan Department of Labor.  He was also a founding member of NFL Charities. 

Maxine and Lowell had two more children who made their parents equally proud.  Son Scott is currently the vice president of basketball operations for the Detroit Pistons and daughter Merrideth is an account manager for CennectEdu, an online college planning service to help high school students.

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Lowell Perry Sr. (center) with Sons Scott (left) and Lowell Jr. (right)

"There's no doubt in my mind that Art Rooney had a profound affect on my father's life far beyond football," said Perry Jr.  "Mr Rooney died in the house he lived most of his life in.  The neighborhood completely changed color through the years, but Art Rooney never noticed." 

His mother agrees.  "Art Rooney did things for the neighbors that they never knew, like buy food and supplies and anything else that was needed.  My husband was also a kind and caring individual whose outlook on life was definitely shaped by the Rooney family.  And I can see it now in all three of our children."

Lowell Perry lost his bout with cancer in 2001, but not before leaving this world in better shape than he found it.  The credo he gave his children is one we should all live by:  "You make a living by what you earn, but you make a life by what you give."  Thank you Lowell Perry.