In Lambeau Field’s south end zone, a plot of land where Justin Perillo couldn’t have dreamed he’d be standing two years ago, the Green Bay Packers tight end had a predicament.
This was his first NFL touchdown. An unlikely moment for an undrafted tight end offered exactly one football scholarship out of a small, private high school in Wilmington, Delaware. There are expectations. The crowd of almost 80,000 demanded he leap into the stands.
But Perillo saw the scoreboard.
The Packers trailed the Detroit Lions by two points with 32 seconds left. They needed the 2-point conversion to force overtime. Any other scenario, and this is an easy decision. With the game hinging on the next snap, it felt like the wrong time to celebrate with a Lambeau Leap.
“I didn’t know what to do,” Perillo said.
Perillo decided to leap.
A few days later, Perillo was waiting at his locker when the media entered. This week felt like any other, he said. No different.
Except this isn’t like any other week. For a year and a half, Perillo was just another guy inside the Packers’ locker room.
Now, Perillo is a guy who caught five passes for 58 yards and a touchdown last Sunday. His phone was “ringing off the hook” when he arrived at his locker.
Here was the Packers’ newest hope for a dormant offense. At the very least, Perillo should continue carving a role for himself when the Packers travel to the Minnesota Vikings on Sunday.
“You’d hope so,” McCarthy said Friday morning. “He’s working hard. He’s doing the little things that really put him in a position to play as much as he did last week, and hopefully it happens again this week.”
There have been no bold predictions this week. He still has plenty to prove. “A long way to go,” Perillo said.
He’s already come so far.
Perillo’s journey to the NFL started on a hardwood court at The Tatnall School, a college prep institution with about 600 students outside Wilmington.
He was one of the tallest players on the roster. Perillo, not yet 6-foot-4, had to learn how to position himself for leverage against opponents five, six inches taller.
He did just fine. Perillo was a 1,000-point scorer, a two-time all-state selection. He helped lead his team to a state championship as a freshman. As a senior in 2009, he was named the Delaware basketball player of the year.
Perillo played first base in the spring. He was an all-state selection in three sports, but he didn’t expect to play college football. Perillo was only lightly recruited by some Division I-AA football programs. His senior season ended without a scholarship offer.
Perillo thought hoops may be his only option. He drew interest from Division II and III programs. Midway through his senior basketball season, Maine offensive coordinator Kevin Bourgoin drove down for a game. Afterward, Perillo was offered his only football scholarship.
“I definitely had a chip on my shoulder,” Perillo said. “Just getting one scholarship in college, I had to keep on working hard and prove those other schools in the (Colonial Athletic Association) that didn’t give me scholarships that they should. I wished they would offer me scholarships."
Maine became the perfect environment for Perillo to thrive. He had 128 catches for 1,318 yards and 15 touchdowns in four seasons. As a senior, The Associated Press selected him as a third-team All-American. Twice, he was named first-team All-Conference.
After four college seasons, Perillo was in a familiar situation. He was still undersized, still from a small school, still overlooked. His one chance to get drafted was Maine’s pro day. Perillo said he needed to run a 4.5-second, 40-yard dash to have any hope of cracking the draft’s final round.
The stopwatch read 4.76.
“I wish I ran a little faster,” Perillo said. “But, hey man, everything happens for a reason. I just wanted to get into a camp and just show what I had.”
Perillo signed a free agent contract with the Packers after the draft. Tight ends coach Jerry Fontenot said Perillo’s potential was impossible to ignore.
“I was surprised, honestly, whenever I first got to work with Justin,” Fontenot said. “Because I remember us doing route-running drills on the fields. It was in the offseason, and he was keeping up with a lot of the smaller, quicker guys, receivers in particular. I knew right then that he had something to him.”
Perillo was a natural receiver, using his basketball athleticism downfield. “Fast twitch,” Fontenot said. He still had to block. That wouldn’t be easy in the NFL.
Fontenot said Perillo doesn’t have to overpower defenders. What he lacks in strength, Fontenot explained, Perillo compensates for with quick feet and good hand placement.
“If you can keep your hands and feet set,” Fontenot said, “then you can maintain leverage. That’s what he does. Obviously, his body type, he’s not going to mull anybody at the line of scrimmage, create a lot of movement, but he does everything you ask him to do the way we ask him to do it. If he can out-leverage someone long enough for the ball to get past him, most of the time that’s what he’s doing.”
Perillo started last season on the practice squad, but he signed to the active roster after nine games. He didn’t catch a pass, but entering this offseason it looked like he would earn another job on the 53-man roster.
In the Packers’ preseason opener, Perillo had two catches for 23 yards at the New England Patriots. It was a solid start, but Perillo was knocked out of the game with a concussion. He missed most of the next two weeks, and once again signed to the practice squad after training camp.
“It was frustrating to get knocked out,” Perillo said. “That’s part of the game. Tight ends go across the middle. You go for the ball, and it happens.”
For the second straight year, Perillo was promoted to the active roster midway through the season. Now, he’s on the verge of a real opportunity.
The Packers need much more than a blocking tight end. Rodgers, the former third-round pick, has five touchdowns in nine games. His 7.8 yards per catch ranks No. 33 among tight ends playing at least 50 percent of their team’s snaps, according to Pro Football Focus.
Which is why Perillo’s 11.6 yards per catch Sunday — and 12.1 yards per catch on seven receptions this season — are worth more targets.
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