Don Perkins knew it was a big deal when he lined up in the same Pro Bowl backfield as the great Jim Brown.
“I’d read about this guy,” Perkins said with a chuckle. “I certainly felt out of my league.”
The date was Jan. 16, 1962: JFK occupied the White House. Stanley Kubrick’s Lolita packed movie houses.
And Donald Anthony Perkins was a wide-eyed rookie fullback with a bad case of jitters. The Cowboys’ first-ever Pro Bowl starter had a sense of pride and awe when he arrived in Los Angeles for the ’62 Pro Bowl.
“Here I was a kid from Waterloo, Iowa, through [University of] New Mexico,” Perkins recalled. “I’m thinking, ‘What am I doing out here with Jim Brown? I hope they don’t find out who I am.’ ”
This is classic Perkins, who lives in Albuquerque in a house with a pool and a view of his alma mater.
But if you drop by that house, you may be surprised to find nary a memento from his eight seasons with the Cowboys (1961-68).
“I have four children and 10 grandchildren,” Perkins explained. “I don’t see a need to build a shrine that says: ‘Grandpa played football.’ I really don’t.”
On Jan. 16, 1962, Perkins made his first of six Pro Bowls appearances (’61-63, ’66-68).
Vince Lombardi had just won his first NFL championship in Green Bay — beating the New York Giants 37-0 — and the 23-year-old Perkins (after sitting out the ’60 season with a broken foot) had been named 1961 NFL Rookie of the Year.
He now shared the same Eastern Conference backfield with Y.A. Tittle (Giants) and Jim Brown (Browns). Johnny Unitas (Colts) and Bart Starr (Packers) were on the other side. It didn’t get much bigger than that 46 years ago.
Brown already was in his fifth season with Cleveland. He had won five NFL rushing titles, two league MVPs and was just 20 games away from eclipsing the NFL’s all-time rushing record — held by Joe “The Jet” Perry, mostly with the 49ers.
Perkins found Brown to be cordial in a “big brother” sense of the word.
“C’mon now, hang onto the football,” Brown told Perkins late in the game.
“I remember it very well,” Perkins said. “Of course, they didn’t give it to me; they gave it Jim ... and he coughed it up.”
In this Pro Bowl, the MVP ended up being the goat. Brown was both.
His 70-yard touchdown run (still a Pro Bowl record) gave the East a late 30-24 lead, and locked up MVP honors. But his subsequent fumble — caused and recovered by Bears middle linebacker Bill George — gave the East squad one last chance.
With it, Unitas hit Jon Arnett in the end zone for a 12-yard touchdown pass on the final play of the game. The PAT, with time expired, gave the West a 31-30 victory.
East reserve Dick Bielski earlier caught a nine-yard TD pass from Tittle. Bielski was the only other Dallas representative, although he would be playing the next season in Baltimore.
Perkins joined the Cowboys’ Ring of Honor on the same November 1976 afternoon as Dandy Don Meredith. Only Bob Lilly — Mr. Cowboy himself — got in ahead of them.
When you give Perkins an opening to gloat, he simply clears his throat, like buying time to recall a long-ago memory.
“I was quite honored,” he said. “But it really wasn’t necessary.”
Perkins was widowed almost a year ago. His wife of nearly 20 years, Nancy, lost her battle with cancer last Feb. 28.
Don enjoys walks to his favorite campus restaurant each morning to get a cup of coffee, then maybe again in the afternoon for a Coke.
As for his playing days with the Cowboys, he remembers them fondly — without reliving them. His gentlemanly manner and sincere modesty won’t allow him.
Perkins will tell you that he was a blocker first, a runner second, even though he finished in the NFL’s Top 10 rushing each of his eight seasons in the league.
“Don Perkins was one of the all-time great blockers,” said Cowboys teammate Chuck Howley. “He had this knack of getting up under your chin and flipping you on your back.”
Howley and several other defensive players have told Perkins that they often feigned tying their shoe during drills, so that a rookie had to step in against Perkins when it was his turn to block.
Said Perkins: “I don’t know that I had a ‘knack’ at blocking — I just know I did it pretty well. Of course, they always had me blocking because I was such a lousy receiver.”
In eight seasons, Perkins rushed for 6,217 yards and (“lousy” or not) caught 146 passes for 1,310 yards. He scored 45 touchdowns.
“Don Perkins was the best fullback the Dallas Cowboys ever had,” said Walt Garrison (1966-74), who, together with Perkins, gave this franchise a Pro Bowl-caliber fullback for almost 15 years.
“That was nice of Walt to say that,” said Perkins, adding some rare sarcasm. “Actually ... Walt sent me into an early retirement. Remind him of that.”
Browns defensive end/linebacker Jim Houston (1960-72) encountered a few head-to-heads with both Perkins and Garrison.
When asked about Perkins, Houston e-mailed from his home just south of Cleveland: “Perkins was an outstanding back that did a lot for Dallas. There weren’t too many backs that I played against that could run over me. But with a guy like Perkins, I had to be really careful on pass coverage. I ran a 4.8 [-second] 40 ... and Don probably ran the 40 in 4.5”
Said Perkins: “I don’t think it was 4.5, but I was quick out of the blocks. Just don’t ask anybody about my mile run.”
When it came to Tom Landry’s annual “mile run” in camp, Perkins almost always bombed. A required time was given to each group, by position, and Perkins would consistently turn in a slower mile than a Tom Landry fullback was supposed to run.
The self-effacing Perkins loves to tell this story on himself.
Also, he likes to recall the first time he lined up in the same Pro Bowl backfield with Jim Brown ... and how one question kept running through his mind:
“I hope they don’t find out who I am ... and send me back to Waterloo, Iowa.”