Storied story

4-26-04, 6:25 a.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

Irene Perry always has words at her beck and call.

She has written nine novels in five years. She's the publisher of a magazine. She admits she's a nosy football Mom and is always talking to the other Moms on the grapevine.

But she can't come up with the words to write her son's story. From Lloyd Carr's doghouse to 100,000 in the Big House chanting Chris Perry's name as Michigan knocked off Ohio State to arriving at Paul Brown's house smack in the heart of Buckeye country as the Bengals' first-round draft pick.

Heck, what about her own story? A massive tumor in her breast. A grim August diagnosis of chemotherapy and prayers. Then a March miracle when the doctors told her they couldn't find any cancer.

"I couldn't even come up with a title," Irene Perry said Sunday as her clan gathered at PBS for Perry's first Bengals news conference. His father, grandmother, uncle, family friend.

The title of her series of novels, the last of which came out a few years ago, "Light in the Basement," might be the fit.

"What black people say behind closed doors when no one is listening or looking," is how Irene describes the theme of her books. But what she said behind closed doors to her son and Michigan coach Lloyd Carr is the turning point of her son's story.

"I told (Carr) I would support him 100 percent as long as he didn't break my son's spirit about football. That was the culminating conversation," said Irene of the playing time crisis that nearly made her son leave Ann Arbor. "I told Christopher if he left, he would be just giving up. Where would he go? What is this? "Officer and a Gentleman," you know when the guy is out in the rain?

"Everything just worked out," she said. "I'm a writer and I've written nine novels. I don't think I could have ever written this storyline that his life has taken and I think I'm a very good writer as far as novels."

Truth is stranger than fiction. Carr, not pleased with how Perry responded to sitting, couldn't believe how the parent rallied to his side and not her son's. Chris Perry then became the best practice player Carr's staff has ever had.

"He's very fair, but very disciplined. 'Do it my way,'' said Irene, who kept recalling the things Carr said when he recruited Perry. "You're not gong to change Michigan, but Michigan might change you. I told Christopher, if you leave, you have to sit out a year, your name's not out there. I've done a little P.R. and people forget real quickly in any business.

" 'You can leave if you want,"' Irene told him. "But I think it's a decision you're going to regret the rest of your life.' It's like the poem two roads that diverged in a wood. I can see a lot of things going badly if you take the easy road. I guess he stayed on the road that was (harder)."

When Irene got sick back in August, she didn't want to tell her son and add stress to his senior season. But Carr urged her to tell Chris because if she didn't, he would find out the wrong way.

"He told me, 'football doesn't stress me. I love it,'" Irene said. " 'That's not a problem. I've done it since I was seven years, so it's not a big deal.'"

But she knows it changed him. She has been separated from his father for 14 years, but Raymond and Irene were together Sunday talking about the son they both call, "Christopher," exchanging knowing looks.

"Do you think Christopher is a Mama's Boy?" she asked Raymond and Raymond had to smile and agree.

Raymond, who works in the Guilford County Sheriff's Department in Greensboro, N.C., knows what the disease did to his son.

"When there is a terminal sickness, you begin to value what you have and show more affection," he said. "Did it make him tougher? I think it brought it out. He's considerate and compassionate. If you see him, he loves his Mom."

Irene: "It made him realize that it's not always about football. It's about mortality, it's about illness, it's about family, it's about love. It changed a lot as far as his family is concerned. You could not be there the next day."

The next day looks to be so good that Irene just can't believe it. As the chemotherapy burned hope through her last November, she watched Chris bid for the Heisman Trophy with his marvelous 154-yard day against the Buckeyes. It had been around that time a few years back that Chris had made one of his phone calls saying he was depressed and wanted out, and so the writer could appreciate the symmetry.

Then, last month, the doctors said they couldn't find any cancer.

Then Saturday came the draft to a town about three-and-a-half hours away by car. In fact, the family drove down Sunday and she can see herself doing that drive often to get her son settled. But she won't move to Cincinnati like she did to Ann Arbor from North Carolina to help him through the tough times. There is still the Ann Arbor Magazine to publish.

"What more could you ask for?" Irene asked. "It's just right down the road on 75. It's going to be an easy drive."

Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis certainly sounds like he couldn't ask for more. He had Perry targeted in the tangle of the late first round days before the draft.

"He embodies what we're looking for," Lewis said. "Great athletic skills, great speed, a tough football mentality. A real workman-type attitude."

Irene is about to finish her next novel as she puts all her stories together in a volume before going out on a book tour in June. Then it will be time to start going to football games again.

"Tell them about, 'Hitting a touchdown,'" Raymond told Irene.

That was back when Irene was reading "Football for Dummies," and calling Perry a wide receiver a few times. But now she can talk pretty intelligently about the 2004 draft, and she was quite intrigued about the Bengals having her son rated as the best back on their draft board. She wondered why others didn't.

"I'm not a purist like his father, but when they talked about him, they said he could block, catch, run, what's the other thing?" Irene asked. "I was thinking, 'Please (anyone) pick a running back, then there could be a ripple."

There looks to be nothing else he has to do except bring that blocking, catching, running here. Raymond thinks the story is going to continue.

"When he was small, he would say, 'Daddy, I want to play pro football,'" Raymond said. "I was trying to be encouraging. You can do anything you want to do. But it takes work, dedication. He's the type guy, once he makes his mind up, he sets goals and most of the time, he achieves that. We're very proud of him from that perspective."

Mother and son still spar over her decision to send him to Fork Union Military Academy, but she swears by the discipline. She has sent her 15-year-old daughter to another academy.

Why not? So far, it looks like Irene Perry has made all the right moves.

"Can you believe it?" asked a writer, who knows a great story when she sees one.

Fact or fiction.

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