By BRAD KEITH
The night of Sept. 1, 2007 was great for Tarleton State football.
It was not a great night for Damian Perkins.
Tarleton upset Division I-FCS member Stephen F. Austin 27-24 in an overtime game in Nacogdoches. Stephen Arnold connected on a 37-yard field goal in the extra session, lifting the Texans to their only win against a Division Iopponent under former head coach Sam McElroy.
Perkins played well that night, despite being on the losing side. He rushed eight times for 39 yards and a touchdown and also had five tackles from his slot at linebacker.
It would later prove to be Perkins' final game at SFA.
Perkins had what he calls a disagreement with coaches following that game, and by the time the Lumberjacks took the field the following week, he was no longer a member of the team.
At 5 feet 11 inches and 225 pounds, Perkins was one of SFA's prized recruits in 2005, having starred as both a running back and linebacker at Hallsville High School. He received recruiting attention from the likes of LSU, Miami (Fla.) and TCU, but did not garner offers from any of the three, according to Scout.com.
He made an immediate impact for the Lumberjacks, rushing 66 times for 281 yards and three touchdowns and hauling in five receptions in just four games as a true freshman in 2005.
Perkins made a smooth transition to linebacker in 2006, and led the team with 92 tackles including 11.5 for loss and three sacks. He also intercepted a pair of passes, forced two fumbles and recovered one. His numbers were good enough to earn pre-season All-America honors entering his sophomore campaign.
But the season opener in 2007 was frustrating, as Perkins was forced to move back to running back after first-half injuries sidelined the Lumberjacks' top two rushers against Tarleton.
Perkins did not offer details concerning the ensuing disagreement with coaches, but says in retrospect that his leaving the football program at SFA was a blessing in disguise.
"I had a lot to learn and a lot of growing up to do," Perkins said. "Since that time, I've learned a lot as a person and as a man. I think it was destined to happen."
Perkins, now 23, has two daughters - Aniya will turn six later this month and Taliah will turn four in August. After leaving SFA, he learned the hard way how difficult it is to raise two children while working for minimum wage.
"I've tried to live on minimum wage and that's not what I want for my life or for my girls," he said.
The rest of the 2007 season went by, and after Perkins was denied reinstatement to the SFA program, the 2008 and 2009 campaigns quickly passed as well. Perkins knew he was headed nowhere fast unless he made a drastic change.
That's where memories of his final football game came in.
"I remembered how hard Tarleton played against us that night," he said. "I remember thinking (Tarleton) would be a good place for me to go."
Perkins got in contact with McElroy, and did some more research on his own.
"I saw how they've been winning these last few years, and I thought it would be cool to go someplace where I would have a chance to be part of a winning team because I've never done that," he said. "Then I talked to Coach McElroy and came on my visit and he sold me on the whole thing."
But once Perkins arrived at Tarleton, another twist would soon develop. Two weeks after his arrival, McElroy informed the team he would be leaving to become the defensive line coach at Texas Tech.
"I was kind of iffy at that point," Perkins said. "Coach Mac was a great guy, and he was the biggest reason why I came to Tarleton."
But Perkins stuck it out, and once spring ball began under new head coach Cary Fowler, he knew he had made the right decision.
"I was praying about it and talking to my parents about it," he said. "Once we got started in the spring and I started having fun playing football again, I knew this was the place for me."
Perkins said it didn't take long for Fowler to make a lasting impression on him.
"Coach Fowler is great. He's been talking about winning a national championship since the day he got the job," Perkins said. "That's just the way he is. He's confident in what we can do, and that's the way I am, too."
Perkins is focusing mainly on the defensive side of the ball and returning to his once dominant form at linebacker, but that doesn't mean he's ruled out the possibility of registering a few carries next season.
"In college I've definitely made more progress at linebacker, but I still love playing running back," he said. "I hope I can carry the ball in short yardage and goal line situations."
Perkins believes great things lie ahead this fall for the Texans.
"After the year they had last year and with all the guys we have coming in, I think we can be as good as we want to be and go as far as we want to go," Perkins said. "I know Coach Fowler won't accept any less than that from us. I know I don't expect any less of myself."
Whatever happens this season, there is a chance it won't be Perkins' last on a college gridiron.
"There's a chance I could play two seasons," he said. "I'm praying that it works out that way."
But what the kinesiology major is even more excited about is the direction he's now headed in life.
"I love football, but the No. 1 goal is to get my degree. That's what I'm here for is to be a student-athlete," he said, with particular emphasis on the word student. "I can't lose sight of my degree and how important it is to me."
Three years and one day will have passed since Perkins' last game when he and the Texans take the field for their Sept. 2 opener against Northeastern State at Tarleton Memorial Stadium.
"I'm going to feel like a million bucks that night," Perkins said. "There was a time I thought I would never get back to this point and get to play again. Just being out there in the spring and being back in school feels great. When I actually get to play in a game...well, I'm so excited I try not to think about it or I'll get too high on that feeling.
"Everything has worked out this way for a reason," he continued. "I'm just glad to have everything back in front of me again."