Denzel Perryman was raised to tackle

Desmond Perryman stuffed a backrest pillow up his shirt, cushioning himself like a hockey goalie about to enter the crease. His son Denzel had just begun to play youth football. Dad wanted to teach him how to tackle, committed to living-room drills a few days a week until Denzel mastered proper technique.

They started when Denzel was 6.

They stopped when Denzel was 7.

"I actually had to brace myself because he would've knocked me down," Desmond said. "I knew he had it at that point. ... He was a form tackler at 7 years old, a perfect tackler. When a grown man has to brace for a 7-year-old kid, you know he's coming real hard."

Denzel, a grown man now, is set to play his first NFL game. The Chargers inside linebacker and second-round pick will debut Thursday night against the Cowboys. His parents will watch the exhibition opener from afar, as Denzel looks to apply on defense and special teams some of the homegrown hitting learned in South Florida.

The lessons are the foundation to Perryman's game.

All linebackers must seek out contact. Few seem to find enjoyment rivaling that of Perryman. As a boy, he ran at his dad and older brothers from a three-point stance and tried to tackle them. He practiced form against a door. He grew up watching a highlight tape of the NFL's hardest hits while idolizing Ray Lewis.

After an offseason of limited contact, Perryman gets the green light Thursday.

"A lot of people ask me am I nervous, am I nervous," Perryman, 21, said Wednesday. "I'm just (eager) to hit somebody else, to go against somebody else. ... I'm looking forward to that environment. I know it's a preseason game, but still, it's an NFL game, an opportunity for me to showcase why they drafted me."

The pillow drill is where it started.

Television time turned into tackling time. His dad gave basic pointers like to keep his head up, a safety measure to reduce risk of spinal injury and paralysis, and implored him to tackle through his target. If Perryman did not tackle properly or hard enough, his dad wouldn't feign impact and playfully fall to the floor.

He had Perryman reset and try again.

"He used to tell me, 'Everything you touch, you knock it down,' " Perryman said. "That's always been my mindset. Whatever I touch gets knocked down. When I'm coming to make contact, I'm going 100 miles per hour, and I'm not slowing down. At all."

Desmond, 47, coached Perryman from age 6 to the start of high school.

He knew the coaches at Coral Gables High, so he was comfortable stepping back. Still, he remained closely involved, the two speaking after every game. Desmond has attended just about every one of Perryman's games from Pop Warner through college at Miami. Any one he had to miss, he'd watch on tape later so he could rehash plays with his son.

Perryman appreciates it.

Some childhood friends had a mother without an active father. For others, it was vice versa. He grew up with both, his father highly involved in what became his career.

"I guess I'm his worst critic because I critique everything," Desmond said. "I just think he should be perfect on the field. I don't tolerate half speed or taking plays off. The motto in our house is 'it's all out or nothing.' If you're not going to go all out, then don't even get on the field."

Desmond cannot attend every Chargers game.

The drive to see Perryman play Pop Warner or prep football was about 15 to 20 minutes. For college, the commute was about 30. Any trip to San Diego is far longer, and as commissioner of Pop Warner football in Coconut Grove, Fla., Desmond has other commitments.

But he'll be watching Thursday night.

And his presence will be felt.

"I'll hear my dad's voice in my head," Perryman said. "If I'm missing a tackle, he'll say, 'Come on, man. Get it together. Take the proper angle. Bend your knees. Stop lunging.' It's already registered in my head."

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