Pearl Head Coach John Perry.
Photo by Robert Smith

Three weeks ago when Pearl’s Kenyatta Harrell suffered a season ending ACL injury in a game against district foe Petal, head coach John Perry’s focus was not on the loss of his team’s star running back or how the absence would be reflected on the scoreboard. Instead his thoughts turned to how the injury would affect the player and his teammates.

​“I hated it for him. I know how hard he has worked and I know what it means to him,” Perry said. “It really hurts me to know what he was going to go through without having (football) for the rest of the season.”

Once Perry was satisfied with Harrell’s condition, he turned his attention to the team of young men watching nervously from the sidelines. Thinking back to his high school playing days, the veteran coach recognized the anxiousness that was developing. He knew they needed reassurance and a gentle reminder that their season was not carried on the back of any one player. 

“My first thought was trying to get our team to realize and understand that football is the greatest team sport in America,” Perry said. “You can take one person off the team and if the team rallies together great things can happen. It is a team game.”

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The Pirates did exactly that pulling together in the second half to overcome a two touchdown deficit to send the game into overtime. They would eventually lose by one, but their resolve and grit is a direct reflection of the name on their chest and the essence of the #WeArePEARL motto found on yard signs and bumper stickers across the city. 

Pearl has a rich history of success between the lines. The program’s rise is traced back to the late 1970s when Doug Merchant accepted the position as its head coach. In his first year, the team went .500 after nearly a decade of losing seasons. The next year, the team would suffer only one loss. Merchant amassed a 64-24 record during his eight years leading the Pirates ushering in a new era for the now football powerhouse. In 1986, Doug’s brother and assistant coach, Bruce, assumed the head coaching responsibilities. The Hall of Fame coach led the football program for 12 years, guiding them to an 84-53 record and a Class 4A South State championship. The consistent success brought notoriety in the football world and high expectations. Friday night victory celebrations are not only common, but expected in Pearl. The school has only had one losing season in the last decade with the team finally capturing its first state championship in 2017. Winning is a Pirate tradition.

Pearl Quarterback Gunnar Dennis.
Photo by Robert Smith

No one understands the tradition and expectation more than Perry, a 1989 graduate of Pearl High School. He returned to Pearl after college in 1994 to work as an assistant under Bruce Merchant who he’d suited up for only a few years before. He remained with the program during Marcus Boyles two-year stay, eventually leaving to assist Boyles again at Wayne County before taking the reins of the Kosciusko Whippets. However, Pearl was home and so 12 years ago, he returned to his alma mater as the head coach. And although Perry’s chapter is still unfinished, it is just as storied as his predecessors. 

​“I know everybody takes pride in where they are and want to do a great job, but when it’s your home and your school you graduated from, it means a little bit more,” Perry said. “I think having great coaches, having a great community, having a great superintendent, school board and administration that gives you everything within their power for you to be successful helps too.”

The support is well-founded. Pearl is again poised for a run at a state title. With 30 returning seniors, many of which have been with the program since junior high, the 5-2 Pirates are one of the best teams in Class 6A. Pearl, which plays at George County Friday night, is averaging 251 yards rushing and 147 yards passing per game. The program is a warehouse of experience and talent. Harrell and teammate Davion Carter were selected to play in the Mississippi/Alabama All-Star Game. Junior Caleb Cadiere will suit up for the South in the Bernard Blackwell Classic All-Star Football Game in late December. 

Yet, even with that level of talent and experience, Perry’s goal for his team extends far beyond a championship on December 6. As much as he focuses on football, he recognizes that the influence he has brings a much deeper responsibility.

“Obviously the end result in that we want to play for the 6A state championship, but that’s not ever mentioned or talked about,” Perry said. “It’s not one of those things that we really worry about.  We just work hard to get 1% better every day. ”

Pearl Running back Kenyatta Harrell.
Photo by Robert Smith

​Perry’s idea of improvement extends beyond Friday night lights and into the everyday lives of the young men who have consistently given him their all. For the husband and father of two, pushing his players to be better young men is equally important to Perry. The Pearl community agrees. has proven that the motto so proudly displayed in yards across the city are more than words. Seventy-one male community members have volunteered for Pearl football’s mentorship program. The endeavor in its first year, boasts city and school district officials, business owners, U.S. Representatives, and citizens who meet each Thursday for dinner and a lesson on manhood. The focus is on the skills needed to be a productive adult. Perry believes the program is representative of everything that Pearl is and how deep the support of Pearl football is.

​“We say ‘We Are Pearl’ and we are Pearl. Whether it’s the mayor, the superintendent, the alderman or whoever, everyone is on the same page,” Perry said. “We are all in this thing together for Pearl to be better. It’s not necessarily about winning and losing. At the end of the day, we want to plant seeds in young folks that will one day come back and give back to Pearl.”​​​