Perry Tuttle: Living With Purpose
I had the pleasure of interviewing former Clemson All-American and national champion Perry Tuttle. Tuttle was a first round draft pick in the 1982 NFL draft and played 10 years of professional football (NFL & CFL). Tuttle will always be remembered for his game-winning touchdown in the 1982 Orange Bowl where the Tigers defeated the Nebraska Cornhuskers for the National Championship. He remains the only Clemson athlete to ever appear on the cover of Sports Illustrated.
Tuttle is currently suffering from a condition that is causing him to go blind, but this diagnosis doesn’t stop him from living life to the full. Tuttle talks about his family and the responsibility of raising six children, his past financial hardships, his favorite moments from his time at Clemson and his current health condition.
Tuttle is a riveting storyteller and a talented football player, but most importantly an amazing person.
Talking about his current job:
About 75% of my time I am a dad and a husband, but when it comes to a career I am an author, speaker and chaplain for the Charlotte Bobcats. I also do some consulting as well.
Talking about his childhood:
I am the youngest of seven, and grew up right outside Winston Salem, NC. I don’t know if anyone has better brothers and sisters than I do. My mom, even to this day, is the closest thing I have to heaven. She used to pray all the time for me, especially after my high school football games, and I would hear her pray specifically for my future wife. I remember thinking, “I am not ever going to get married! Why would I get married?” But she prayed anyway and was just an incredible, Godly woman. My dad on the other hand, was in and out of trouble all the time, whether it was prison or just heavy drinking. The older I got the more I resented my dad. My first few years of little league football my mom would take me to Lexington State Prison and I used to sit on my dad’s lap after every game and I thought that was normal.
A reporter called me a while back and asked me, “What is your favorite memory of your greatest football game ever?” He was thinking that it was going to be the National Championship game where I scored the winning touchdown or my first game in the NFL with the Buffalo Bill’s, but it was actually in the 6th grade when my dad came home early from prison because of good behavior. He came home on a weekend and was able to come to one of my football games. I scored four touchdowns and just went off in that game because he was in the stands. It was incredible.
Impact of his father:
At the time, the last person I wanted to be was like my dad. He was rude, he was verbally abusive to my mom and he was generally inconsistent. I didn’t find out until I was in college that my dad was a great baseball player. I’ve always loved baseball and he never once threw a baseball with me. So with my kids, I always wanted to be the opposite of my dad. My dad came to know the Lord later on in his life and we had a close relationship after that, but up until then I didn’t want to be anything like my father.
For me, as a father of six, I want to finish well. My dad finished knowing the Lord but he didn’t finish well. I like to think of it as running a race where I want to cross the finish line and break the tape with a smile on my face. My dad limped across the finish line and I don’t want to live that way.
Talking about his brother, Eddie, and the impact of Eddie’s life:
When I was younger, we didn’t say Down syndrome, we said retarded. Eddie was someone who could communicate very little with most people outside of my mom and me because it was hard to understand him. Eddie was my best friend and was an incredible cheerleader. He came to all my games- from little league games to Clemson games to pro games- Eddie was there.
Eddie always protected me. He always laughed and expected a hug no matter who you were. Eddie taught me not to take life too seriously. He taught me what selflessness looked like because he was so unselfish. Eddie was my biggest cheerleader.
I remember the last day of Eddie’s life, my bride and I were at a Carolina Panther’s game and I got a call from my brother saying that Eddie was in the hospital. We left the game immediately and rushed up to a hospital in Winston Salem and I prayed the whole way that God would allow Eddie to be alive and awake when I got there. My parents were there, my brothers and sisters were there, and when I walked in the room Eddie and I were able to have a great conversation. I tried to explain to Eddie the relationship between God the Father and God the Son (Jesus). I said to Eddie, “Eddie, where is God?” Eddie is lying in his bed and pointed up towards the ceiling. I then said, “Eddie, where is Jesus?” And Eddie touched his heart. That day, the day Eddie died, is the same day that my dad gave his life to Christ.
I shared this with my children, and I’m not sure if it actually is going to happen this way, but the way I imagine it is when I finally get to heaven after I get a hug from Jesus, I will be looking over Jesus’ shoulder for Eddie because I know that he will be second in line. I know this isn’t biblical but it’s just the way I imagine it happening one day.
Talking about areas where he has wrestled with God:
As a kid, I could not fathom a loving God that would allow someone like my mom to walk through the hell she went through with my dad. I could not get my head around that.
Another big one was when I was playing professional football and I had everything I always wanted. I wasn’t cheap but I also didn’t live super extravagantly, and I wanted to do some things with my money but a guy who was supposed to help me stole every penny. I lost millions and that just rocked me.
As a father of six, I have struggled with coming to the reality of what the world says my kids should do and how they should live compared to what God says. My girls are being taught to hurry up and grow up- to dress up and mature as fast as possible. They are taught that if you are 14 years old you should dress like you are 25 and act like it too, but I want my girls to enjoy being young. On the other hand, the very thing that society is telling my girls to do which is to grow up and mature, my boys are told the opposite. My boys are told to go play video games and don’t grow up, don’t shake hands and don’t treat a young girl’s body with respect. My struggle is in trying to let them go and be who they are, but I also have a responsibility as their father. At times I feel like I am hovering, and I don’t want to hover. It’s hard to find that balance.
Talking about areas where he has seen God’s faithfulness:
I have seen God’s faithfulness in the way that He always provides. God’s provision even when I lost everything was just incredible. Two law firms told my bride and me to file bankruptcy, but a Christian man told us not to file bankruptcy and instead to pay off every creditor the hundreds of thousands of dollars that we didn’t have. We chose to honor God by not filing bankruptcy and decided to pay off every creditor. It took us 11 long years to pay off every penny. It was really hard but I learned a lot about how good God is and I grew up a lot. God became really, really big in my life because He was all that I had. It is hard for me to be around people who say that they believe in Christ but don’t trust in Him and take God at His word.
We all get anxious with things whether it be our career, our spouse, our kids, our financial situation, our health etc., but the thing that I have settled with is that God is God and He doesn’t have to make sense to me.
Talking more about how God used his financial struggles:
When I signed with the Buffalo Bills and I knew I was going to get millions one of the first things I wanted to do was to buy my mom a home. I was showing her this gorgeous house along with a real estate agent, my sports agent and my dad who was drunk. My mom, the real estate agent and my sports agent were downstairs while my dad and I were upstairs, and my dad says to me [referring to my sports agent], “Son, that man downstairs is a crook. Don’t you trust him.”
I said back to my dad, “Shut your mouth. You don’t even know what you’re talking about.”
God taught me later what it means to honor your parents even if your parents are not following Christ. My dad knew something that I didn’t and I wish I had listened. When my dad came to know Christ years later I asked him for his forgiveness for the way I responded in that situation and that is the one thing that made him cry.
Another thing I learned through that whole situation was transparency. I owed one creditor $86,000 and we would send a copy of our bank statement and generally $50 a month. My wife and I did that for years and sometimes it was more and sometimes it was less. Every creditor that I owed money to needed to get paid, so I would distribute the money that I made each month between each creditor.
I remember getting a call about three years into this whole deal from this one creditor who called me and was on speakerphone with the vice president and said, “We’ve gone after a lot of people who owe us money and you are different. Every month you send us not only a copy of your bank statement but you may send us $50 or you may send us $1,000. We’ve never met anyone like you and we are going to forgive your debt.” My wife was on the phone with me and we just stood there stunned at what God had done.
There are lessons that I have learned the hard way but I have also learned how to tell when people are lying. God has given me an ability to discern when people are hurting.
Talking about his book “What White People Want to Know About Black People but Are Afraid to Ask”
I was playing golf with some friends of mine and I was the only black guy in the group. My buddy used the term African-American and black in the same sentence, and I started making fun of him because he didn’t know whether to say black, African-American or colored. He then asked me, “Tutt- what do we say?”
I told those guys that they could ask me any question about the black community that they wanted to and I would try to answer their questions as we played golf. Those guys asked me every question that they could think of for the next few hours, and I thought it was interesting and they felt relieved.
Then I invited eight of my former teammates over for dinner and told them to think of any question they wanted to know about black people. We ate dinner and started talking at 6:30 p.m. and went well past midnight.
So I would walk into Starbucks and go up to white folks and start asking them questions about black people. I wrote this book with over 200 questions and narrowed it down to 75. I was just doing this for my friends and had no idea that this book was going to take me around the country.
As soon as the book was finished, John Boy and Billy, a national radio show syndicated in 30 states, called me and asked me to come on their show because they heard about my book. I went on their show and it was such a hit that first day that they had me on their show for two weeks in a row. Everything took off from there and I went to New York and Good Morning America, etc.
Favorite moment from Clemson:
Our coach was going to be fired after our last game in 1980. My senior year we went 12-0 but my junior year we were 5-5 at the time and knew were going to lose our coach. Our last game was against South Carolina- our fiercest rival and biggest game. Everyone knew Coach Ford was going to be fired and I was one of the captains of that team and didn’t know what we were going to do without our coach. We came out to warm-up in white uniforms but we went back to the locker room before the game started and see all these big boxes. Coach opened up the boxes and all the uniforms were completely orange. We all changed into these orange uniforms and went out and upset nationally ranked South Carolina that day. That was just the beginning.
Another story that I love to tell happened before the school year even started. Football players have to be on campus earlier than the rest of the student body to get ready for the season. We had a shuttle bus that would take us across campus to the dining hall, but three of my teammates and I missed the last shuttle bus so we had to walk across campus.
We start walking and we’re hungry and exhausted from 2-a-days, and it’s also the first day of freshmen orientation. We see this Japanese student standing in front of the library who looked confused and we figured that he was looking for Sikes Hall because that is where you do your registration. He walks up to us, three black guys, and very politely says, “Excuse me…excuse me, niggers. Can you tell me where Sikes Hall is?”
It was such a shock that all three of us fell down on the ground laughing because it was so funny. The way he said it was hilarious because he didn’t have a clue what he was saying and was as polite as he could be. It was obvious that he picked up that word from watching television and didn’t mean to be offensive. We were laughing so hard that we just lay there on the steps of the library and he finally just walked away without getting any direction. We couldn’t even get a word out because we were laughing so hard.
Anthony Rose, an executive at Duke Energy in Charlotte, was one of the guys with me that day. Every time we get together we talk about…”excuse me!”
Journey to the national championship- buying into the team:
At the beginning of the season we wrote “12-0, Orange Bowl, Nebraska” on the board in our locker room, and that is exactly what we did. We went 12-0, we went to the Orange Bowl and we played Nebraska.
If you think about how long a game lasts, it’s actually only eight to 10 minutes of playing time. We bought into the mindset that each guy must give all that they can for four seconds of play. In order to be a champion there are some shoulders you have to stand on. Coach Ford always talked about how you don’t just stand on your own trophies.
For me, Eddie was one of those shoulders I stood on, along with my 7th grade teacher and my 4th grade coach just to name a few. Another one of those shoulders was my teammate, Carl Martin. Every football team has a Rudy and Carl was a short, blonde-haired defensive back who knew that he wasn’t going to play on Saturday afternoons unless it was a blowout. Since Carl was a defensive back and I was a wide receiver, we got in a fight almost everyday in practice because he would hustle every single play and I hated guys who hustled every single play.
About 20 years ago, I was speaking at a convention and Carl Martin (who is now a pastor) introduced me. I didn’t know Carl’s story up until that day, and I wasn’t a Christian while I was in college but I knew that Carl was because he was heavily involved in FCA. When Carl introduced me he held up an old, gray t-shirt that read, “T.S. T.S. P.T. All-American”-that stood for Too Small, Too Slow, Perry Tuttle, All-American. He wore that t-shirt every single day under his practice pads for four years. Carl explained to the crowd that day that he wore that t-shirt because he decided that he was too small and too slow, but he was going to make Perry Tuttle an All-American. Carl dedicated all four years as a walk-on to make me better, and I never heard that story until 20 years later. That is how you buy-in to a team, when each person has their role but at the time I thought it was all about me. I thought I was good, but I learned later on that Carl Martin was so much better.
Sharing about his recent health condition:
Getting the news that I was going to go blind wasn’t an easy thing to hear. In fact, it was quite scary and still is scary that an eye surgeon told me that I would be completely blind in five years. I am going into my 7th surgery soon and this experience has not only been painful, but the reality is I have lost most of my sight in the left eye so the surgery is to try to save as much sight as possible in my right eye. This condition has taught me to be a better dad, to soak in as much as I can and to spend as much time as possible outside. When you’re faced with losing your sight, it forces you to see things that you never would have seen before.
About three years ago on a Sunday night, I asked my children if they had one dream that I could fulfill before it goes dark, what would it be? My oldest son wanted to spend time traveling with me for a whole month, my daughter who has an incredible voice wanted me to watch her sing live on a stage, another one of my daughters wanted me to see her walk down the aisle in a beautiful, white gown on her wedding day. Those are just a few of the things that my children said, but I know that I have a short window of time and I want to make the most of it because life is too fragile. I try not to worry about the future because God is God and He is in control.
Even though this has been extremely hard, God allows me to see things that I typically don’t see and has made me more intentional of the view. The pain of my eyes has forced me to live higher and to laugh and enjoy all life has to offer. The irony of it is that I don’t think I have ever been more afraid in my life, but I also don’t think I’ve ever been more intentional in what I’m doing and that is so much fun.