It’s well after midnight, pitch-black somewhere on Interstate 10 in the Florida panhandle. A Greyhound bus that left Mobile, Alabama late the night before takes up most of the right lane on an expanse of highway that runs 2,460 miles from Jacksonville all the way to Santa Monica, California.
The seemingly never-ending stretch of pavement lined with trees on either side, which may be nice to look at, but not for the seven hours that it takes for a Greyhound to rumble from Mobile to Gainesville. So Lamical Perine did what any 16-year old would do when they’re trapped in a seat, next to someone hogging the armrest; he put his head against the window, forgetting that his mother had asked him to check in regularly and he fell asleep.
“I blew his phone up. I was terrified,” Sabrina Haywood, Lamical’s mother, told Gator Country. “Even with him here now I can’t go to sleep until he’s home and I know he’s safe. I didn’t get any sleep that night.”
This trip to Florida was important for Lamical. A month earlier the Theodore High School running back had dealt with rejection. The instate Auburn Tigers had come to see him and walked away telling him that he didn’t have the speed that they were looking for in a tailback. They essentially told him he wasn’t fast enough to play running back in the SEC. That he wasn’t their type. A hard pass.
At that point Perine only had a scholarship offer from one SEC school, Mississippi State. Florida was interested, but they hadn’t offered a scholarship. The Gators wanted Perine to workout at a camp, to see him in person, before they would offer.
The June camp in Gainesville presented one issue. Lamical’s mother Sabrina wouldn’t be able to go. That meant Lamical would have to go on his own for an overnight stay, something he had never done before.
“I felt like nobody is going to be able to watch him like I do,” Mrs. Haywood said. “Nobody is going to be able to take care of him like I do, feed him, you know just making sure he was taken care of.”
On top of that, there was no certainty that the trip would end with a scholarship offer. It was only a chance to show a school what kind of player he was. At the end of the weekend, Perine could have spent 14 hours on a bus, a bus t that he paid for out of his own pocket, only to have Florida tell him the same thing Auburn did. Perine didn’t look at it that way, he couldn’t. He wouldn’t have gotten on the bus in Mobile if he doubted himself.
“It wasn’t the best experience but I made it for what it was,” Perine said of the bus trip. “At the end of the day, I got what I wanted. I went to the camp, did good there and I got exposure, for real.”
The trip also served another purpose, a test that the Florida coaching staff didn’t even know it was taking. Sabrina and Lamical needed to trust the staff at Florida.
“Lamical had trust issues that came from his dad not being around,” Haywood said. “He doesn’t warm up to people as quickly.”
Terrance Perine wasn’t around for Lamical’s childhood. He’s Lamical’s biological father but Jimmie Haywood really filled that role. Terrance left when Sabrina was pregnant with Lamical and “Big Jimmie” (that’s how I was formally introduced to him) came into the picture.
“Me and my husband have actually been together since I was six months pregnant with Lamical,” Haywood said of Big Jimmie. “Lamical didn’t have a relationship with his actual father, a real relationship, until he got to high school.”
Big Jimmie was he one that took Lamical to the football fields starting when he was just four years old. It was Jimmie that instilled the work ethic into Lamical and helped mold him into the young man that he is today.
The Greyhound bus pulls into Gainesville, the sudden stop and blow from the exhaust waking Perine up. His phone littered with text messages and voicemail from his mother, but Sabrina’s son wasn’t the first one to let her know that he was safe. That first call of reassurance came from Florida.
“Once he went down on the bus and Florida kept in contact with us every step of the way, everything was just on point,” she said. “They kept in contact with me every step of the way, letting me know that he was being taken care of. That was big. No other school did that.”
The Florida Gators coaches put Sabrina’s mind at rest, assuring her that Lamical was in good hands that weekend. The rest of the weekend, the success or failure of the trip was on Perine’s shoulders. He worked out for the coaches and impressed them enough to earn a scholarship, something he always wanted.
Growing up in Alabama most people are born in Crimson Tide or Auburn Tiger diapers. Sabrina admits that Lamical grew up watching Alabama, but something was different about her boy.
“He never really wanted to go to the instate schools, his team is Alabama,” she said. “He liked Alabama all along but his heart, in his heart he was a Florida Gator.”
Florida offered Perine a scholarship on May 28th and he committed less than 24 hours later. To him, his mind was made up. He dreamed of wearing the Orange and Blue and playing in The Swamp, plus, one instate school had already said no thank you and the other hadn’t offered a scholarship, yet.
The Florida offer put Lamical’s name out there. “It was actually a crazy feeling,” Perine said. “I had a lot of schools coming after me when I got back.”
And then the offer that changed everything, the one that had social media in frenzy. The one team that, from an outside perspective, could change the game and make things interesting.
Nick Saban and Alabama extended a scholarship offer.
“Of course I was excited when I received the offer,” Perine said. “It’s a top five school, great program. Who wouldn’t want an Alabama offer?”
Florida was in a heavyweight fight now. Saban tends to get what he wants when it comes to recruiting. Saban and the Crimson Tide have finished with the No. 1 rated recruiting class six years running, and they badly wanted to keep Perine instate and away from the team they would square off against in the SEC Championship a month later.
“At the time I was thinking about it,” said Perine. “Florida came after me first but [the Alabama offer] had me kind of stressing.”
Ultimately Perine chose to stick it out with Florida. Why? The relationships and trust that he built with Tim Skipper, Drew Hughes and the rest of the Florida staff meant more to him than anything another school could offer.
It all started on a Greyhound bus, rumbling down a lonely stretch of I-10. A 16-year old kid determined enough to put himself out there, paying his own way and taking an overnight trip on his own because he believed in himself. The trust that was built that day and that weekend put Lamical and his mother at ease and there was nothing anybody, not even Nick Saban, could do to alter that feeling.
“It meant more to him to get the Florida offer than any other offer,” Haywood said. “That’s what he always wanted. He wanted to be a Florida Gator.”