College football feature flashback: Montana’s loss, NAU’s gain

This feature on two Montana-born linebackers appeared in the Arizona Daily Sun on Oct. 27, 2004.

Montana’s loss, NAU’s gain

By Ed Odeven

People said they were too small and too slow to play Division I football. Boy, were they wrong.

Northern Arizona seniors Vince Henman and John Perrigo have had a great impact on the Lumberjack defense — this season more than ever. An impact, one could equate, to the grand distance from their hometown of Laurel, Mont., to Flagstaff: 1,045 miles.

Injuries have reduced NAU’s depth and experience on defense. Henman and Perrigo are the lone returning senior starters save for safety Jeremy Thornburg. Even so, the Laurel natives have produced snap after snap, game after game.

Both seniors had exceptional outings last Saturday against the Portland State Vikings, a must-win game for the Jacks in their quest to remain a factor in the Big Sky Conference race. Henman finished with game highs of 12 tackles and three sacks and was graded out at 96 percent for the contest, while Perrigo had six tackles and two sacks. The duo combined for 4 1/2 tackles for a loss.

“You’ll find bigger bodies, you’ll find all the measurables that are faster and stronger, but I don’t know if are going to be able to find kids that are tougher than these two,” NAU coach Jerome Souers said.

But more than anything, both of them have an uncanny knowledge about what the other guy will do, how he’ll play. That comes from being buddies since elementary school, teammates since junior high.

“I think that that’s an example of synergy,” Lumberjack linebackers coach Greg Lees said of their playing style. “One plus one equals three. That’s John Perrigo and Vince Henman. That’s not two guys, that’s three guys.”

Well, those three guys, err, two, won’t need any fiery speeches to motivate them for NAU’s next two foes: Montana State and Montana.

“This is it for us,” Perrigo said. “It’s always nice to play the Montana schools. It’s a little extra added emotion.”

Especially after what occurred last season in Bozeman. The Jacks fell 21-17 to MSU, a game in which the Bobcats scored 14 points in the final 67 seconds.

“That was a hard game,” Perrigo said. “We’ve got to have some payback for that one.”

Payback is a driving force for what’ll happen in the next two weeks. Leadership and productivity, however, are the key ingredients for the Montana pals’ success.

“There’s just a presence about him,” NAU defensive line coach Bill Smith said of Perrigo. “He’s not a big rah-rah guy, but it’s still by example and the players really look to him to set the pace.”

Henman’s signature traits on the football field are strength and maturity.

“You can’t block him,” Souers said. “He doesn’t make mental mistakes.”

Long before they ever thought about what it’d be like to experience the rivalry with the Montana schools from afar, Henman and Perrigo had etched their names into the annals of sports history in the Treasure State. In 1999, they helped lead Laurel to the Class A state title, a 21-10 triumph over Hamilton. Perrigo was the defensive MVP of the championship game.

Henman rushed for a Montana prep record 4,669 yards, including 1,889 as a senior. He was a three-time all-state and all-conference selection at fullback and a two-time state champion wrestler. Yet the Henman name was not at the top of recruiting lists for the Montana schools.

Coming out of high school, Perrigo and Henman both wanted to play for either MSU or Montana, but neither received full-ride scholarship offers.

That’s when they took different paths: Perrigo to Flagstaff in 2000, Henman to the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado.

Perrigo’s brother-in-law, Josh Branen, happened to be a graduate assistant coach at NAU at the time. So he sent game film to the Lumberjacks. Then Souers’ staff contacted Perrigo, and he’s been a Lumberjack ever since.

“I thought this was my best opportunity to show what I had,” Perrigo said, adding that offers from NAIA schools were the best ones he received before coming to Flagstaff.

“It’s been great. I have no regrets,” Perrigo said of his days at NAU. “It’s something that I’ll remember for the rest of my life.”

Perrigo earned All-Big Sky honorable mention honors as a junior in 2003, starting every game for the second straight year and finishing with 7 1/2 sacks.

“I’ll tell you what, people missed the boat on him,” Smith said. “We were fortunate that he came our way. You’re looking at a guy that is one heck of a football player.”

Henman, meanwhile, spent two years at Air Force and played on the junior varsity football squad.

“I wasn’t ready for the military in my life at the time,” Henman admitted. “I think if you are going to be in the academy you’ve got to be all for the military and want to be in it and make it your life. At that time in my life, I wanted to play football and kind of enjoy college.

“I was better than I think they thought I was,” he said. “I kind of let Johnny know that I was going to transfer out.”

Which is precisely what happened. Henman arrived in Flagstaff as a walk-on in 2002.

“I don’t care where you come from, you’ve got to earn it,” Souers said, referring to scholarships.

Indeed, they’ve both earned them — and then some.

It could be first-and-10, on a game-opening drive, or fourth-and-goal from the 1, with 10 seconds to go. Either play, and all those in between, you know what you’ll get from Henman and Perrigo.

“We play with a lot of heart, good ol’ Montana boys. It’s what you gotta do,” Henman said. “You’re not necessarily the biggest, fastest and strongest, but we play with everything we’ve got.”

Indeed, they’ve come a long way since their days as energetic lads growing up in small-town Laurel.

“We didn’t have Pop Warner (teams). We had flag football,” Perrigo recalled.

“The first tackle football was in seventh grade,” Henman remembered.

Now, more than a thousand miles from home, Henman and Perrigo have strengthened the unbreakable bond that is their friendship. What does the future hold for them? They don’t know yet.

Perrigo plans to become a physical education teacher. Henman wants to become a private pilot and own a hunting/fishing lodge in Alaska.

In the meantime, they can reflect on their good times on and off the gridiron.

“It’s a great time. Me and Vince have been buddies since elementary school,” Perrigo said. “It’s just nice to have him around. We hang out all the time, go fishing, camping. Our girlfriends are really good friends and our families (too). There’s nothing more than I can ask for.”

Except for victories over Montana State and Montana the next two weeks.

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