The sun was high and the Alabama heat was oppressive, but the breeze that flowed through the passenger seat window of his uncle’s pickup truck, was enough for Khurtiss Perry.
The chubby six-year-old and his uncle Jermaine Perry, better known to him as Uncle Judy, were going on a free-ride through the back roads of Bullock County, Alabama. He didn’t know where they were going — Jermaine never told him — but that was fine with him because he loved spending time with his uncle.
His dad spent a lot of time out of state for work, so Uncle Judy was another father-figure while his dad was gone.
As the drive continued, the pair came up on two large hills on the side of the road. As they were about to pass, his uncle stopped the truck.
“Get out,” Jermaine said. “I want you to run this hill. If you want me to train you, run up that hill.”
This was an odd request, but Khurtiss didn't flinch. He opened the door, slid out and began to run.
"My uncle always stayed on me," said Khurtiss, now a four-star defensive lineman in the Class of 2022 for Park Crossing High School. "He pushed me to workout every day and that kept me motivated."
But this was his first time training, and as far as being an athlete or even capable of running up a hill that rivaled more of mountain, he was a novice. But that nor the heat stopped Khurtiss from trying. He knew what he wanted.
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'If you work, you eat'
Growing up in Bullock County’s Union Springs, there are “four or five gas stations, probably two grocery stores, a McDonald's and a Subway,” as Khurtiss describes it, and not much else in a town where the population hovers around 3,500.
It’s a small community with limited resources, but the town is rich in love and community, said Kristy Hurts, Khurtiss’ mom.
“Where I come from we never really had anything,” Khurtiss said. “So, all I knew is: If you work, you eat.”
This is what put Khurtiss on that hill in 2009, and what drives him to this day. The idea that he can’t do something — the thought he could become a victim to limited resources and opportunity — bothers him. This is something Jermaine recognized early on, and he’s used it to impel Khurtiss.
On many nights, Jermaine would ride past Khurtiss’ house, in that same pickup, just to check on his nephew. As he approached the house, he would see Khurtiss outside in the front yard shooting on a basketball goal by himself.
The purr of the engine would grow louder as Jermaine neared and he said Khurtiss would snap to attention, a smile would crack across his face and his eyes would glow with the warmth of the sun setting behind him.
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Whenever Uncle Judy showed up he’d greet a young Khurtiss with a new challenge. “Bet, you can’t run to that stop sign down the street and back without stopping,” Jermaine would say. “If you do it, I’m going to give you $20.”
The money didn’t matter. Khurtiss wanted to show Jermaine he could do it. He took off, but couldn’t finish. Two days later he called his uncle back and he crushed it. He proved it to him.
The challenges continued to grow in difficulty every time his uncle came around, but Khurtiss never bowed.
“I called him my ‘Big Show,’ ” Jermaine said. “Because every time I told him he couldn't do something, he showed me. And he worked. This is a kid that works. I cannot believe sometimes how hard he works.”
That work has come to a head. A season ago, Khurtiss was first-team Class 6A All-State and a Mr. Alabama finalist, posting 25 tackles for loss and eight sacks. And on July 14, he was named to MaxPreps 2020 Preseason All-American Junior team.
As a child, Khurtiss grew up under the roof of a proverbial "praying grandmother," with his mom, sister and church as his underpinning.
“Lord, let me turn my dreams into reality,” Khurtiss would pray. His grandmother taught him that prayer was always the answer and that faith made things easier.
“We told him you have to have God,” his mother said. “Because with God everything is possible, without him nothing is. So we made sure Khurtiss went to church ... and we prayed together.”
“Lowfield Baptist,” Khurtiss recalls with a smile. He was there at least two days a week for countless hours: Sunday school in the morning, followed by two church services later that morning, which ran deep into the afternoon. Then, of course, service on Wednesday night.
He didn’t always like it, like any kid his age, but he said he sees the fruit of it now. It built discipline and taught him the value of hope — all of which he could apply to his athletic pursuits and beyond.
“He’s always thanking God,” Jermaine continued. “Because he knows how easy it’s coming to him. It’s easy! It ain’t hard for him! It’s coming easy because he’s been putting in that work and he’s praising God. He knows it’s Him.”
Khurtiss wants to be a minister when his football career comes to a close, he told his uncle a few years back. He attributes that desire to his upbringing.
The two have watched film on Reggie White, the NFL Hall of Fame defensive lineman known as the Minister of Defense. Jermaine says Khurtiss reminds him of White both on and off the field.
“I feel like God’s plan is going to continue to hold,” Khurtiss said. “We have nothing but time. There’s no excuse. There’s a lot of work and money to be made.”
The earliest football memories are as vivid today for Khurtiss as he sits inside MADhouse Training’s facility.
Dominating youth football with the Bullock County Hornets. Opposing coaches stopping him after the game to recruit him or running to his mom so they could pitch her as well.
And of course, the hill.
Khurtiss had asked Uncle Judy: "Will you teach me how to play football?"
Jermaine’s response was yes, but with a simple condition: He had to promise that he would work hard at all times and be dedicated to his development.
"He just saw it in me,"Khurtis said. "I remember five, six-years-old and he'd make me workout with older kids and older grown people: running miles, running across the town, getting better each and every day."
Halfway up that hill in 2009, Khurtiss' legs began to cramp and seize. The air became thick — as if he was inhaling molasses with every breath. There was no relief; rather the air stuck heavy to his lungs and passed through the rest of his body slowly and painfully.
Khurtiss was slipping, inches away from giving into the pain, but the familiar rev of an engine followed by the steady hum of a motor adjusting to the terrain grabbed his attention.
It was Uncle Judy, driving up the hill beside him — head out of the window encouraging him. “Keep going! Don’t quit!”
Reprinted with permission from the Montgomery Advertiser and Andre.