It all started when he was about 12 years old.
That’s when Samaje Perine’s mom, Gloria, bought him his first set of dumbbells. They were 25 pounds. Samaje immediately began working out with them, doing basic stuff—Curls, Bench Press, etc. It didn’t take long before he realized he was going to need some heavier dumbbells. But he didn’t want to ask his mom for a new pair when she had just bought him the 25s. Instead, Samaje found two bricks, duct taped them to the dumbbells, and began working out like that. “We had some old bricks left over from when the house was built. I just said, ‘why not?’ I found some duct tape and went from there,” Perine told STACK.
It’s a fitting origin story for the kid who would eventually become one of the strongest players in college football history. Perine is a running back built like a UPS truck, and his weight room exploits at the University of Oklahoma are the stuff of legend.
“You put him in a weight room and he looks like he’s in the world lifting championships. He’s a freak,” former Oklahoma quarterback Baker Mayfield told SoonerSports.com.
He’s not just a workout warrior, either. Perine leaves OU as the program’s all-time rushing yardage leader. His 4,122 career rushing yards rank ahead of Sooner greats like Adrian Peterson and Billy Sims (who won the Heisman Trophy in 1978). But for all the incredible things he’s capable of in the weight room and on the football field, you won’t hear Perine say one word about it himself. He’s as humble as they come. Another fun fact? He’s watched one televised football game in the last five years.
We caught up with Perine at Proactive Sports Performance, where he trained ahead of the NFL Combine and his Pro Day, to get the lowdown on one of the most intriguing prospects in the 2017 NFL Draft.
STACK: How’d you first get introduced to football?
Samaje Perine: I remember seeing a flyer for little league football sign-up, and I told my mom I wanted to do it. She didn’t think I was interested because I didn’t used to watch it, but she said, “sure, why not.” I thought it would be fun. I just went out there to see what it was all about. Because in Alabama, I didn’t play sports [Perine spent part of his childhood in Jackson, Alabama before moving to Pflugerville, Texas]. I played the drums, actually. But I thought it would be fun, and then I fell in love with it.
Was there a moment early on that made you think football could take you far?
That’s hard, because I really don’t like talking about myself. I don’t look at things and say, “wow, I could really do something with this.” I just take it all in stride. Whatever happens after that happens. I never really thought about a play or a game or a season where I went “wow, I’m one of the best running backs ever.” That never crossed my mind, and it probably never will. I just go out and do what I have to do for my teammates to get the win and whatever happens happens.
Did you grow up wanting to model yourself after any great running backs?
The funny thing is, I don’t watch sports. Never have. Never got into it. I’ve seen running backs run—Adrian Peterson, Marshawn Lynch. I’ve seen them and told myself I wanted to mimic that. But I’ve only seen highlights, I’ve never really sat down and watched any full football game. The first full football game I watched in like five years was the Super Bowl this year. It was a great game, but I don’t watch sports in general. I love movies. When I’m watching TV, I’m either watching Animal Planet or COPS.
What was your favorite high school game?
If I had to choose a favorite high school game, it was when we first played Pflugerville High. They were our crosstown rivals. They were always one class above us; we were 4A and they were 5A. But once they did the rezoning, we both were 5A. We played for the first time and we beat them 32-7 [Perine rushed for 226 yards and three touchdowns in the game].
You had knee surgery in high school that altered the way you run. In what way did that injury change your running style?
After my surgery, I really just started running lower. I wasn’t focused solely on that. But people started telling me I had a very low center of gravity. I thought I wasn’t doing anything different, but when you look back at the tape—from before it happened to after—you can really see a difference in my pad level. It wasn’t a conscious decision, but it just happened so I can protect myself a little more.
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You got into weightlifting pretty seriously fairly early on. What inspired that?
It was around my freshman year that I really started lifting weights. It sounds weird, but I really liked the sound. We had metal plates. So the sound of heavy weights clanging off each other, it was addicting to me. I just never stopped and now I’m addicted. At first I didn’t have a teacher to teach me how to work out, so I just knew of Curls, Dumbbell Bench and Push-Ups, that was all I knew. That’s where I started, and once I got a little more serious about football, I went to Core Speed Gym. Carlos Vega, he really taught me how to work out and what muscles to work out for whatever you’re trying to do. I just went from there, and whenever I go home I always try to get in a couple of workouts with him, because he’s really good.
You’re very close with your mother. What’s your relationship like with her?
My relationship with my mom is great. I don’t know if this is a good thing or a bad thing, but she acts more like my big sister than anything. It’s great, because I don’t really do anything, so we’ve never had really any hard moments. I really don’t know where I’d be without her, because she’s played such a big role in my life. I look up to her in many ways; she’s a strong role model. Then my stepdad as well, two strong role models. I pretty much had the perfect childhood.
You’ve been praised for being mature for your age, dating back to your teenage years. To what do you attribute that?
I feel like my maturity just came naturally to me. I was never one to act out or be the center of attention, I was always quiet, I was always reserved. But it just led to the maturity I have now. There was nothing special anyone did in my life; it was in my personality the whole time. But once I really grew into it, I took that step forward and now here I am.
You had fast success at Oklahoma, rushing for 1,713 yards and 21 touchdowns in your freshman season. To what do you attribute that quick success?
I would just say things fell into place. We had some great backs there—Keith Ford, Alex Ross, Daniel Brooks. When Keith Ford went down, it was just next guy up. Fortunately, I was that guy. I just took it in stride and never looked back.
Was there a game at Oklahoma that you look back on and say, “Wow, that was epic.” Just a battle where you came out victorious, but it took everything you had?
I feel like the Texas game this past year was a game that you look back on and say, “Wow, that was a great game.” It seemed like we were going back and forth the whole day. When you look back at the film, it really was. It was two titans clashing together. It was a fun game. That environment is just fantastic to play in, so it made it that much better. That was probably one of the best games I played in my entire career at OU [Perine rushed for 214 yards and two touchdowns in Oklahoma’s 45-40 win].
You’re here at Proactive Sports Performance training for the NFL Combine and your Pro Day. What’s the experience been like so far?
This experience at Proactive has been great. It’s different from what I’m used to. Back at OU, heavy lifting, heavy, heavy, heavy. This stuff, it’s more technical. It doesn’t break the body down as much. It gives you time to recover. It’s very different, but very awesome. The coaches really know what they’re talking about, and they try to fine-tune you and get your body in the best shape it can possibly be in. I’m really blessed and honored to be working with them.
What are the biggest improvements you’ve seen?
I feel like the biggest improvement I’ve seen is my agility. I was always known as a downhill runner—doesn’t make too many cuts, doesn’t try to make too many people miss. I’m still going to be that at the next level, but working with these coaches, they’ve really improved my footwork and how light I am on my feet. That’s going to be really beneficial. You try to save your body, not take so many hits, because everyone’s 260-plus on the defensive side in the NFL, interior wise. So having that aspect, it prolongs your career.
How competitive are you with the guys you’re training with?
Coming into something like this, you never know what to expect. You have people coming in from all different sized schools all over the country. But this group has really gelled and become like a family. That’s one of the things that my agent told me, that when you come here, it’s like a family. People gel together really well. Over the few weeks I’ve been here, I’ve seen that. And the bond is only getting stronger. But it’s a very competitive atmosphere, it’s all fun. We’re all here for the same goals, so we compete but we have fun with it.
Speaking of competition, we watched you guys have a Keiser Air Squat contest where you saw who could produce the most power. How’d that turn out?
We had no idea that was going to happen. We’ve done those competitions before, but never with twice our own body weight. [The Keiser machine] shows peak power and the power you’re putting out. I’ve been known as a strong guy. I came in second behind [Auburn defensive tackle] Montravius Adams. He’s very big and very powerful. So I’m not mad at that. We all try to compete and get first but it’s all fun.
Proactive places a lot of emphasis on nutrition. Is that something you’ve always prioritized?
No ([laughs]. If I’m being honest, not really. I really only started paying attention to nutrition once I got to OU. Throughout high school, I ate whatever I wanted. I didn’t really care. I stayed at around 238 pounds by my junior and senior year. I was just trying to get as big as possible by eating whatever, whenever, wherever. But once I got to OU, I realized how much nutrition plays into everything. So I bought into it then, and it’s been a smooth transition from there to here. I tried cauliflower once when I was in high school, and I threw up. But the chef here, she puts some kind of seasoning on it, and it tastes great. All of her broccoli tastes amazing, I don’t know how she does it. I’ve never been a big broccoli fan, [but] now I eat broccoli every time I see it. I’m going to be highly disappointed when I leave here because I’m not going to have that broccoli anymore.
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Have you thought at all about how close you are to making your NFL dream a reality?
I’m taking it all in stride, and I know that this is a very big moment and it’s your dreams coming true every day. But you can’t really wrap your head around all that stuff too much, because at the end of the day, you have to prepare yourself for what’s coming. Now you’re getting paid—this is your job. So you have to take it very serious. For me, I feel like letting myself get distracted in what’s really happening, I deviate from what I have to be doing here. And what I have to be doing is training and preparing myself to be the best that I can be. So I haven’t really thought about it yet, but once it happens, once I’m on a team, it’s going to hit me. But by then, it’s going to be too late. Because I’m going to be preparing for my first season. So nothing is ever going to really hit me until I’m done playing football, and that’s what I’ve always been doing. People at OU would ask me if it had hit me that I was the all-time leading rusher in Oklahoma history, and no. I really hadn’t had time to think about it. It’s kinda the same thing. I really just take it all in and keep going.
How will you feel when your name finally does get called? Who will you be with?
I’ll probably be in Austin for draft day with my family that lives in Texas. I haven’t thought about how I’ll feel when my name gets called. I feel like it’ll just be a tiny step above committing to a school. That was a very unemotional deal, for me at least, because I didn’t make a big presentation about it. I was sitting in front of my computer actually. I was like, “I think I’m going to go to the University of Oklahoma.” Then I called [Oklahoma head coach] Bob Stoops and [Oklahoma assistant head coach] Cale Gundy and told them. That was that. I didn’t really have a big presentation for it. The draft is going to be a very big accomplishment, but I’m not very emotional anyways. It’s hard to say right now, but I don’t see any big emotions coming out. I’m just going to be ready and prepared for whoever calls my name.
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If you could give one piece of advice to high school athletes, what would it be?
I’m horrible at giving advice [laughs]. Definitely keep your grades up. Because you may not think about it, but people look at that and if you’re just trying to get a 2.0 or 2.5 just to stay eligible, colleges are going to see that and not want you because you’re not reliable. Because if you miss one test or something drops your grade, suddenly you’re ineligible. So stay on top of your grades. It makes life so much easier, it’s one less thing you have to worry about.