Oct. 22, 1999
This past summer we asked 28 former Clemson players, coaches, administrators and fans to select their top 25 Clemson football players of the 20th Century. All of the panel members have followed Clemson football for at least 20 years and some for over 50 years. A first place vote received 25 points, second-place vote 24 points, and so on.
Each home football program we will announce five new players, in descending order. Today we announce players 6-10.
#10 Michael Dean Perry (1984-87) There are two Perry’s in the top 10, both featured in our list announced today. When William Perry (see number 7) was a freshman and sophomore, Tiger fans in his hometown of Aiken, SC said, “If you think he is good, wait until you see his brother.” Clemson had the fifth best record in college football in the decade of the 1980s and the Perry brothers had as much to do with it as any two players.
From the time Michael Dean was a freshman, when he had 15 tackles for loss starting alongside his brother William, until his senior year when he was a first-team All-American and Outland Trophy finalist, Michael Dean was a leader. He concluded his career by leading the Tigers to a top 5 ranked defense and to a 10-2 overall record and ACC Championship in 1987. He was named ACC Player of the Year that season and concluded his career with conference records for tackles for loss (61) and quarterback sacks (28). Ironically, he both records were held by William and he broke the marks by just one in each area.
At the conclusion of his career, Perry’s height (6-1) was a questionmark among pro scouts, so he wasn’t drafted until the 50th selection of the 1988 draft. The previous 49 selections were mistakes, because Perry went on to a NFL career with the Cleveland Browns and Denver Broncos that might be considered the best ever among former tigers in the NFL. He was a six-time Pro Bowl selection, more than any other former Tiger. This fall Sporting News selected all-time teams for NFL franchises and Perry was chosen as one of the starting defensive linemen on the Cleveland Browns all-time team.
#9 Anthony Simmons (1995-97) Our ninth greatest Clemson player of the 20th century made an impact on the Clemson program from day one of his freshman year. It took about 10 days of preseason practice for Anthony Simmons to move into the starting lineup. By season’s end he was a third-team AP All-American and UPI National Freshman of the Year. He was the first defensive player in history to win that national award.
Simmons was a precocious linebacker who combined speed and power with a keen knowledge of the game. It is safe to say he had the finest (true, not red-shirt) freshman season in school history, regardless of position. Possibly regardless of sport. He posted 150 tackles that year to lead the team.
The rest of his career was just as stellar. He accumulated a school record 178 tackles in 1996 as a sophomore, again an All-America season for the native of Spartanburg, SC. He was a model of consistency throughout his career. He was Clemson’s leading tackler in 28 of the 36 games he played and had a streak of 17 straight games with at least one tackle for loss, another Clemson record. He concluded his career with 486 tackles, second in Clemson history. He went pro after his junior year or would have shattered Bubba Brown’s record had he returned.
Just the second ACC player in history to be named an AP All-American in three different seasons, Simmons was a first-round draft choice of the Seattle Seahawks in 1998 and is the starting inside linebacker for the club this year. There are many more honors ahead for Anthony Simmons.
#8 Levon Kirkland (1988-91) Levon Kirkland might rank as the most popular Clemson football player in recent history. A three-time All-ACC first team selection and two-time All-American, Kirkland was a mainstay of four straight seasons in which Clemson lost just two games. The Tigers were 39-8-1 in his four years, as he teamed with classmate and linebacker Ed McDaniel to make Clemson one of the most feared defenses in the NCAA.
Like Simmons, Kirkland was an impact player from his freshman year. When Clemson clinched the ACC Championship in 1988 at Maryland, Kirkland had one of the finest games of his career, collecting a career high 13 tackles, including three for loss, a sack and a caused fumble. In 1989 as a sophomore he was the MVP of the Gator Bowl victory over West Virginia as he chased Heisman Trophy candidate Major Harris all over the Jacksonville facility.
In 1990, Kirkland was a defensive demon of the only Clemson unit in history to lead the nation in total defense. Kirkland, a virtually unrecruited player out of high school, was a finalist for the Butkus Award, the only underclassman on the list. The 1991 defense, again with Kirkland leading the way, led the nation in rushing defense. Kirkland was a semifinalist for the Lombardi Award that year.
Kirkland concluded his career as one of just three Clemson players in history to be named first-team All-ACC. Like Michael Dean Perry, Kirkland was a second-round NFL draft choice who has gone on to a celebrated career. Two years ago he was a first-team All-Pro selection who started in the Pro Bowl. He also led the Steelers in tackles in the 1996 Super Bowl.
#7 William Perry (1981-84) While he patroled the middle of the Clemson defense from 1981-84, William Perry was perhaps the most feared defensive player in the South. Opposing defensive coordinators had to make special plans, sometimes triple teamming assignments for Clemson’s 320-pound anchor of the line.
Perry, who came to Clemson as a then unheard of 310-pound freshman, held legendary status at Clemson. All the stories you heard about “The Fridge” are all true. From the time he once blocked the opposing team’s punt by shoving the upback into the punter, to Perry Tuttle taking him to lunch at a McDonald’s and spending $22, Perry was a superhuman almost fictional character. He was also a sportswriter’s dream. “Even when I was little I was big,” said Perry, perhaps the Yogi Berra of Clemson football from an interview standpoint.
On the field, he was a three-time All-American, joining Anthony Simmons as the only Tigers who could make that claim. In 1984, he led the nation in tackles for loss with 27 and he tied the Clemson single season sack record with 10. He was a finalist for the Lombardi Award that season and was the ACC Player of the Year in 1984, the second defensive player in league history to win the honor.
In 1985, Perry was a first-round draft pick of the Chicago Bears. As a freshman at Clemson he started on the Tigers national Championship team. As a rookie in the NFL he started on the Bears Super Bowl Championship team, the first of his nine NFL seasons.
#6 Fred Cone (1948-50) The most unusual recruiting story on our list of top 25 greatest Clemson players of the century belongs to Fred Cone. In the summer of 1947, Coach Frank Howard was informed by his sister, who lived in Mississippi, that there was a terrific athlete related to her next door neighbor. When Howard turned in the names of his scholarship players for the fall of 1947, he had one spot left, so he added Fred Cone to the list, sight unseen.
Had he wanted to watch Cone play high school football he could not have done it. Cone did not play football in high school. Howard’s sister was simply impressed with is athletic ability diving into the neighbor’s pool.
By his sophomore year, 1948, Cone was leading the Tigers to an undefeated season, Clemson’s first perfect year since 1900. Cone had 635 yards rushing and seven TDs, leading Clemson to the Gator Bowl, where Clemson downed Missouri 24-23. His second-effort run on fourth-and-three for a first down in the final minutes allowed Clemson to run out the clock and claim the landmark victory.
Two years later, Cone was leading Clemson to another undefeated season and he garnered first-team All-Southern honors. He scored 15 touchdowns and gained 845 yards in 1950 and concluded his career with 31 touchdowns, a record. After his Hall of Fame career at Clemson, Cone went on to a Hall of Fame career with the Green Bay Packers. He led the NFL in field goals in 1955.
In 1997 he was inducted into the Clemson Ring of Honor, a distinction he richly deserves. Not bad for someone who never played high school football.
June 17, 2021