ESKO, MINN. – Koi Perich got his first set of football pads and helmet as a Christmas gift when he was 5 years old. His parents also had a few pairs of boxing gloves they used for workouts, enabling young Koi to do some cross-training.
There, in the family living room, Koi and his brother Mason, 15 months older, created a new sport that could be called footbox. Dressed in full football gear with boxing gloves on their hands, they treated each other like tackling dummies while simultaneously throwing haymakers.
"They went full gladiator mode," said their dad, George, who watched from the couch. "I kind of liked it."
"Survival of the fittest in the Perich house," Danielle declared with a chuckle.
This is necessary context in getting to know the 18-year-old version of Koi, the freakishly athletic, supremely competitive three-sport star at Esko High who provided the Gophers football team a euphoric jolt when he recently honored his commitment to enroll next fall in his home-state program.
Perich is rated as a top-100 player nationally and the No. 3 safety overall, making him one of the highest-rated recruits in modern Gophers history. A host of blue-blood programs pursued him, including a fervent 11th-hour push by Ohio State.
If there was any doubt about those credentials for a kid from a northern Minnesota town with a population of 2,200, Perich erased them emphatically by earning MVP honors earlier this month at the All-American Bowl in San Antonio, which featured top players nationally. Perich's highlights included a diving interception in the end zone and a blocked punt. His performance might have surprised those in attendance or watching on TV, but not Perich himself.
"I think I'm one of the most athletic kids in the country," he said. "Not to be egotistical."
Hey, facts are facts. Perich's self-confidence is rooted in athleticism that bursts out of his 6-1, 200-pound body.
"I've just never seen a more explosive kid," Esko football coach Scott Arntson said. "It's not even another gear. It's something else."
Perich runs the 40-yard dash in 4.54 seconds and bench-presses 330 pounds. He started dunking a basketball in eighth grade and won a state title in the long jump as a sophomore.
He amassed 27 touchdowns in football as a senior in every way possible. He scored five defensive touchdowns, returned four punt/kickoff returns for touchdowns, rushed for 16 touchdowns, caught a touchdown pass and threw a touchdown pass.
Those who know him best agree on Perich's defining trait as an athlete.
"His competitiveness," his dad said.
"Definitely competitiveness," his brother said. "I remember me and him would throw fists over losing a game of 'NBA 2K.' "
Gophers coach P.J. Fleck got a clear view of that intense competitiveness while recruiting Perich, calling him "one of the most competitive high school players I've ever watched live."
Fleck saw something else when he watched Perich live. While returning an interception, Perich spotted Fleck standing on the sideline and pointed at him as he ran by him toward the end zone.
"If you're going to point at me, I'll take it, especially if you're going to stay committed to us," Fleck said. "That made it even better."
Perich family business is sports
The athleticism that powers this young athlete is a family tradition, passed from one Perich to the next. His grandfather Don competed in powerlifting competitions and still bench-pressed 405 pounds at age 71. Don, who turned 73 in early January, is hoping to hit that mark again after dipping to 385 last year.
Koi's aunt Gina scored enough points by herself for Esko High at the 1995 state track championships — three golds, one silver — to equal the runner-up team finisher. She became one of the top hurdlers in the country and a Miss Basketball finalist.
"People say she's a better athlete than me," Koi said.
His brother Mason is a wide receiver at Minnesota State Mankato. Their parents were star athletes at Valley City State, an NAIA school in North Dakota: Danielle an All-America in basketball and seven-time All-America in track and field, and George all-conference in football. Danielle's two siblings were college athletes as well.
Danielle joined George on a visit to Esko over Christmas after they started dating in college. She got the full Perich family experience.
"Just a typical Christmas," she said. "We have lunch and then we have the bench press competition."
George still felt a competitive itch after college, so he took up jujitsu competitively, thus altering the Christmas routine.
"Now instead of bench press," Danielle said, "we're fighting jujitsu in the basement on Christmas."
The family's competitive nature remained at full throttle when the two boys were born, which led to an occasional problem, such as the time the day care asked to talk to Danielle about young Mason.
"Mason had put one of the day-care kids in an arm bar," she said. She remembers thinking, "Maybe we should stop teaching them jujitsu until they know how to control it."
The Nerf hoop battles in the living room were so intense that the parents had to paint the ceiling many times to cover up scuff marks. "Nobody ever smashed their face on the fireplace," Danielle said.
No, but the boys did some damage on the athletic fields. Koi always played up two grade levels to be teammates with his brother, starting in second grade when he joined the tackle football team. He was a natural in every sport, combining advanced physical ability with a fierce competitive spirit.
People in Esko can recall specific individual highlights that left them amazed, but Perich also will offer that he fumbled in a playoff game as a sophomore and that still annoys him, before adding, "That's the last time I fumbled."
His football coach has a favorite moment too, but this one wasn't a jaw-dropping play. Perich desperately wanted one of his teammates to score a touchdown. He gave the kid direct instruction: Run behind me.
Perich made sure his friend got into the end zone.
"My favorite things are the things no one sees," Arntson said.
The attention on Perich swelled as he ascended to the top spot in the Minnesota recruiting rankings. His commitment to the Gophers appeared tenuous once Ohio State and Florida State made late, hard sells. Fleck refused to concede, going so far as to send a plane pulling a "Row The Boat" banner to Esko's playoff game in Brainerd. The plane circled the stadium for a half-hour.
"I looked up, and that was pretty cool," Perich said.
His parents gave him space to make his own college decision. That wasn't the case elsewhere.
"I don't know that he went anywhere without somebody sharing their opinion about what he should do," Danielle said, laughing. "There are a lot of strong opinions out there. How do you tune it out as an 18-year-old boy?"
Perich stuck with his commitment. His explanation: "Hopefully just setting a new thing for Minnesota, and hopefully we can turn this thing and become contenders."
He expects to play a major role in that. He hopes to play right away and become the program's next standout free safety. He operates at that position with a singular focus that embodies his athletic makeup.
"You've got to go make a play," he said.
Perich believes he can always make a play, and he's never afraid to try.