The Virginian-Pilot
                             THE VIRGINIAN-PILOT 
              Copyright (c) 1996, Landmark Communications, Inc.

DATE: Saturday, January 27, 1996             TAG: 9601270130
SECTION: SPORTS                   PAGE: C1   EDITION: FINAL 
                                             LENGTH: Long  :  122 lines


Darren Perry's strength is in his hands.

At Deep Creek High School, he played quarterback and running back, threw for 23 touchdowns and 2,790 yards. Moved to defense, he graduated from Penn State as the school's second all-time leading interceptor with 15. And, as a largely unheralded rookie with the Pittsburgh Steelers in 1992, Perry picked off six passes, becoming the first rookie to lead Steeler interceptors since 1955.

His blossoming reputation is as the team's second-most surehanded pickoff artist, a half-step behind star Rod Woodson. In 65 pro games, Perry has intercepted 21 passes, all the evidence opposing teams need to aim most of their passes in a different direction.

So it was only natural than when Perry decided he wanted to give something back for all he's been able to earn and achieve, that act would involve his hands.

And that's how the ``Intercept for Care'' program began. Before the start of this season, Perry agreed that he would donate $500 for every interception he made to Chesapeake Care, a program in which doctors, nurses, dentists and volunteers donate their time and services - even surgery - to people in CHesapeake who have little or no insurance. Founded in 1992, the free clinic has seen more than 8,800 patients and saved the community more than $400,000.

Not only did Perry pledge his personal support, he helped round up sponsors who also would contribute each time Perry pilfered a pass. Currently, each Perry interception is worth $2,500, with offers still being accepted.

It's hardly the season Perry, the Steelers' starting free safety, would choose to develop even the slightest case of butterfingers. But it's happened.

``It's so funny. As soon as we went through with this thing, I've had more balls on my hands that I let slip off than I could ever imagine,'' he said. ``People have told me, `Hey, don't you want to give money to Intercept for Care? I've never seen you let so many slip off your hands.' I don't know what it is.''

Perry has four interceptions and Chesapeake Care has benefited by $10,000. The deal remains in effect for Sunday's Super Bowl XXX game against the Dallas Cowboys. Perry, no pun intended, says he'll ``have his hands full'' against the potent Cowboys offense. Much of the time, he figures to square off against Dallas tight end Jay Novacek, though there will be times he'll help double-cover Michael Irvin, or perhaps try to run stride for stride with Deion Sanders.

``We have some special coverages we've put in to try and take Irvin away, but Novacek is the guy we have to make sure doesn't get any big plays against us,'' Perry said. ``The thing that makes him so difficult to cover is that he's so awkward. He doesn't look pretty running his routes and he kind of looks unathletic. You can't get a good read on him. He's not that fast, not going to run away from you, but time and again you see him get away from defensive backs to make plays.''

Novacek and Irvin are but two of a dozen reasons oddsmakers call the Cowboys a 14-point favorite Sunday. There's a part of Perry - call it the practical side - that understands their logic. There's another side that's hurt and upset at America's rejection of his team.

``There's no question we've been overlooked, but I think until an AFC team steps up and wins the Super Bowl in a dominating fashion, we're going to continue to have that knock against us,'' he said. ``But I also think we match up well against the Cowboys. You talk to most people and they'll tell you we play as close a style as there is to an NFC team. They talk about that conference being tough, how they run the football, how they play great defense, how they throw the football as well. . . I think we do all those things.

``I don't know if it's because people look at our record and say we haven't beaten anybody, but we played the teams from the so-called Black and Blue Division - the Bears, the Packers. I don't know what they're looking at. I think this football team is a lot better than last year, mainly because of our offense. Normally, we wouldn't win games 28-21 or 35-31. This year we do. I think that's going to make for an even more interesting matchup against the Cowboys.''

All last week, Perry says, he sought advice from players and coaches who have been to previous Super Bowls. How to handle the media? How to keep focused on the practice drills necessary to maximize the chances for success? How to keep your emotions from becoming a detriment on game day?

``I was talking with (Steelers nickel back) Alvoid Mays (an ex-Redskin) and he talked about how Art Monk and Monte Coleman were so pumped up before the game, but somehow able to use that constructively,'' Perry said. ``He said a big key is being able to come down from that high and get yourself ready to play a game. It's great to have all that emotion and energy, but if it's not channeled in the right direction, it can lead to something disastrous.''

That's one reason Perry hopes the Cowboys win the toss Sunday and take the ball first.

``I'd like to be out there and get that first hit over, not watching from the sidelines,'' he admits.

But Perry also acknowledges that if the Steelers are to have any chance of winning, he must spend more time on the sidelines than the competitor in him would like. Pittsburgh's offense must keep the ball moving, out of Dallas' hands.

``The big key is stopping their running game,'' he said. ``Emmitt Smith, he'll turn the ball over. You've got to create some of those. You make the big play. You take Michael Irvin away and you make Novacek and Kevin Williams and those guys beat you. Not their horses.''

And if Perry could negate Novacek, the Steelers would feel even better. It's not the most difficult assignment he's had in his athletic career, just the most important.

``All the success I had in high school and college, nothing compares with this,'' he said. ``This is the ultimate. You really have to be mature, keep things in perspective, not get caught up in all the hoopla. You've got to remember that none of this is going to be worth anything if you don't go out and take care of business.''

And if he could intercept a pass or two, raise some money for charity while raising his game to a new plateau?

``That would be great, give Chesapeake a shot at some exposure,'' he said. ``You're talking dream material there.'' MEMO: For information on Intercept for Care, contact Tracy Clymer at (804)

547-8121, ext. 1389. The number for the Chesapeake Care Free Clinic is


ILLUSTRATION: Color photo by Akron Beacon-Journal File photo

by CNB