Perian Conerly: The original Backseat QB

Perian and Charlie Conerly, pictured here with Ethel and Bobby Kennedy.
Perian and Charlie Conerly (the couple on the right), pictured here with Ethel and Bobby Kennedy, at a party celebrating Charlie’s induction into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1966.

(Billy Watkins of The Clarion-Ledger has written splendidly in recent days about former female sports writers Sue Dabbs and Beth Wickenberg, both of whom were trailblazers as full-time sports writers for the Ledger. But did you know Perian Conerly, wife of the late, great Charlie Conerly, was the first member of the Football Writers Association of America? She was that and a lot more. Perian wrote a syndicated column that ran in Mississippi newspapers and also The New York Times. She also wrote a Doubleday-published, widely acclaimed book, Backseat Quarterback. I wrote about Perian Conerly in a May 23, 2002, column for The Clarion-Ledger, which follows.)

CLARKSDALE – Perian Conerly says she didn’t think of herself as a pioneer even though she most

Cleveland
Cleveland

certainly was one.

Long before there was a controversy about female sports writers in male locker rooms, Perian Conerly’s football columns were published in newspapers across the United States, including The New York Times.

This was many years before nearly every newspaper of any size has at least one – and sometimes several – women sports writers.

This was 44 years before Sally Jenkins, of the Washington Post was judged the best sports columnist in American newspapers in 2001.

Perian Conerly was pleased to learn that a woman had won such a prestigious award.

“I don’t know her, but I do know her daddy, Dan Jenkins,” Perian Conerly says. “He’s a wonderful writer. It must run in their blood.”

Writing apparently was in Perian Conerly’s blood, too. A Clarksdale native, she majored in English at then-Mississippi College for Women. She edited the school newspaper.

And she also fell in love with a certain quarterback who had returned from World War II to quarterback the Ole Miss Rebels.

In her book Backseat Quarterback, Perian would write, “I was immediately taken with his dark good looks and engaging shyness. And he had lean, low-slung lines peculiar to athletes and Cadillacs. I have always been partial to both.”

Perian Collier became Mrs. Charles Conerly. When Chunkin’ Charlie Conerly left Ole Miss to become quarterback of the New York Giants, she, of course, went with him.

Together, they were for years the toast of New York – he the ruggedly handsome quarterback and the original Marlboro man, she the Southern belle with movie star glamour and all that charm and wit.

For four months a year – September through December – they were New Yorkers. The off-season, they spent at home in Clarksdale where Perian still lives. (Charlie died in 1996.)

Writing home

The sports writing?

Funny how that happened.

“Back then, the NFL wasn’t nearly so big down here,” Perian says, smiling. “It wasn’t on TV much and it wasn’t big headlines in the newspapers like college football. A lot of people didn’t understand what we did for four months.”

So Perian approached the editor of The Clarksdale Press Register with the idea of writing a weekly column about life in New York during the football season.

The column was a hit. The Clarion-Ledger quickly picked it up. The column ran in the Clarksdale paper on Saturday and this newspaper on Sunday.

Somehow or another – and Perian isn’t sure how – John Wheeler of the North American Newspaper Alliance learned of the column and he was interested in publishing it on a much larger scale.

“I think mostly he was intrigued by the idea of a woman sports writer,” Perian says. “I mean, back then it was just unheard of.”

Outside sources

The columns Perian was writing back home to Mississippi didn’t really work on a national scale. But she knew she could write what Wheeler wanted – and she did. She started writing two columns a week, one for Mississippi readers and one that was syndicated nationally.

Her columns were published in newspapers across America, including The New York Times.

It won’t surprise anyone who knew him, but Charlie Conerly wasn’t the primary source for his wife’s columns. He was modest, a man of few words and none of them were ever about himself. No, she turned to his teammates, Pat Summerall, Kyle Rote, Frank Gifford and Don Heinrich as her primary sources of information and ideas.

Charlie, she says, was supportive, if somewhat amused with her journalistic pursuits.

“Much of my information comes from eavesdropping,” she wrote, “which frequently causes Charlie and his fellows to pause suddenly, shoot an apprehensive glance in my direction and chuckled half-seriously, “Peri, this is off the record, of course.”

The columns led to the book contract from Doubleday. Backseat Quarterback, a wife’s perspective of pro football, was roundly praised by critics.

“I didn’t get rich, but I made a lot of mad money,” Perian says. “Plus, I had a lot of fun.”

She remains a fount of stories, including one about that famous 1958 Baltimore Colts-New York Giants game, the one widely given credit for popularizing pro football on a national scale.

Old-timers will remember that Charlie Conerly led the Giants to a go-ahead touchdown late in the fourth quarter. About that time, the media voted Charlie Conerly the MVP. Then, Johnny Unitas led the Colts to a tying field goal and a winning touchdown in overtime.

Another MVP vote was taken. Unitas won. The prize was a sleek, new Corvette, which became Mrs. Unitas’ car.

“I always said she was driving my car,” Perian says.

A year later the Giants held Charlie Conerly Day at Yankee Stadium. Charlie got a Cadillac among many, many gifts; Perian got her Corvette.

A year later, Charlie retired from football, and Perian retired from writing about it.

She never interviewed naked men in a locker room; she says she never would.

“Heavens no,” she says.

On the other hand, she did sleep with the star quarterback.

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