"We were just trying to find a decent place to live," his mother says. "My kids, they saw everything: drug dealing, prostitution, fighting—husbands and wives fighting, cutting each other. It was terrible."
Burress and her husband, Perry Price, had five children—Peerless, his older brother, Diego (named after a character in the Zorro movies), and three younger sisters: Letitica, Annie and Sabre—but the couple divorced in 1995. According to Peerless, his mother was disciplined, religious, a teetotaler. It was she who took the children to church every Sunday and never let Peerless go outside to play until he had finished his homework. "The other children in the neighborhood, who maybe wouldn't see their mothers for a day or two because of all the crack cocaine that was going around, our house would be open to them, too," Burress says. At various times she worked at a school for the mentally handicapped, served as a substitute teacher, worked at drugstores. Before Christmas she would take on a second job so she would have enough money to buy presents for the children. "If we didn't get them on Christmas Day, then we got them on New Year's Day," Price says.
For Burress, education was the goal. "Peerless and Letitica, they were always A or B students," she says. When Peerless made his football debut in eighth grade—she talked him out of playing until then—she was surprised by his talent, stunned by how fast he ran. At Meadowdale High, Peerless made the SuperPrep All-America team as its 15th rated wide receiver in the country.
Football paid for his college education. "My mother always said she would find a way to put me through college, but I know she never could have afforded it," he says. Tennessee was famous for its wide receivers, and when Price arrived in Knoxville, his future was made all the brighter by the fact that the quarterback was a sophomore named Peyton Manning. As a freshman Price dashed from off the depth chart into the big nationally televised games of the Vols. "In sports I felt I had to prove myself because of my name," he says. "They say your name doesn't make a difference, but it really does."
His mother says he phoned home seven days a week, four or five times a day. In October of his freshman year, even as he caught passes in each of his first three games, he was still threatening to transfer to Ohio State to be closer to her. She and his first coach at Meadowdale, Pat Masters, persuaded him to stay at Tennessee.
Price played in every game as a sophomore, but on the last day of spring practice in 1997, a walk-on defensive back collided with Price on the goal line and shattered his right ankle. Within two hours he was undergoing surgery to repair a fractured fibula and two torn ligaments. It should have taken him eight or nine months to recover. He was back on the field in 4½. "Peerless would come in the morning and end up spending six to seven hours a day here," says head trainer Mike Rollo. "Basically he went through his rehab routine twice each day and cut his recovery time in half. He did as good a job as anyone I can remember." He started every game that year, Manning's final season.
His reward has been a kind of isolation. Fourteen players from last year's team were drafted or signed as free agents by NFL clubs this season. Price had expected to be among them. "I didn't think I would be here as a senior," he says. But he never fully regained his speed or confidence last year, averaging 14.5 yards on 48 catches. He chose to return for a final season and put himself at the mercy of the new quarterback, Martin, who had completed just eight passes in his two years at Tennessee.
Price spent last summer establishing a relationship with Martin, catching scores of passes from him daily. At the same time Price worked his ankle back into shape. He doubts that he is as fast as he was before the injury, but his coaches can't see the difference. "I'd see Peerless coming out of our indoor field, all sweaty, and I'd realize he had been running routes on the turf by himself," says Martin, who took the example to heart. "On Friday nights I would run on the track, me and [freshman wide receiver] Eric Parker. It would be three in the morning, and we'd be out there running, knowing everyone else was out partying."
Virtually all the starting players practiced together daily, without the coaches, in the brutal Tennessee heat. "We would go seven-on-seven against each other," Price says. "That summer taught me that this team can take constructive criticism, that team is the first concept—not me or I but team?
Price's leaping touchdown catch against Florida in September led the Vols to their first victory over the Gators in six years and helped to set Martin on his way. In October, with Alabama threatening a comeback, Price returned a kickoff 100 yards to keep the Tide at bay. In November, Tennessee was trailing Arkansas 21-3 when Price hauled in a bomb from Martin just before the half to begin a miraculous recovery.