Heart Of A Champion

In the 1995 NBA Playoffs, the Houston Rockets entered as a 6th seed, not expected to go very far. Led by Hakeem Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler, the Rockets overcame obstacle after obstacle, and swept the Orlando Magic, led by Shaquille O’Neal and Afernee “Penny” Hardaway in four straight games. In a post game interview, Rockets coach Rudy Tomjanovich had one of the most profound quotes that I’ve ever heard in discussing what drove his team:

Never Underestimate the heart of a champion.”

That phrase sums up the character and career of Luis Perez perfectly After a stellar career at Texas A&M-Commerce that ensured his place among the greatest of the legends to wear the blue and gold, Perez was primed to have a real opportunity make his mark in the professional ranks.

Life, it has been said, is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans. That is true for every one of us. Despite being a winner at every stop, Perez just never seemed to be able to catch on. Despite having chances with the Rams, Eagles, and Detroit Lions, for some unknown reason, he was just never able to catch on, despite numerous coaches and front office personnel having nothing but glowing recommendations for him. Was it a lack of talent that we as fan couldn’t see? a numbers game? was it the level of competition that Perez faced in Division II? That answer has never truly revealed itself.

Undaunted, Perez continued to work and prepare for the next opportunity, all the while welcoming his first child, a daughter. It’s a tough business to balance work and family when there’s such a small window of opportunity, but Luis managed it. And managed it well.

That next opportunity came in the form of the startup Association of American Football with the Birmingham Iron. Despite being hounded by Birmingham fans who were howling for the local alum from the University of Alabama to start, Perez made the position his own, and the Iron began to win. That is, until league folded just over halfway through the regular season. In what certainly had to be a heartbreaking situation, Luis’s demeanor never changed. He just went back to the lab, and kept preparing.

Then in the spring of 2020, along comes WWE Chairman Vince McMahon and his reincarnation of the XFL. This time, with more of a focus on serious football instead of a sideshow, the XFL had some name talent, and some, like Perez, looking for a chance to develop. He landed on the roster of the New York Guardians, in the spotlight of Manhattan.

And, just like he’s always done, Luis walked in and took over, this time beating out another quarterback from Penn State. The Guardians responded, and began to win. To quote offensive line coach Ronnie Vinklarek, “We loved him. the whole team just loved him.” Then, just when the Guardians seemed to be ready to make a playoff push, COVID 19, shut down the XFL, along with the rest of the nation.

Which brings us to yesterday. Perez found a home in The Spring League, a developmental league for players like Luis, who just never seemed to find the right fit. Despite playing only the first half in Head Coach Kevin Gilbride’s quarterback rotation, Perez made things happen. He made them happen well enough to get the Jousters to the Mega Bowl, the league championship game. The game was played in Rice Stadium in Houston, and for the first time, fans were allowed inside to watch.

I was fortunate enough to be able to secure a VIP sideline pass, and for the first time seeing a professional game that close up, and there were definitely some things I learned. There are designed plays for EVERYTHING. Constant teaching and coaching. And the language….well, let’s say it is colorful. Very colorful.

In the first half, Perez came out, and like he’s always done, just made good thing happen. Great decisions. Precise accuracy. Rallied his team around him. At the end of the first half, he had passed for two touchdowns, and the Jousters held a 14-9 halftime lead. In the second half, despite scoring on the first play with the other half of the rotating quarterback duo Derek Anderson, the Jousters found themselves behind, 26-23, with 58 seconds left and two timeouts.

Enter Luis Perez to attempt to lead a last second rally. Remaining calm and clear, Perez drove the Jousters downfield, converting a fourth down play, and was in position to at least tie the game with the ball on the Linemen’s 40, with 22 seconds, and a timeout left. Perez brought the team to the line, got the ball snapped, dropped back, and fired a perfect seam route to a well covered receiver.

Except the storybook ending that was to be, wasn’t. In the struggle, the Linemen’s defensive back came down with the ball, the play was ruled an interception, and it was over. For one of the few times in his life, Luis Perez came up short.

My wife and I made our way around to the ramp the players were leaving by, and I was able to catch up with Luis, shake hands, and congratulate him on a valiant effort. And that’s what it was. Valiant, He went down fighting, as a champion should.

Despite the disappointment, despite the hurt, and the fact that the game was played midafternoon on an extremely hot and humid day in Houston, Luis was the same as he always was, gracious, thanked us for coming, and for supporting his efforts.

I watched him as he trudged up the ramp , and you couldn’t help but notice the disappointment. It finally culminated in a roar of frustration as he made his way into the locker room.

What Brian and I here at The Wire, have enjoyed the most in watching his career after Commerce is this…..now the rest of the nation gets to see what those of us as Lion fans and alumni already knew…that Luis Perez is a darned good quarterback, and an even better person.

With The Heart Of A Champion.

Roar Back Here.....

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