Those around Texas A&M-Commerce quarterback Luis Perez are usually surprised when he doesn’t excel at anything quickly. That’s why his teammates and coaches were perhaps a bit too hard on the senior and this year's Harlon Hill Trophy winner for best in college football’s Division II when they watched him struggle in his attempt to play softball.
“I hope Luis doesn’t mind me saying, but he swung and missed a bunch, and it was only slow pitch,” said Texas A&M-Commerce offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Jared May. “We gave him a hard time about that.”
You see, 23-year-old Perez is also an avid bowler, has bowled a total of 12 perfect games since starting to play in high school. Perez is so good at bowling that he’ll often challenge himself with trick shots. A particular favorite of his includes walking down the lane backward, spinning and firing at the very last moment.
“He’s a guy who I think if he wanted to take up golf, it might take him six months, but he’d master it and frustrate everyone else,” said May.
Such is the confidence for a player who didn’t even play quarterback until 2014, when he became the starter at Southwestern, a junior college in his hometown of Chula Vista, California. Three years later, Perez will try to deliver a Division II championship when the Texas A&M-Commerce Lions face off against West Florida in the title game on Dec. 16 (6:00 p.m. ET, ESPN2).
Despite the relatively short amount of time, Perez’s road to glory has seen its twists and turns.
“I always wanted to be a quarterback. I had a vision of playing in the NFL and I knew I could do it,” said Perez. “But when I went to my last high school home game, I was upset being in the bleachers, watching my buddies play the game I love. That’s when I started making moves.”
Early in life, Perez fell in love with football. As a child, he recalls playing catch with friends and watching the then-San Diego Chargers on television. Though he grew up in a Mexican-American family with strong ties to soccer -- his father, Juan Luis, had played professionally for Mexican first-division clubs Atlas and Leon in the 1980s and ’90s -- Luis was not interested in the sport.
“I never liked [soccer] because I was always the chubby kid and I didn’t like running,” he said, chuckling.
After a brief football career playing tight end in high school at Chula Vista’s Otay Ranch, Perez enrolled at Southwestern. There, he tried out for the team, his ambition clearly stated. But Jaguars head coach Ed Carberry wasn’t convinced about letting a guy who had never played the position start for his team.
“He told me he played a little in high school, never varsity, and was basically a backup tight end,” said Carberry. “I told him he’d be, at best, our third-string quarterback and he’d never get to play. Either he changed positions, transferred to a different school or just plain quit. That’s how I tried to cut him. Thank goodness he stuck around!”
Perez persisted. When injuries to others opened the door for him at Southwestern, he responded.
“After he threw a touchdown in his first game, he ran up to me and said: ‘I told you I could do it!’ I was glad he could,” said Carberry.
Just two weeks after being named the starter, however, Perez broke his leg.
“The moment I went down, I sat back and I doubted myself a little bit,” said Perez. “But I started getting better and propped myself back up. I had more confidence, I did it once -- why not do it again?” Perez used the opportunity to devour film, study his own form and those of his idols at the NFL level. “He’s dedicated in everything he does,” said Carberry.
Upon his return from rehab, Southwestern had recruited competition for Perez, forcing him to win his job back in practice.
“Luis outworked everyone. Then he took us to the conference championship game and won us the game,” said Carberry.
News of Perez’s success attracted interest from bigger schools. He received 10 offers and ultimately opted for Texas A&M-Commerce prior to the 2016 season.
“You could definitely tell he could play from watching film,” said May. “But it was all the little things that added up and stood out. The intangibles like his work ethic and mental toughness. When we finally got to it, we realized this guy could probably take us to a new level.”
— Jared May (@CoachJMay) December 14, 2017
After a rough first game as a starter for Texas A&M-Commerce in which he threw three interceptions, Perez impressed his coaching staff with his dedication to get better.
“Some of the fundamentals of playing the position, quite honestly he didn’t have,” said May. “A lot of the experiences many guys from middle school had he lacked. So those hard-luck lessons in playing QB came to him late, but his attitude is fantastic.”
In two seasons with the Lions, Perez has passed for more than 7,700 yards and 74 touchdowns. Last year, in a game against Western New Mexico, he was even called upon to punt. Perez’s whirlwind success at Texas A&M-Commerce has yielded, at the individual level, a total of two Harlon Hill nominations and one win, a Division II All-American honorable mention in 2016, and a first-team All-American selection this year.
Now he yearns to lead his team to triumph.
“I’m excited, fired up. West Florida is a very good team, but so are we. We’re just going to go after it for 60 minutes,” Perez said.
Perez insisted he’s not looking past what will be his final college game. Nevertheless, he’s clear about what his intentions are at the pro level.
“I’m a guy that no matter how much praise I get, I have a chip on my shoulder,” he said. “I know this can happen for me.”
Perez has an outside shot to go from a Division II school to an NFL roster next season, and he wouldn’t be the first quarterback from his school to play in the league.
Wade Wilson, former Pro Bowler for the Minnesota Vikings and current the quarterbacks coach for the Dallas Cowboys, was drafted in 1981 when the school was known as East Texas State.
“We’ve had some really good stories with quarterbacks playing at the next level. All Luis needs is a chance, an opportunity,” said May.
Those around Perez are more inclined to believe he’ll make it happen somehow, just as he’s been able to overcome the odds thus far.
“One thing he is, he’s a great decision-maker. He’s incredibly and uncannily accurate. Those are two things that give him the ability to compete,” said Carberry. “Can he play at the NFL level? Absolutely.”
In the end, Perez is himself convinced he’ll one day share the field with childhood heroes Drew Brees, Philip Rivers and Aaron Rodgers.
“I’m going to pursue it every way I can. I’ll find a way. If the NFL doesn’t have me, I’ll go to Canada and earn it.”