In a profile earlier this year, NCAA.com called Luis Perez “The Most Interesting Man in DII Football.” But even that high praise doesn’t do him justice: it’s more likely he’s “The Most Interesting Football Player on the Planet.”
Consider this: Perez—the senior quarterback who will lead Texas A&M at Commerce against West Florida Saturday at 5 p.m.—did not play a single down of varsity football at quarterback, and what action the Chula Vista, California native did see at the JV level and below was as a blocking wide receiver in an antiquated wing-T attack.
“I’d been a quarterback my whole life—flag football, Pee-Wee, whatever,” he says. “And then they moved me to receiver and it was just blocking, blocking, blocking. Every now and then I’d get to run a go route or a screen.”
He’s been doing more than blocking at Texas A&M at Commerce though. This year, the Harlon Hill Trophy winner went for 4,678 passing yards and 44 touchdowns against only 10 interceptions. “It was a great honor to win that award,” Perez says. “But it’s not just for me. It’s also for my teammates and coaching staff, and the real test comes [Saturday].”
Despite his success, Division II NCAA football came close to losing their 2017 equivalent of a Heisman Trophy winner. As a high school sophomore, Perez—seeing only boredom and futility ahead on the high school gridiron—burned out, set down the pigskin, and joined the bowling team. He excelled in his new sport. At age 23, he has bowled at least twelve perfect games.
But Perez remembers attending the last home game his high school football squad ever played and thinking, “Why am I up here in the stands? Why am I not out there on the field?”
“It was the last game and I see all my [former] teammates running out of the tunnel and jumping around on the sidelines,” he says. “Just having fun. You can’t describe that moment, but for me it was the turning moment, where I just said, ‘You know what? I’m gonna pursue football. I don’t care what’s gonna happen, but I am all in, 100 percent.’ And I did.”
He strapped on a helmet again in college, first as a walk-on at Southwestern College in his hometown, a suburb of San Diego. He began his first camp as the ninth-string QB at an obscure JuCo in California.
“But I was the first one there, and the last one to leave,” he told NCAA.com. “I was trying to make a statement: I’m here and I’m not going anywhere until I get an opportunity. The coach said, ‘We really don’t need you’, and I told him I was sorry, but I wasn’t going to leave. People switched positions, people transferred, injuries happened, and before you know it I ended up being fourth somehow. I got in the mix a little bit.”
Eventually he rose to QB-two, and then the starter went down, and the job was his. He excelled at it, but then another setback. “Three games after that, I break my leg,” he told NCAA.com. “I was devastated, I was so close to where I wanted to be. But then I ended up beating out the San Diego player of the year my sophomore year. I started, but we both played a lot. Then A&M-Commerce called me up. It was a no-brainer for me.”
Texas A&M at Commerce head coach Colby Carthel turned an abysmal program (2-18 in the two years before he arrived in the small East Texas town, 47-15 ever since, including this year’s 13-1 campaign) into a national contender, in no small part due to the recruiting tactics that landed him Perez.
“We only recruit Texas high school kids,” Carthel says, adding that they cast their nets far wider when looking at transfers, like Perez, who have come from as far afield as England and Samoa. Carthel liked the way Perez threw the ball, but there was more. “The more you get to know, you like him better and better,” he says.
Carthel has done one of the more remarkable jobs of turning around a program drastically and fast at any level of the sport. “There’s been a lotta work, a lotta sacrifices, but now we are a point where we are a power in the Lone Star Conference (four straight conference titles), and now we want more,” he says. “That’s why our hashtag this year is #tothetop. Because we do want more, we want to go to the top: national titles.”
And Perez, along with huge, ruggedly bearded East Texas-bred offensive tackle Jared Machorro are essential keys to achieving Carthel’s goal of taking the Lions to the top.
Saturday might be the last game of his college career, but Perez—who, even during his time at the lanes, never gave up his dream of playing professional football—has aspirations beyond Commerce. Last summer, Perez got to work out with Texas-raised QBs Chase Daniel and Drew Brees, the latter of whom Perez idolized growing up as a Charger fan in San Diego. “Oh man, that was so cool,” he says. “You just can’t describe it. Such great people. Some people think that NFL guys don’t care about anybody else, but they worked hard to coach me up. They had no reason to do that, but they did.”
Perez is pretty much ideal size for a pocket passer, at 6’3 and 220 pounds. His statistics speak for themselves, even if they were accrued in small-college ball. Scouts will be intrigued by what he’s done in just a few short years at quarterback, but perhaps even more so, how much more potential there is to tap.
Perez says he’s been visited by scouts from 28 NFL teams, some of whom talked to him for a few minutes, others for close to an hour. He’s got an invite to showcase for scouts in the NFLPA Game early next year, competing against players from most of the big-time college powerhouses.
“Just keep pushing,” he says. “Keep pushing to your dream. I’m just gonna keep fighting and hope I get an opportunity.”
With that kind of attitude, it seems like any NFL team who gambled on Perez would be far more likely to roll a strike than settle for a spare.