Luis Perez enrolled at Southwestern College, a junior college in Chula Vista, Calif., just a few miles down the road from where he grew up, in 2013 with a plan. It was all so clear in his head.
Perez knew exactly what was in store for him. A friend pointed him in the direction of the school’s football facility and marched into the office of head coach Ed Carberry with an edict. Perez announced he was there to play quarterback for Carberry’s squad.
Only one problem: Perez had never played QB in organized football.
At any level.
“We get a lot of guys who want to play quarterback here who have played Madden football,” said Carberry, who is in his 42nd year of coaching. “But nothing quite like Luis’ story.”
Perez wasn’t coming from his couch with a controller in his hands. Although he had spent the previous several years dominating the California bowling circuit as a top-rated amateur, Perez spent much of his free time dreaming of being a Division-I college quarterback despite never as much as throwing a ball in an organized practice.
He had played a tiny bit of high school football but was moved to a few positions — none of which included the letters “Q” and “B” — and promptly quit. That’s when his bowling career really took off. But even after he graduated high school, having never played the position, Perez remained undaunted.
If he was ever going to play quarterback, Southwestern quickly emerged as his best — and maybe only — real bet to get that shot.
“[Carberry] asked where I was from, where I played high school and where my highlight tape was. He kind of laughed at me,” Perez told PFW recently by phone. “I had no options. I had no film. I had nothing. I couldn’t send my stuff out to other teams. I had no stuff to send.”
But the next day, Perez was out on the field for spring practice. The team gave him a helmet that was way too big. His pads were meant for a lineman. There were eight other quarterbacks on the team. Perez found himself ninth on the depth chart at a position he’d never played at any level and one no one believed he could or had any business playing.
“I didn’t care,” Perez said. “I always knew I wanted to play quarterback. This is going to sound weird, but the moment I decided to stop football I still knew I wanted to play college football and play quarterback. I don’t know how or why I still felt that. I just felt somehow, some way, I was going to find a way to do it.”
Slowly but surely he worked his way up the depth chart. Guys quit or transferred. There were injuries. And Perez, it turned out, wasn’t too shabby at this quarterback thing. He was accurate and a quick study — two of his biggest assets to this day, along with his absolute belief in himself.
Assets that, incredibly, have the 23-year-old on the radar of NFL scouts as we close in on the 2018 NFL draft.
“It’s been a whirlwind. It’s been an unbelievable experience,” Perez said. “To be able to have NFL teams shake my hand, go to my pro day and all that. It’s been my dream, my No. 1 goal, to play in the NFL as a kid.”
And the most unlikely ascension story of the draft started when he got his shot at Southwest. Perez earned the backup role behind starter Frank Foster, passing up the other seven quarterbacks that had been on the roster. When Foster suffered a sprained AC joint in the fourth game of the 2013 season, the player no Southwestern teammates had a clue about a few months earlier was in the game on the road at San Bernadino.
“Everyone is going, ‘Oh no, Luis has to go in,’” Perez said.
But all he did was complete 4-of-5 passes in relief and throw a touchdown to earn the save in the 41-20 Southwestern win.
Carberry, of course, remembers the first snap as well as any of them.
“He’s out there in the shotgun, pointing at stuff, like he’s Aaron Rodgers,” Carberry said, “and the center snaps the ball and hits him right in the chest. Kind of an inauspicious start.”
Perez laughs at that — and he even had a touchdown called back in the game. He knew there might be a bump or two on this unusual road. But Carberry said Perez always acted like he belonged. The next week Perez threw for three TDs and ran for another in a blowout victory.
“He has always had tremendous belief and confidence in himself,” Carberry said. “He comes by me [after his first start] and says, ‘Hey, I told you I could do it.’”
Perez appeared to be the guy for the rest of the season before he suffered a broken fibula. A few teammates chanted “one-hit wonder” and figured that might be the end of Perez’s cute story, especially when a hot-shot quarterback, Isaraelu Paopao, transferred in the next year.
But Perez beat him out, too, and put together a nice 2014 season (18-3 TD-INT ratio, 1,846 pass yards) even though he and Paopao would rotate in games that year. It was enough for 10 D-I schools to take serious notice — including Oklahoma State and Kansas State, both of which offered him a preferred walk-on spot — although none made scholarship offers. Cal-Davis did extend an offer, and he was set to go there, but the program pulled the offer last minute.
Once more out of options, Perez landed at Division-II Texas A&M-Commerce in July of 2015. They had a senior quarterback, so the school invited Perez to come in, redshirt and work toward earning a spot the following season.
For the next year, Perez was alongside the freshmen for 5 a.m. workouts and spent every last minute watching tape and listening to the play callers. Even at a D-II program most of the players on the roster grew up steeped in football, but Perez was still a relative neophyte. He even traveled on his own dime to attend the Lions’ road games, accompanied by his new wife, Brenda, just to be around and soak up as much as he could and stoke his craving for this new passion.
Perez knew he had to get not only bigger and faster but also smarter and wiser.
“I always had that mentality of wanting to learn fast,” he said. “I was always playing catch-up because I was always so far behind. That was one of the things that really has helped me so far. I wanted to be a sponge and learn from every single person I could learn from. And learn fast.”
Learn fast he did, and in 2016 all Perez did was win the starting job, earn first-team all-conference status, set a school record for TD passes in a season, be nominated for the Harlon Hill Trophy (awarded to the Division II College Football Player of the Year) and lead his Commerce team to the D-II playoff semifinals.
After they lost to top-ranked Grand Valley State, Perez — who threw for 312 yards but also three picks in the loss — had another vision. He was going to lead Commerce to a championship in his senior season. So he dragged Brenda along for the 500-mile car ride to Kansas City, Kan., which was the site of the D-II championship game “so I could get a taste of what was in store for us,” he said.
The sat through a veritable blizzard and a wind chill of minus-7 that day, and it frankly wasn’t the most exciting game in the annals of football: Northwest Missouri State 29, North Alabama 7. Brenda tapped out in the third quarter, and the price for them going was Luis doing a week’s worth of dishes, he said, but in his mind it was all worth it.
“I knew I was going to be there in that game the next year,” Perez said.
And wouldn’t you know it? This time Perez did win the Harlon Hill Trophy, made massive statistical gains (from 3,326 passing yards to 4,999; from 32 TD passes to 46) and — yep — did lead the Lions to the national championship. In the 37-27 win, Perez completed 23-of-30 passes for 323 yards against a West Florida defense that came in allowing fewer than 200 pass yards per game and 6.5 yards an attempt.
Carberry just marvels at how the story unfolded.
“The guy who knocked on my office door, who never played quarterback before, is the national player of the year,” he said. “I mean … come on. This just doesn’t happen.”
Now the 6-foot-3, 219-pound Perez is attracting legitimate NFL attention. After a nice week of practice and performance in at the NFLPA Collegiate Game (completing 8-of-10 passes for 69 yards), Perez caught a big break when Texas A&M — yes, the Aggies — allowed him to be the quarterback at their March 26 pro day, which annually is heavily attended by NFL heavyweights, scouts and coaches alike. Perez drew up a 56-throw script and emailed it to the Aggies’ receivers, including top-50 draft prospect Christian Kirk.
And then? Here comes Johnny.
Oh yes, as in Johnny Manziel — the former A&M quarterback and Cleveland Browns first-rounder who had burned out of the NFL in spectacular fashion but now was on the comeback trail, hoping for a resurrection in the league. An A&M compliance officer broke the news to Perez: Manziel also would be throwing at the pro day, complicating matters quite a bit.
But Perez didn’t see it as a detriment. He viewed it as an opportunity.
“I said, ‘That’s fine.’ I actually liked it because I knew I would be throwing alongside a first-round pick. I knew scouts could compare me to him and make their own minds up,” Perez said.
Perez assumed Manziel would want his own script of throws, but to his surprise Manziel walked up to him early that day and said, “Hey, we’re going to do the script you sent Christian.” Perez scrambled back to his bag to retrieve the script and memorize the throws in a matter of minutes, but New Orleans Saints WR coach Curtis Johnson helped out by calling out the routes.
Perez helped himself out by having a terrific throwing session, and he did so with a packed out — NFL Network and ESPN were on hand for Manzielmania — completing nearly every pass and showing composure and ability to take command of the workout. A few days later, Perez had his second pro day back in Commerce and threw the ball well there, reportedly looking great in position drills and flashing a better arm than some scouts believed he had.
Among the teams that have spent the most time looking at Perez include the Minnesota Vikings, Arizona Cardinals, Dallas Cowboys, Los Angeles Rams and New Orleans Saints.
Perez’s calling card is his accuracy. He completed 70.6 percent of his passes this past season – first-round prospect Baker Mayfield completed 70.5 percent, Josh Allen just 56.3 percent – Carberry calls it uncanny.
“He’s unbelievably accurate. He just can throw the ball exactly where he wants it to go,” he said. “If you watch NFL games, the windows are so small. You have to be so precise. He’s able to do that. I don’t know if it’s from all the bowling he did as a young kid or what …”
Yes, had this incredible story never unfolded on the football field, Perez likely would be rolling strikes on a lane somewhere. He’s had 12 perfect games of 300 in his lifetime — not bad for a sport he picked up at the age of 9, when he beat his dad by 50 pins (on his dad’s birthday, no less) on his first try.
Perez might not be a tremendous athlete by quarterback standards, but he does seem to have a flare for the dramatic. When he got bored as a kid on dollar bowling Tuesday nights, he’d bowl the ball down the lane backward — and usually get a strike. He’s now replaced that with football tricks, such as throwing the pigskin through a basketball hoop a long way away.
But more than just his natural knack for throwing the ball, and even more than his precision as a thrower, Perez has the drive to be great. After all, you don’t go from never having played quarterback to being on the doorstep of the NFL — playing maybe sports’ most vaunted and demanding positions — without that rare drive.
“I wasn’t recruited. I never went to a football camp. I never had the private QB coach growing up. I had to work my way through every single thing,” Perez said. “I’ve had four years of football, really. Maybe my arm isn’t as great as some of these guys. But I have a different mentality. A different level of commitment. I’m married. Coaches never have to worry about me doing things I am not supposed to be doing.
“I am not even supposed to be here. Now this is everything to me. There is absolutely no chance I am going to blow this opportunity.”
Will he be drafted? That’s hard to say. But at worst, he’s earned a shot in an NFL training camp somewhere. And if you’ve doubted Perez’s ability to make it up to this point …
“Well, then I am just going to have to prove you — really, everyone else except my family — wrong again,” he said.