There is fame, there is over-night fame, and then there is what Mike Perez of San Jose State has. Perez began last year not having played a single down of major college football and finished as arguably the best quarterback in the country who wasn't named Vinny.
The 6'2", 210-pound senior transformed the Spartans from a 2-8-1 pushover in the Pacific Coast Athletic Association into the 10-2 conference champion. Perez led the nation in total offense with 329.89 yards per game, completed 59.4 percent of his passes and threw for 14 touchdowns. The scores frequently came when it mattered most, like the five touchdown tosses that beat Fresno State 45-41 or the three in San Jose's 37-7 win over Miami of Ohio in the California Bowl.
"Sweet P," as he is known to teammates, might be the strongest quarterback in the nation: He can bench-press 350 pounds and lift his body weight 18 times.
"Mike's a lineman version of a quarterback—he's no pretty-boy," says David Diaz-Infante, an offensive guard on last year's team. "When he takes a good hit, he gets up and laughs." Or retaliates. Consider an incident last season involving Washington State defensive end Mark Ledbetter, who pummeled Perez after the whistle. When a flag wasn't thrown, Perez imposed his own law and order by throwing a right hand that stunned the 225-pound Ledbetter. This time the referee did drop the flag: quarterback roughing the rusher. The stuff of legend.
The NFL is aware of Perez, too. San Francisco 49er head coach Bill Walsh, who happens to be a San Jose State alum but also knows his quarterbacks, says, "Mike will be the finest quarterback to play on the West Coast in many years—probably since John Elway. He'll also be the premier quarterback in college football for the 1987 season."
Just as quickly as he turned the Spartans around, Perez has become the toast of San Jose. He represented the area's large Hispanic population as honorary grand marshal of San Jose's Cinco de Mayo Parade (a Mexican celebration of liberty), and on San Jose's freeways Perez finds more and more people he doesn't know honking at him as he tools along in his red Hyundai. It's not because he can't stay in his lane.
Being the center of attention is an unaccustomed treat for Perez. At Denver's South High, he was a 175-pound safety who "loved to lay out quarterbacks and a quarterback who loved to run over safeties." But he was a mere supporting actor on a running team. Perez threw for only 900 yards his senior year. Colorado offered him a scholarship, then withdrew the offer. No other school called.
Determined to play somewhere, in the fall of '83 Perez went to Taft Junior College, a juco powerhouse near Bakers-field, Calif. The first time Perez saw the town, he decided to go back home. "It was like a wasteland," he says. Two weeks later he returned, determined to grow as a player and person. Even though he didn't start (his 4.9 speed didn't mesh with the option offense), he hit the weights like a fiend. "I was fortunate to go to Taft," Perez says. "It was something I needed to do. It was my first time away from home, and I needed to grow up and do things on my own."
Taft coach Al Baldock thought Perez could be a success in the right four-year program and recommended him to San Jose State coach Claude Gilbert.
"Claude said, 'But he didn't even start for you'," recalls Baldock. "I said, 'You're right. But he will start for you.' "
"He looked like a linebacker to me," says Gilbert. "He was quiet, but he had a certain dignity and inner strength that I liked. I decided, 'We'll take him.' There was no great idea behind it. We lucked out, to tell you the truth."
At first it didn't seem that way to Perez. As a redshirt, he felt ignored the entire spring of 1985. Back home in Denver that summer, he almost decided to transfer to Middle Tennessee State, whose coaches, he says, had told him he would be a starter in a passing offense.
But Perez stayed at San Jose, and in the spring of '86 he gained on three other quarterbacks competing for the starting job. Then in August, Tony Locy injured his shoulder. Perez was the starter.
After an opening loss to Oregon, Perez went 27 for 49 for 356 yards and a touchdown in a 20-13 win at Washington State. He threw four interceptions the next week in a loss to Stanford, but San Jose hasn't lost since. Against Fresno State, the Spartans took a 24-0 second-quarter lead, but quarterback Kevin Sweeney brought Fresno back. With 1:15 to play, San Jose trailed 41-31. Perez then threw a 5-yard touchdown pass and, after a recovered onside kick, a 26-yarder with 18 seconds left to win the game. He finished with 33 completions for 433 yards and 5 touchdowns.
Fresno coach Jim Sweeney is still amazed by the game-winning play. "Our best rusher [Jethro Franklin] hits him in the chest," says Sweeney. "Perez does a squat, stands up and throws the touchdown with the guy hanging on his leg. The kid's a stud. He's a soldier."
Perez learned resilience early on. Reared near Denver's tough Five Points section by his mother, Paula, and her parents, Perez has never met his father. Mike's maternal grandfather, Alberto Perez, was a construction worker until he was 69. Today Alberto is 83 and wears his grandson's ring from the California Bowl. It's still not unusual to find him on the roof fixing shingles.
"Watching Grandpa taught us how to be men," says older brother Robert. "Without him, we would have been down the tubes."
That strong sense of discipline is still there. Since the California Bowl, Perez has been working out harder than ever. Besides lifting weights, he runs 90-yard dashes pulling a 70-pound tire with a harness. Three days a week, he works out with a group in Atherton, near San Francisco, supervised by Ben Parks, a high school wrestling coach who trains professional and college athletes in the off-season.
"That young man has got a perfect attitude," says Parks. "He's got everything else, too, but attitude is the biggest reason he is going to make it."
"I guess way down inside I'm really not that surprised at last year," Perez says. "I always knew what I could do if I got my chance. And I got my chance."
The city's Hispanic community honored Perez as grand marshal of its Cinco de Mayo Parade.
Perez shredded Miami of Ohio for 291 yards in last year's California Bowl.