Every player has a story in the Alliance of American Football. Everyone has a reason for being here and the backgrounds are as unique as the individuals who emerge from them. They were NFL journeymen. They were injured. They got into trouble. They got cut simply for being one more player than a franchise needed. Maybe they came from a small school and were overlooked. Whatever that reason was, they're all looking for another chance.
But of all those backgrounds, how many weren't on varsity teams their senior year of high school? That has to shrink the number, right? Then again, athletes are athletes, and not every professional football player started in the sport when he was young. Let's parse further. How many can bowl? Not casually -- professionally, if they wanted.
How many gave up bowling to learn how to play quarterback ... from YouTube?
How many took those online lessons and walked on at a junior college? And how many proceeded to win the starting job after fighting their way through a depth chart so crowded they barely saw the field?
How many then received a scholarship offer to play Division II football, starting the process all over again?
Even further ...
How many, after winning the starting job again, took their team to a national championship while winning the Harlon Hill Trophy, the DII version of the Heisman? How many were picked up as an undrafted free agent by an NFL team? And how many, after climbing from the absolute bottom of the football ladder to almost the highest rung, just hoping for one more step, were cut in the end?
The story of Birmingham Iron quarterback Luis Perez is among the most unique examples of determination and perseverance in professional football. Yet, few people know the full scope of it.
Dollar bowling at nine o'clock
Luis first got into bowling at 9 years old on his dad's birthday. Juan, a former Mexican soccer player with clubs Atlas and Leon in the 1980s and '90s, took his son to the local bowling alley in Chula Vista, California. And, wouldn't you know it, it felt right. "I fell in love with it," he said. "I started going every Tuesday night. Dollar bowling at nine o'clock."
Pretty soon, Luis was getting better -- much better. He got his own ball and shoes. He was bowling regularly, competing in local leagues. That led to tournament play. All throughout high school, he bowled. He uploaded grainy videos of himself to YouTube.
He got so good he nearly applied for a Professional Bowlers Association card while he was still a teenager. It's a membership that only a few thousand have. It takes years of practice and a certain scoring average to obtain. "I bowled 12 perfect games," he said. "My high series is 838. That's a three-game series."
Then, just as he was about to turn pro, he stopped.
"I can bowl when I'm 50 years old," he said. "I can't play football when I'm 50."
Football was the first love. As a child, Luis would play in the yard with his friends, pretending to be a member of the San Diego Chargers. He joined his high school football team, but the quarterback dream was hardly realized then. His coaches put him at wide receiver in a Wing-T offense that threw the ball five times a game and told him to block. His career ended seemingly before it ever took off due to frustrations with his role and a neck injury. By his senior year at Otay Ranch, Luis wasn't even attending football games for the team on which he used to play.
But on senior night, after much persistence from his friends still on the team, he went back to take in the game with his now-wife Brenda. As he watched from the bleachers while his friends ran out of the tunnel and onto the field for the pre-game festivities, a moment overcame him that would be the genesis of his journey for the next seven years. He turned to Brenda, seemingly out of the blue, and said "You know what? I really want to play football. I really want to play football again."
What took you so long?
Those sound like the words of a person caught up in the moment, and maybe he was. But if there is one thing that can be said about Luis Perez, it's this: when he gets an idea in his mind, it consumes him. Ask Brenda.
The two met toward the beginning of the year in their seventh grade P.E. class. The teacher asked everyone to stand in line by age, oldest to youngest, as a way to get to know one another. As it turned out, Brenda and Luis had the same birthday: Aug. 26. Luis maintains that he's older by 18 hours.
The two instantly became friends, and soon thereafter best friends, but Luis always had bigger plans. From the moment he met Brenda, he was determined to marry her. The feeling was mutual, suffice it to say. Brenda recalled having the biggest crush on him. But it wasn't until Luis was a 15-year-old freshman at Otay Ranch when he finally asked Brenda out on a date. Always one to wait for the first move, she replied "What took you so long?"
"He probably was afraid that I would reject him," she said.
The two were married on Jan. 2, 2015.
The pair has always been inseparable. Wherever Luis has gone, so has Brenda. They attended Southwestern Community College together, where Luis was a walk-on with the Jaguars. On game days, she and Luis' family would make shirts and show up in large groups to support him. When Texas A&M-Commerce offered Luis a scholarship in 2015, Brenda traveled to northeast Texas with him and got her degree in Animal Science. "This is what we want, we want to be together," she said. "We had that conversation. I asked what was going to happen. I asked if he was going to leave me. And he said 'Come with me. I want you to come.'"
When the Rams signed Luis as an undrafted free agent, back to California they went as husband and wife. And when Perez was drafted by the Iron last November, to Alabama they traveled. "I'm all for it," she said. "We're following his dream."
Ninth out of nine
The dream had to start somewhere, and that somewhere was a place any person goes to learn the nuances and intricacies of the most important position in sports: YouTube. Many people go there to watch how-to videos to help them change their car headlight. Luis went there to learn how to play quarterback.
"I didn't know anything about drops, coverages, fronts, nothing. I knew nothing," he said. "I just knew I could throw a football decently."
So he searched and watched and learned about drops and coverages and fronts and all of the things he didn't know. Then, he tried to replicate what he saw so he could try out for a spot on the football team at Southwestern.
Like Uncle Rico in "Napoleon Dynamite" right?
He paused. "I don't know if I want to make that comparison."
"Okay. Pretty close."
That is how Luis spent the summer of 2012. By the time tryouts came at Southwestern, he had at least some idea about drops and coverages and fronts. However, he had no experience, no film and practically no chance. At the start of the season, Luis was the Jaguars' ninth-string quarterback. When Brenda would pick her boyfriend up after practice, though he talked to her as if the starting job was practically his.
"He never mentioned to me or his family that he was ninth-string or that his coach told him he didn't have a chance. Every time I'd pick him up from practice he'd say 'Everything's good. I'm going to play.' He always had trust in himself. He always was confident enough to think in the back of his mind 'I got this.'"
Only when reading an article about the team did Brenda realize Luis was so far back on the depth chart. "Well, yeah," he told her. "I didn't wanna tell you guys because you would probably tell me just keep bowling."
Instead, Luis kept training. He needed to catch up. The guys in front of him were multi-year starters in high school, Division I transfers and the like. They had experience, so they got the snaps. So in lieu of practice snaps, Luis would keep training. He reached out to and became a protege of former NFL quarterback Akili Smith, who also grew up in the San Diego area and attended nearby Grossmont College before transferring to Oregon and becoming the No. 3 overall pick in the 1999 NFL Draft. Little by little, Perez moved up the depth chart. Guys got hurt, switched positions or transferred out. By the end of his freshman season, he was No. 2 on the depth chart.
The following year, Southwestern starter Frank Foster went down with an injury in the fourth game of the season. Finally, Luis' moment was here. He led the Jaguars to a 41-20 victory over San Bernardino, completing 4-of-5 passes for 36 yards and a touchdown. The following week against East Lost Angeles College, he threw for 248 yards and three touchdowns in a 35-10 win.
Then, just as things were going his way, Luis broke his leg. "Back to square one," he said.
He spent the entire offseason rehabbing only to come back in preseason camp to another quarterback competition, this time against former PPR Player of the Year and FIU quarterback Israel Tofi Paopao. The two both saw action as the Jaguars went 10-1 in 2014 and won the American Division Championship Bowl over Santa Monica College. But even though he was on a winning team, Luis wasn't getting the Division I looks from other schools he was hoping to get. "We both played, so it wasn't like I had all these stats. I really didn't get the exposure I guess I needed," he said. "I was living that Division I dream, but I never got the Division I offer. I got a lot of preferred walk-ons, stuff like that. But all of them told me it was lack of experience."
Get in the car
Colby Carthel didn't care about any of that. He needed bodies badly at Texas A&M-Commerce. The third-year coach of the Lions was still building a program that, when he inherited it, was coming off of back-to-back one-win seasons. Carthel and his staff were recruiting California JUCO kids hard -- "up and down the state" he said -- trying to find insurance policies for a roster that needed depth.
Carthel, now the coach at Stephen F. Austin, came across Perez's film and decided to give the Southern California prospect a look in person. One visit is all it took. "His film jumped out to us. And so when we went out there and met him that's when he really made an impression on us. Just the type of kid that he is," Carthel said. "And so we brought him out on an official visit there that spring and just fell in love with him and decided to offer him a scholarship, which he accepted.
"And the rest is history I guess, as they say."
Yes, but it's not revisionist history. The Lions had a senior quarterback that season, allowing Luis to redshirt. He still lacked the necessary reps. He was still learning how to read defenses. He wasn't ready, but he spent the entire year making sure that when the redshirt was removed, he would be.
"When we would do a seven on seven, he was standing right behind the quarterback. He was taking a drop. He was looking through the reads and checking down and making the throwing motion every single snap," Carthel said. "And we'd run 40 reps of seven-on-seven every day. He took every snap. He didn't have a ball in his hand, but he was still going through it.
"He trained and he studied and he watched film with the starting quarterback, even though he's not even traveling. He still was taking notes, watching film, going through the progressions of a quarterback and the weekly game preparation," Carthel continued. "And I think that just helped elevate his game.
"It's a pure confidence. He's not an arrogant guy. He's not a bragger or he doesn't hold himself higher than anybody else. He's the most humble servant leader you're gonna find in that locker room. And that's why everybody on the team roots for him."
The thing about redshirts, though, is that their participation with the team is limited. They don't travel for road games, for example. That didn't stop Luis from attending the Lions' NCAA Division II playoff game at Ferris State in Big Rapids, Michigan, on Nov. 21. He, Brenda and a couple of friends on the team hopped in a car and drove more than 1,100 miles, paying their own way, to watch the team play. The Lions lost 48-30. If it was a long 1,100 miles to Michigan, it was a longer 1,100 miles back.
"But to us, that was a prelude for the kind of person he is," Carthel said.
It should be no surprise, then, that Luis' willingness to literally go the extra mile paid off the following season when he finally won the quarterback competition in 2016. That season, he threw for 3,326 yards, leading the Lone Star Conference in that category, with 32 touchdowns as the Lions went 11-2. He was nominated for the Harlon Hill Award and helped Commerce get all the way back to the Division II playoffs. Again, however, they fell short, this time to Grand Valley State, 55-32.
Three weeks later, on Dec. 17, Northwest Missouri State beat North Alabama 29-3 in the Division II Championship Game in Kansas City on a blustery, snowy, freezing day. The wind chill was -7. Guess who was there.
"The staff and I are watching film -- it's the last part of December -- and in walks Luis to tell us goodbye and he's going home for Christmas," Carthel recalled. "Then he said 'We're going to Kansas City first to watch the national championship game.'" Carthel was speechless. "Yeah," Luis told him, "'We're going so I can see what it's like and learn. I did all the dishes for the past month so Brenda would let me.'
"I mean ... I was going to a Christmas party," Carthel said.
With Brenda's Volkswagen Jetta packed to the brim with all of their suitcases for the next month, plus their dog and cat, the couple headed up to Kansas City. The long drive meant they got to the stadium just before kickoff, so they didn't even have time to get a hotel room. They sat in the snow and the wind, leaving only once at halftime to make sure the pets were still warm in the car (don't worry: they were). Then, the next day, they drove back to San Diego, a 25-hour trip.
"It was an experience," she said. "That's all I can say."
That was the vision
It was a good thing Luis wanted to learn from his frigid Kansas City experience. Turns out, his intuition was right. He was back there a year later, but this time as a national champion.
Commerce went 14-1 in 2017, defeating West Florida in the championship game. Luis threw for 4,999 yards that season with nine 300-yard games and two 400-yard games on his way to being named the Harlon Hill Player of the Year. He was also named the D2Football.com Offensive Player of the Year and a first-team All-American by the Associated Press. He left the school as the program's all-time leader in completions (665), passing yards (8,325) and passing touchdowns (78).
Five years before, sitting on the bleachers of Otay Ranch High watching his friends run out of the tunnel, did he ever think in his wildest dreams that any of that was possible?
"That was the vision," he said. "When I played football, it wasn't just for fun. It was because I wanted to pursue a career out of it, and I had that vision. Now during the whole process, I didn't try to look too far ahead or anything like that. I was taking it one day at a time, but I had a plan. Everything was planned out. Every decision I made was planned out to be the best player that I can be."
Luis' determination manifests in many ways -- certainly, many beyond football. Carthel had a pool table outside of his office, where he and Luis would play games and bond. Hours upon hours they must have spent there, talking about football and life. Who won the game wasn't important -- or was it? "That sucker was horrible at pool when he first got there," Carthel said. "Then, about a month later, he's starting to make these bank shots. I'm like, 'How'd you learn how to do that?'"
You will never guess.
"Coach," he said, "I was watching on YouTube."
Carthel couldn't believe it, and yet, he could all the same. "The way he learned to play quarterback -- teaching himself on YouTube -- he goes and starts learning how to play pool just so he can whip his head coach."
God has a bigger plan
Draft weekend came and went last April, and over three days 256 names were called. None of them were Luis Perez. This is the struggle so often for small-school prospects. Despite the fact that Luis finally had more than 30 games of tape to show, stats that jumped off the page and a bevy of individual accolades, he didn't get much of a look from NFL scouts.
The Los Angeles Rams picked him up as an undrafted free agent and kept him all the way through the preseason. In the final game against the New Orleans Saints, Luis completed 8-of-15 passes for for 43 yards and a pick. Two days later, on Sept. 1, he was waived and assigned to the practice squad. He was cut again three weeks later.
"We had just settled into our home," Brenda said. "My family went out and helped us move in. I think we probably enjoyed our house for a day before he went to practice to find out out he got waived. Of course he was bummed, but we both always have this saying that God has a bigger plan, and it's just another bump in the road."
That plan took the Perez family to Alabama less than three months later. Luis was taken by the Iron in the quarterback draft in November and training camp started up in January. Competing for the starting job for the fifth time in his career, Luis beat out Keith Price and Blake Sims to take the field in Week 1. In a 26-0 win over the Memphis Express, Luis went 19-of-33 for 252 yards while displaying nice ball placement and touch down the field.
He instantly became one of the most talked-about players of the weekend. In the days following the win, CBS Sports was told that as many as eight NFL teams have reached out inquiring about Luis. In accordance to AAF policy, a player cannot be brought up to the NFL from the AAF until after the season is over. If Week 1 is any indication, there will be interest in Luis come May.
"My knock was always that I didn't play against top competition, blah blah blah. This guy can't do it against tough competition. He was a Division II quarterback," he said. "Well now I'm starting against players that played in the NFL, so they don't have any excuse anymore to bypass me or give them a reason to not pick me up anymore. I'm just excited just to go out there and play, perform to the best of my ability in every game, and hopefully bring a championship to Birmingham."
"I'm not a betting man," Carthel added, "but if I had to bet all my money, I'd bet it on Luis Perez."