"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."