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.' "