10/18/2007 12:00:00 AM
Dolphins Game Sparks Perez's Interest in Football
Oct. 18, 2007
By Marty Mishow, Southeast Missourian
CAPE GIRARDEAU, Mo. - Francisco Perez never saw a football game in person until he was 13 years old.
He never played the sport until he got to high school.
That's why Perez laughs heartily when asked how surprised he is to be in his fourth season of college football -- and the leader of Southeast Missouri State's offensive line, no less.
"I definitely did not expect this," the good-natured Perez said following Tuesday's practice. "I really had no idea."
Perez, a 6-foot-4, 305-pound senior offensive tackle, was born and grew up in Venezuela, where soccer is huge. He quickly became enamored with the game.
"My first sport was always soccer. I played it since I was 4 years old," Perez said.
In fact, according to Perez, he was skilled enough in that form of football to have played for the 12-and-under national team in Venezuela.
But American football wasn't completely foreign to him.
"It's not real big back home, but there were games on TV," he said. "I remember watching Monday Night Football ... I was interested, but I really didn't understand it well."
The course of Perez's athletic career began to change at age 13, when he and his family moved to Miami, where his father got a job. It wasn't long before Perez, an eighth-grader at the time, attended his first football game.
"My dad got some tickets to a Dolphins game," Perez said. "I've loved it ever since."
Perez said he began to veer away from soccer while attending a Miami middle school, where "I didn't really like the soccer coaches, so I started playing basketball. Thank God I did."
According to Perez, his middle school basketball coach was friendly with the football coach at the high school he planned to attend.
"I was a pretty big kid and my basketball coach told the football coach about me," he said.
Despite barely having been introduced to the sport, he wound up starting at center as a freshman at Archbishop Carroll High School.
"I was already bigger than everybody else, and our school wasn't very big," he said.
Perez became good enough to attract the interest of college recruiters, including those from Division I-A Rutgers.
But Rutgers didn't come through with a scholarship offer, so Perez headed to Division I-AA Southeast, where one of his high school teammates had gone the year before.
"He told the [Southeast] coaches about me, and I liked it here," Perez said.
It didn't take long for Perez to make a mark in the Southeast program, breaking into the starting lineup at offensive guard as a true freshman.
Perez battled through an injury-plagued sophomore season, which limited his starts, but again became a fixture on the line last year, Tony Samuel's first as Southeast's coach.
This year Perez has moved to tackle, where he is the leader of a young Redhawks offensive front that counts him as its lone senior starter.
While the current Southeast coaching staff did not recruit Perez, Samuel said he's glad Perez was in the program when he got to Cape Girardeau.
"He's not only a very good player, he's an excellent student and team leader," Samuel said. "The players voted him one of our captains, which I was glad to see.
"He's just a great kid and he's got a bright future."
Perez is a Southeast Scholar Athlete and a member of the Ohio Valley Conference Commissioner's Honor Roll, carrying a 3.647 grade-point average while majoring in international business.
Perez said he has always taken pride in his academic accomplishments.
"I try to do real well in the classroom," he said. "I like the books."
He would some day like to own his own business and make it international, taking advantage of his ability to speak both English and Spanish.
"I want to travel the world," said Perez, who added that he is happy he and his family finally don't have to do that any longer to see each other.
Perez's father died during his freshman year in high school, not long after the family left Venezuela.
During Perez's senior year in high school, the family -- which includes his mother, a 6-year-old brother and a 14-year-old sister -- moved back to Venezuela, but Francisco stayed behind in Miami.
His family moved back to the United States this summer, settling in Houston, where his mother got a job. His mother, brother and sister visited him in Cape Girardeau for the Southwest Baptist game Sept. 8. They also plan to be here for two more games, including Senior Day on Nov. 17.
"It was really nice to play in front of them and I'm looking forward to when they come back again," he said. "I'm a real family oriented person and I try to be a role model for my brother and sister."
Perez has not experienced as much team success as he would have liked while at Southeast; the Redhawks are 2-4 this year (0-3 in the OVC) and won no more than four games during any of his previous three seasons.
But he believes the program is headed in the right direction under Samuel, and he takes pride in the fact the offensive line has helped the Redhawks rank first in rushing in the OVC.
Besides, for a kid growing up in Venezuela who really knew little about American football, Perez has come a long way.
"I've met so many great people here, and I just love all the coaches," Perez said. "To have the opportunity to come here, play football and earn a degree, it's really all been a blessing for me."