By Kurt Johnson
Photos by Aubree Vaughn
For Ben Lomond High’s Adrian Perez, high school sports is much more than a chance to compete with his friends. His participation in athletics goes beyond the possibility of earning a college scholarship. To Perez, football and basketball are his lifeline, literally.
“Growing up was just a hard thing for me,” Perez said. “I was the youngest growing up in the house where drugs were an everyday thing. I’ve seen things no everyday teenagers should see.”
Beginning when he was seven years old, Perez, now a senior at Ben Lomond, turned to sports to escape.
“I had my mom and a lot of family support around me,” Perez said. “My brother signed me up for my first year (of football) because he wanted me to be better than he was. He didn’t have the skills I have when he was playing, so he and my mom put me in my first year and that’s how I started playing.”
The solutions Perez sought he has found through his time on the football field and the basketball court. Sports have allowed him to find a place of refuge.
“I went through it, knowing I could relieve some stress, some anger from things that I’ve seen was just a great relief,” Perez said. “That I could go out and do that and be with people that didn’t do that stuff…I had my brothers around me, my friends around me, just to support me.”
It’s not just in getting away from a tough home life that Perez found relief through athletic competition. Like so many athletes, he has found the desire to stay eligible for sports as a driving force in making him perform better in the classroom.
“I’m not a person that likes school,” Perez said. “This is what gets me to come and motivates me when I see my grades down. I’m a captain, I’m on the football team. It shouldn’t be like this.”
Perez has come a long way as a student from the day when his academic performance kept him from playing junior high hoops.
“Growing up I didn’t like to read, I didn’t like to do math, I didn’t like anything that had to do with school, so I did bad in my elementary school,” he said. “That seventh-grade year I didn’t make the basketball team because of my grades actually. I thought, ‘This isn’t no game. They don’t care if you’re good or if you’re the top athlete, they don’t care. If you’re grades aren’t right, you’re not making the team.’ That’s when I realized I had to get my stuff together, come to school and do my work and that’s when everything just clicked.”
Now, Ben Lomond football coach Eric Alder sees a young man who has moved beyond needing sports as his motivator to do just well enough in school to stay eligible. He credits Perez with having caught the vision of education.
“Academics has been a challenge for him for basically, probably his whole life, always hovering between eligible and ineligible,” Alder said. “I think now he’s developed the habits where he can do it on his own. Now he’s gotten to the point where I think his work habits are there and he’s not only motivated because of the eligibility factor to play football and basketball, but he’s motivated because he wants to do well. He’s experienced some success academically and he’s kind of bought into being successful in all aspects of his life, not just sports.”
The Injury Bug
If anyone deserved to see success by the time he reached the high school level, it was certainly Perez. That wasn’t to be, however, as he broke his foot near the end of his sophomore football season and then re-injured the same foot during his junior year on the hardwood.
“Being hurt the second time and being out of competition, having to sit and watch for the second time was really hard for him, Alder said. It’s hard for all kids, they go from being needed every day to, ‘Okay, I’m injured, get out of the way.’ He struggled with that and had some depression issues.”
Prescription Drug Issues
That depression took Perez to a place that further tested his resolve, a struggle with prescription drugs. He talks about it now, once again crediting sports for pulling him out of a bad situation.
“My junior year, I broke it (his foot) during basketball season and that’s when it was real tough for me,” Perez said. “I did good at football, but basketball was stressful. I went through all the preseason, and the first game before our regular season, I broke it in the same place and had surgery, and I got really depressed.
“I didn’t want to go to school and I actually kind of had a problem with my pills. I wasn’t using them to take the pain away, I was actually using them to get high. I didn’t realize what I was doing to myself and to my mom and to my teammates or what was going to happen in the future.”
As he has done during the struggles of his life, Perez turned to him mom for help. That, and his desire to get back to his place of refuge on the field, allowed him to lift himself from a bad place.
“I just told my mom that I was using these pills to get high,” he said. “It was just depressing and sad and I’d just go home and cry because I couldn’t do anything, I couldn’t play and that was all I really wanted to do, be out there on the court and play with my brothers. I look back on it and it was something that changed me as a person. I’ll never take it for granted that I can play.”
Coach Alder played a big role in the recovery process as well, recognizing the benefits to Perez to stay involved with the team and his teammates.
“We talked with the counselors and the administration about how to help with these depression issues and I thought it was best that he be around the other athletes,” Alder said. “Even though he was injured, we kept him in the weights class, keep him working out, keep him around his friends. Kids want to matter, they want to be needed and they want to contribute.”
On The Field
Perez is a key contributor to a Ben Lomond team that has reached a level of success that has not been seen on campus for a long time. This is not a perennial postseason team, in fact, when Alder came to campus in 2014, the Scots were coming off two consecutive winless seasons.
He led the team to one win that year followed by a 4-6 campaign a year ago. Heading into a rare playoff game this week, Ben Lomond is 5-5 in 2016, its first season of at least five victories since 2000.
“It’s been an awesome experience, to take over a program that hadn’t won in a number of years,” Alder said. “It’s been a process. All credit goes to the kids. I’m here at the right time. I’ve got a talented bunch of kids that have really applied themselves over the past three years and they’ve dedicated themselves in the weight room and in off-season conditioning, and it’s been very rewarding to see us go out and compete.
“Above all, it’s been awesome to see a cultural shift and to see the program really mean something in their lives. Academically speaking, we’re in a lot better situation than we were three years ago. Our grades are up, our attendance with absences and tardies are down. From a character standpoint, we’re in a lot better situation than three years ago. Win or lose on a Friday night, these kids are working their guts out and they’re having a great experience being part of a team that they care about, and they care about each other.”
Like many of his teammates, Perez is on the field almost all the time, on offense and defense. His coach credits him as a reliable option as a slot receiver who is also capable of throwing a few blocks in a fullback role. He also returns kicks for the Scots and plays a critical role as the team’s “shut-down corner” on defense.
Perez loves football and he is a student of the game. He enjoys the mental side of playing as a defensive back.
“You’ve kind of got to know the receivers. You’ve got to figure them out first,” Perez said. “You have to have speed and athletic ability, but you have to know it. You’re kind of guessing, could be short pass, long pass, you just don’t know.”
What he does know, and Alder has observed, is that he has come a long way from the seven-year-old kid trying to find himself on the football field.
Football As Lifesaver
“He contributes football for saving his life, I think, from an academic standpoint and I think his attitude, his happiness, his joy in being involved and working hard,” Alder said. “He’s matured a lot, from his sophomore year until now, he’s matured a ton, as they all do, but he learned pretty quick that you have to apply yourself at this level.”
His love of the game and of the friendships he has created keep Perez coming back every day. It doesn’t feel like a grind to him. He feels he still has a lot to learn, but he has the motivation to keep on moving forward.
“I just want my mom to be proud of me,” Perez said. “If my mom is disappointed in me, then I’m disappointed in me too. Just being able to play, when I’m mad or when I’m sad, go out and shoot some hoops. It’s so much better than going out to use pills or something. This is my drug. This is what I like to do so that’s what brought me back, and my mom.
Growing up, this is my thing, this is what I love to do. It relieves my stress. I’m still learning who I am and what will help me to get through it, maybe it’s a job or something that I can be successful at. We’ll see when the time comes.”
What does he say to them?
“Just keep going. Life gets hard at some point in your life,” Perez said. “You’ve just got to take it day by day, go to school, do your work. If sports is what you do, do that. If that’s your relief, continue to do your best. Go out to be the greatest. Don’t take days off. Figure out what you want to do in your life and then maybe help that family member (who may be struggling), talk to them to see what’s going on and just love them. You’ve got to accept them as who they are and get them the help that they need.”
Adrian Perez continues to find his answers in athletic competition and all the camaraderie that comes with it. Through it he is finding his way.
“Sports was a place where I could think by myself, be happy, have my teammates help me out,” Perez said. “It was a big relief for me knowing I’ll be out there and I’ll be okay. There have been times when crazy things would happen and I thought, ‘Thank you God, I wasn’t there.’ That’s how I think it was lifesaving for me.
“If I didn’t play, I think I would have got into that stuff, I’d have been that person that I didn’t want to be because at one point in my life I started trying things that no parent would be proud of and no parent would want. I’d look back and see things I didn’t want to be doing, but by then it was too late to change them, but I did. This is my place, this is my home right here (on the football field). It changed me from being someone else and it’ll always be like that.”