November 7, 2016, published in the Orange County Register
Jacob Perez needed to be one of the 11 on the field for Cal State Fullerton. He probably would have given an arm or a leg to be one of the 11.
But instead he was one of thousands in the crowd at Titan Stadium, sitting in the orange seats, gazing onto the field his freshman, sophomore, junior and senior years at the university.
“I was just a regular student,” said Perez, now a fifth-year senior sitting in those same orange seats late afternoon Friday.
No one knew he was a soccer player. No one knew he had tried out and been cut from the team numerous times. No one knew how many sprints he endured in his chase for a Titan jersey.
Perez never missed a Titan home game. He didn’t want popcorn or Twizzlers and he certainly didn’t want to do ‘the wave.’”
“I was just talking to friends, having a good time,” said senior Carlos Andrade, a friend on Fullerton’s club soccer team, “but Jacob would be paying attention, studying his competition. He wanted to change the game.”
Perez grew more driven. “I said to myself, I’m going to play on this field by the time I graduate,” he said.
The 5-foot-9 forward not only made the team this season, but he’s making a difference for the two-time defending Big West champion Titans (9-8-4 overall). The team faces UC Santa Barbara in the semifinals of the Big West Conference Tournament on Wednesday.
Perez, who scored a game-winning goal for CSUF in mid-October, finally lets out a smile; he realizes he is no longer a spectator.
“I never thought I was going to quit. That just wasn’t an option for me,” Perez said. “If I put my mind to something, I’m going to do it.”
Perez didn’t have any college athletic-scholarship offers out of Chino High School. He gained admission to Fullerton on his own merits as a student.
The odds of making the team were against him, as colleges typically recruit two years in advance. But Perez walked into Fullerton’s coaches offices asking for a shot (coach George Kuntz was at his previous institution, UC Irvine, at the time).
Hi…my name is Jacob…I’m a soccer player…I was wondering if I could tryout for your team? I play for Fullerton’s club team on campus. Could you watch me play?
Sometimes he got a nod. Other times he got a “sure.” The coaches never came out, but he kept knocking on the their doors, sometimes 10 times a semester.
“That takes more guts than anything, having the confidence to go up to a coach and ask him to look at you,” said his cousin, Adrien Perez, who plays for Loyola Marymount. “He’s just a fighter.”
Perez, whose nickname is “Rocket,” was hit in his left eye with the ball during a game when he was 9. His eye stung and his vision blurred, but he continued to play.
A week later, water from a drinking fountain splashed into his right eye and he couldn’t see. Turns out, he had torn his retina in his left eye. Surgery repaired his peripheral vision, but he is still partially blind in that eye. He said it doesn’t affect him on the field.
He wouldn’t let it.
Perez starred on CSUF’s club team and attended many of CSUF’s varsity team identification camps. Sometimes there were 12-year-olds, sometimes there were 20-year-olds. Perez didn’t care: he just wanted a chance.
Then, a glimmer of hope. Kuntz had recently taken over the program and invited Perez to practice with the squad in spring 2014.
Perez was the new kid on the block; he wore his own Fullerton club gear and cleats. But he could play.
“He was elusive,” Kuntz said. “He was kind of a skinny guy, not a huge presence, but quietly, he was hard to handle, hard to mark. He was very quick.”
Chances were slim to make the team that fall, as CSUF had 14 seniors.
“I got cut,” said Perez, his dark eyes staring at the ground, as he didn’t crack the squad for the third straight year.
He was crushed, but came back in spring 2015 and scored three goals for the Titans. Kuntz invited him to try out again that fall, though it would be an uphill battle. The team was coming off of a Big West Tournament championship.
Perez came to fall camp having recovered from a torn hamstring, but as a result, wasn’t in top shape.
He was cut again. Fullerton won its second consecutive Big West title.
“He was definitely down,” said senior Alexander Arita, a friend and CSUF club teammate. “He gave so much. He sacrificed so much. But he told me he was going to give it all he got.”
Perez would send his friends Snapchat videos of him working out and running at odd hours, always with the caption: “while you sleep.”
“For a period of time Jacob was off the map with our friend group,” Arita said. “He wouldn’t hang out with us because he needed to practice every day.”
Perez used a fifth year of eligibility that he gained after switching his major to business from engineering his sophomore year.
His final shot came this past spring. But he only played a few minutes in one game against Dominguez Hills.
Perez came to fall tryouts more determined and more fit. Kuntz told Perez he might not play at all, he might not even travel with the team, but he had made it.
“I felt this big stress get off my chest,” Perez said.
Soon he received a Fullerton backpack, practice jerseys, shorts, socks, polo shirts, jackets and more? “You could see it in his eyes,” Kuntz said. “You could see the glow.”
Perez didn’t make the travel squad to CSUF’s first two games at Vermont and at UCLA. But the third game, he traveled to UNLV. He played in the final five minutes of the Titans’ 3-1 win, touching the ball twice — moments of bliss that box scores will never be able to capture.
One box score forever will.
Perez entered the game against then first-place UC Riverside on Oct. 15. The Titans were on a three-game skid, unable to get a rhythm offensively.
Midfielder Ronaldo Pineda shot the ball, but it wound up falling perfectly in front of Perez. Perez kicked the ball into the back of the net to score in the 76th minute as his game-winner eventually lifted Fullerton, 1-0.
Perez felt the eruption of the crowd explode through his entire body, from the tips of toes to the hair on his scalp. The excitement and shock and bliss was so foreign and so sweet he didn’t know what to do with it.
“I just ran to the bench,” said Perez, whose teammates dogpiled over him in celebration. “Everyone on the team knew how much that goal meant to me.”
That goal meant a lot to the Titans, who have not lost since then.
“He became a catalyst in our season,” Kuntz said. “This guy earned his spot. He forced our hand. It just shows you what guys can do if they don’t give up.”
“Most guys would say, ‘You know what? That’s enough for me,’ but something in the back of his mind said, ‘I’m not giving up on this,’” Kuntz said. “For the rest of his life, he knows he was not a quitter. He achieved his goal and he made a difference in our team.”