Nothing says “Football season’s almost here!” like hot, muggy, upper Midwest weather as the calendar flips from July to August.
For us local sports guys, it means our summer is basically over and it’s time to get to work. Here at The Gazette, we’re currently elbow-deep in putting together the high school football preview section, which returns in 2021 after taking a year off last fall.
In my world, every year when the hot, muggy winds of August blow and it’s time to make the rounds to area football camps, my thoughts drift back to the summer of 1981 and a special friendship with a teammate taken from us way too soon.
Carlos Perez and I met at a Castle Park High School football team organizational meeting held at Castle Park Junior High School in Chula Vista, California, in early June 1981. We were about to graduate from ninth grade and become high school sophomores in the fall.
We’d known each other from classes since I moved to Chula Vista in 1979, just prior to eighth grade. But at the football meeting, we bonded instantly over our shared desire to go out for the team once we got to high school—and the fact that we both had a lot of work to do over the summer to get into football shape.
I spent the summer of 1981 with my dad in Portland, Oregon, and Carlos and I wrote each other letters to keep up to date on our summer workout regimens.
The first week of August arrived, and it was time to return home to San Diego. I got home from the airport and before even unpacking, I asked my mom for the phone so I could call Carlos and coordinate our plans for the first day of practice.
All the color drained from Mom’s face. She asked me to sit down, and then she gently but firmly informed me that Carlos was gone. He collapsed and died of a massive heart attack on the track during conditioning drills the day before.
Dead of a heart attack. At 15.
I don’t remember much of the rest of that day. I went to my room and locked myself away from the world for a few hours. I cranked the radio and tried to think of what to do next.
Of course, there was only one thing to do: Get off the ground, dust myself off, wipe away the tears and get back in the game.
I had to be at the high school at 8 p.m. that night for physicals and equipment checkout.
Eventually, I unpacked my suitcase, hopped on my bike and rode the 4 miles to school with a heavy heart.
I got my workout clothes; my helmet, pads and other gear; and my 5-minute standard physical with an ancient nurse with a four-pack-a-day voice. I also got a nickname: “Radar.” Yeah, the MASH character. It made us all laugh. It was a welcome light moment in a heavy day.
That was 40 years ago this week. I think of Carlos often this time of year as I make my rounds with coaches and players, getting ready to chase the Friday night lights for another season.
And whenever I think of Carlos, I smile.
Here’s to the smiles and memories another crop of prep athletes will be making starting next week.
David Vantress is sports editor of the Janesville Gazette. Contact him at 755-8248, or via email at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @journodave1966.