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Coulda. Woulda. Shoulda.

What if things were just a little different for quarterback Mike Perez?

Kurt Warner? His name shows up twice atop the league's major record charts. He ranks third in career passing percentage. And he still holds the record for most fumbles in a single season.

Most of Perez's records, you might argue, are simply the result of longevity. You put in the years and you pile up more attempts, and with any skill whatever, you complete more than those who left earlier. Yet Perez averaged more passing yards and touchdowns per year than Warner, too. "In 1996," he recalls, "I threw for 84 touchdowns and 4,200 yards. No one had ever got over 3,000 yards before that. And I got over 4,000.

"And," he adds, "head-to-head, I outdid him."

There is no transitive property in sports. In any given game or season, A may outperform B and B may outperform C, but that doesn't necessarily make A better than C. Athletics is not math. (If it were, the Nike swoosh would grace pocket protectors and Rick Neuheisel would be fighting for tenure.) Nowhere is this truer than at the position of quarterback, where the things that can't be measured with a yardstick are precisely what make a quarterback successful. Many quarterbacks throw thunderbolts. Not as many have the drive and the vision and the command to pilot a professional football team.

And yet, if you're Mike Perez in the year of Kurt Warner, you wonder.

"There probably aren't NFL-quality players at every position in the Arena Football League," Mike Perez says. "But you do have some guys who could play at that level and, for whatever reason, aren't. I played with some fullbacks in Albany that were better than first-round draft choices I played with during the New York Giants training camp in 1991. And I played with a kicker, Peter Elezovik [the Arena Football League's all-time field goal percentage leader], who is better than many kickers in the NFL."

There are not a lot of similarities between arena football and the real thing. One is played on a hundred-yard field, the other on a stunted fifty-yard version. One is surrounded by cheerleaders and ESPN cameramen, the other by a four-foot, high-density foam-rubber wall. In one league, a quarterback sails a pass out of the end zone, and it drops incomplete -- end of story. In the other, the quarterback can bounce the ball off a net into the hands of his receiver. In many ways, it's not even the same game.

Mike Perez is not bitter, but throwing a football is throwing a football, right?

So today he watches Kurt Warner with the half-serious, half-wistful eyes of a guy who knows he missed the boat but in some quiet moments can't help questioning whether he still might be able to swim. Then, "Nah," he says. "I'm 34 years old. Nobody's goin' to be knockin' on my door." In fact, he's wondering whether he's even up for another arena training camp. After three decades of living and breathing football, a place inside of him has been telling him that maybe it's time to move on. The trick, the hard part, is learning to pay attention. "I don't know. I don't know. It's happened slowly," he says. "I've gradually let it go over the past several years. The level I've got to, there's really not anything they can tell me that I don't know anymore. All the tricks the coaches use to motivate you, I don't buy anymore. The mortgage biz is good..."

And yet. Professional sports screw with a man's life passages. Middle age arrives far too early. Like other men, aging football players construct their fantasies, but rather than buying a new sports car or acquiring a younger wife -- most of them already have that stuff -- 35-year-old athletes instead seek to hold on to their youth in another lie. They convince themselves they can stick it out another year.

"I remember the year I tried out with the Broncos," Perez says. "I had a better camp than both Tommy [Maddox] and Shawn [Moore]. I played in the preseason against Miami -- had a good drive, ended in a field goal. When I got cut, they didn't say I got beat. Bob Ferguson [director of player personnel] told me it was between me and Shawn, and they couldn't cut a black man. I told him, 'Last time I checked, Hispanics were a minority, too.'"

It's true: Mike Perez had his chances. Tryouts with the Giants, Houston, Kansas City, the Broncos, the last audition hampered by an unrecovered rotator-cuff injury. "It felt like somebody was slowly cutting off my arm," he recalls. "It was brutal." He always seemed to make it right up to the end, though, right up to the magical line between preseason prospect and making the roster. But he never made it from the games that didn't count to the ones that did.

Don't misunderstand. The life hasn't been bad. No regrets. Frankfurt was "a real good experience," Albany "a real nice place." The money's decent now, about $4,000 per game, plus incentives and a living allowance. Who can argue with $60,000 for five months of work? There are worse places to work than Hartford; just ask thousands of insurance agents. And, as is not the case with most young men who have made football their entire lives, working only part-time on the field will force you to find an actual profession.

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