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Coulda. Woulda. Shoulda.

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

Here, then, is the narrow ledge paced by all professional athletes. Fall off one side and you land in a pile of Monday Night fame, immortality and flattering TV graphics. Topple off the other and you sit in a small but neat white house with blue trim just off Five Points, selling mortgages. The wind blows soft and gentle, you're a quarterback who retires with a lifetime supply of love and highlight films -- never mind the $80 million car dealership, which, when you really get down to it, is just a financial reckoning of the fans' love. But a breeze shifts and nudges you off the other side? You're dodging the bums in front of the door, arguing half-points over a second mortgage. Go figure.

"It's a thin line," agrees Mike Perez. "It's all timing."

Remember Mike Perez? Of course you don't, even though he was heaving touchdown passes here years before John Elway even took his SATs, first in Denver's Pop Warner leagues, then for South High before he went off to junior college and, finally, a productive two years at San Jose State, where he led the Spartans to consecutive 10-2 seasons. After that, though, it was a tiring journeyman's tour of second-rate football leagues and near-misses of the bigtime -- a handful of NFL tryouts, the World League team in Frankfurt (that's a city in Germany), and, finally, six years and counting with the Arena Football League, that pinball version of the big-field game. Not a bad career, but let's face it: It's been all off-Broadway work.

"I think I could've done real well in the NFL," Perez says. "It's all timing," he says again.

The reason Mike Perez -- tall, wide-faced, very toothy; in fact, very John Elway, Hispanic version -- is reconsidering his career at all is a fellow named Kurt Warner. Warner plays quarterback for the St. Louis Rams, a professional football team that until recently barely rated a half-step above a bye, but which several weeks ago capped a nifty turnaround by clinching its division with a full month remaining in the regular season. The victory, over the Carolina Panthers, was, as it has been all season, primarily of Warner's doing. He threw for 351 yards (50 percent more than Brian Griese on five fewer attempts during the Broncos' 16-10 loss to Kansas City on that same day, if anyone's still comparing) and three touchdowns, thereby pushing his personal rating so far above every other quarterback in the league that he'd have to start throwing with his feet to fall off the top of the heap before the playoffs begin. Indeed, in the weeks following, Warner would pass for 300-plus yards three more times and become only the second quarterback in NFL history to pass for more than forty touchdowns in a season. Two weeks ago, a 31-10 victory over the New York Giants bestowed St. Louis with the home-field advantage for as far as they are able to go in the playoffs.

Warner is not just the latest 21-year-old college prodigy to hit the NFL running, however (he's 28). In this year of towering "what if" scenarios (What if Terrell hadn't been injured? What if Bubby did have a sufficient IQ to memorize an NFL playbook?), Warner has inspired a whole generation of quarterbacks. Not to work hard and stick to basics, but to pause and wonder what might have been if things had happened just a little differently. What if they'd come out of college a few years later, after the guys named Montana, Kelly, Elway and Marino had refurbished the record books and moved on, and the league suddenly became desperate for unglamorous but solid quarterbacks? What if NFL scouts had looked a little harder at the guys plugging away in football's minor leagues and appreciated what they were doing a little more?

What if things could have worked out for them like they have for Kurt?

Unlike most of the fresh-faced cannon-arms who arrive at new stadiums with Porsches and bodyguards, Warner's trip to the big leagues was dogged and slow, marked by plenty of detours to places notable only for the surprise people show when they hear professional football is played there. He was passed over entirely by the NFL draft in 1995, after which he hitched on for a tour of duty with the Amsterdam (a city in the Netherlands) Admirals of NFL Europe. Following that came a couple of years with the Iowa Barnstormers of the Arena League. And yet, despite slogging through the ranks of has-beens and never-will-bes, he's on top of the world. A stainless-steel-lunchbox model for all the football players out there claiming they coulda. Shoulda. Told ya.

Which is where Mike Perez comes in. Until last year, there was little difference between the careers of quarterbacks Kurt Warner and Mike Perez. Oh, wait -- there was one difference. Perez was arguably the better player.

Since he joined the league in 1994, Perez has played on three arena teams -- Albany, New York, and, lately, the New England Sea Wolves (who host their indoor games in Hartford, Connecticut). Look down the list of passing record-holders in the Arena Football League and you'd be hard-pressed to find a category without Mike Perez's name somewhere near the top. He has the second-most attempts, the second-most completions and the second-highest passing yardage of any quarterback who played in the league. He is the career leader for passing touchdowns, by a long shot.

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.

"NFL stands for 'Not For Long,'" he says. "It's a fantasy world. Most guys are not prepared for when they leave it. But I've got a skill. I'm working."

Part-time professional football also helps you keep your perspective. In the arena league, there are no long-term contracts. Every year, players are free agents all over again, fighting for their jobs and wondering if the last year was the final one. It gives you an appreciation for the fact that you are being paid to play a game. It reminds you of the wonder to be found under the lights.

"There's a lot I don't remember about my preseasons and tryouts with the pros," Perez says. "But I do remember very clearly when I was a kid playing Pop Warner football. Each season, the Broncos let us play a game in Mile High Stadium. I remember the first time walking into the stadium. It was huge. I remember that better than anything else."

Still, you have to speculate. You can't help it. You look at the state of NFL quarterbacks these days and you find youself asking the question. The starters are mediocre, their backups -- just take a peek: Atlanta loses Chris Chandler, and suddenly the team is imploding. A disaster. And don't even mention Bubby and Chris and Brian.

So you give the required nod to Kurt -- even in World League and arena ball, you learn your cliches -- but you add a zinger at the end because...well, because you never know.

"Kurt's a great guy," says Mike. "But I don't think anyone who played with him thought he'd be at the magnitude he's at now."

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