Coulda. Woulda. Shoulda.

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.

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Eric Dexheimer
Contact: Eric Dexheimer