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High Schools

Perez Can Hang With the Very Best

Covina Charter Oak punter averaged 41 yards a kick last year, and the 6-3, 215-pound senior figures the sky is the limit this season.

September 09, 2003|Eric Sondheimer | Times Staff Writer

Aaron Perez never kicked a football until three years ago, which makes his transformation from soccer goalie to UCLA-bound punter even more remarkable.

"I never thought it was possible I could love something as much as soccer," he said.

Perez is a 6-foot-3, 215-pound senior at Covina Charter Oak High. He switched sport allegiances after determining that his ability to kick booming punts would land him a college scholarship.

His football career hardly started on an auspicious note. He was a freshman with no interest in playing football until a friend called him on the last day of Hell Week.

"Man, you play soccer," he said. "We need a kicker."

Perez decided to give it a try.

"I went out, did a bunch of running, I threw up and said, 'I hate this,' " he said.

But the coach gave him a spot on the team as a kicker, and Perez started to improvise and take advantage of his strong leg. He didn't really know what he was doing.

"I had no idea," he said. "I just threw the ball up and kicked it."

His form was still good enough to earn a promotion to varsity his freshman season. Then came the most important development. He was introduced to Chris Sailer, a former UCLA All-American who had just started offering private kicking lessons. Sailer saw Perez's potential and taught him the fundamentals of punting.

"I didn't even think it was going to get me anywhere," Perez said. "That's why I kept playing soccer. Kicking was something I did on the side for fun. Working with Sailer has been the best thing ever for me. He's been where I want to be. Without him, I wouldn't be in this position. He knew it was something I could be good at."

In three years, Sailer said, he has worked with more than 300 high school kickers but found few who could be impact college punters. Perez is one.

"He has the body type of a punter," he said. "That body gives him an incredible whip and follow-through, which you need for punting. He really had the intangibles you can't teach. When I told him that, I think it struck a nerve. He put more time into it. He learned to have a consistent drop. He learned the proper form and body position and has incredible pop on the football."

Soccer players don't usually have too many problems making the transition to kicking footballs, but punting is far more challenging, according to Sailer.

"It's a skill not equivalent to soccer," he said. "Kids have no idea how to punt."

Perez has dedicated himself to mastering the fundamentals. He averaged 41 yards per punt last season and wants to continue to improve his hang time and release time. That's why he practices dropping the ball while walking on the sidewalk in front of his Pomona home. He doesn't practice punting in his backyard, however.

"I'd probably never get my ball back," he said. "I could probably kick it over four or five houses."

Perez, 17, has a 4.0 grade-point average. He felt awkward and uncomfortable making the decision to drop soccer last May. He had been playing the sport since he was 6.

"Watching my [club] team play was the hardest thing," he said.

But he has no regrets. When UCLA Coach Karl Dorrell offered him a scholarship in June, he quickly accepted. He teased his parents about saving them "$100,000" in college tuition.

"I tried that excuse and it worked the first time," he said. "They bought me a shirt.

"I try to use it every time, but they say it doesn't work. I'm still in debt to them for thousands of dollars."

Perez never imagined himself playing in the Rose Bowl before 80,000 spectators.

"I'm nervous playing Garey [High] in front of 100 people at Charter Oak," he said. "It's something I'm going to learn to do."

Perez's talent for punting has created an opportunity he couldn't pass up.

"This is something I need to pursue because it's going to get me somewhere," he said.

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