Scott Altenberg, the Gardena Serra football coach, doesn't know whether to laugh or cry when he tells the story of senior linebacker Ardis Perez.
Two years ago, Perez broke his neck on the opening kickoff of a semifinal playoff game against Paso Robles.
"He didn't move for 20 minutes," Altenberg said. "When he went down, I literally couldn't move myself. It was a real scary moment."
Perez said, "All I remember is it felt like I was floating down, and I couldn't move. I closed my eyes and started praying."
Not only did Perez recover after having surgery to repair the fifth cervical bone, he became an all-league linebacker for the Cavaliers this season and captain on a team that plays West Hills Chaminade on Friday night at home for the Western Division championship.
Altenberg laughs when reminding everyone how last season he used to make Perez wear a gold jersey on the practice field "because I didn't want him getting touched, treating him like an egg."
"After awhile, I forgot about the injury and that's when I knew it was time to take the gold jersey off," Altenberg said.
Said Perez: "I had a great doctor. I've just been praying, keeping faith and following my dream."
Back to the future
Remember when Russia and the United States used to be enemies in the Cold War? Santa Ana Mater Dei and Long Beach Poly used to be engaged in a football version of a Cold War rivalry, particularly in the 1990s. The last time these two teams played each other in a championship game was 1999, and it ended in a 21-21 tie.
Poly has won 18 Southern Section championships. Mater Dei has won 10 championships. They renew their rivalry in the Pac-5 Division final Saturday night at Angel Stadium.
"We have tremendous respect for Mater Dei," Poly Coach Raul Lara said. "I love Bruce Rollinson. This is a big game for us. It brings back old memories, especially when we were battling back and forth. It's going to be neat."
Poly will be trying to do something very difficult — beat Trinity League teams in consecutive weeks. Top-seeded Ventura St. Bonaventure couldn't do it, beating Santa Margarita, then losing to Mater Dei. Poly defeated Bellflower St. John Bosco last week.
"It's crazy going from the preseason when we were 1-3 and nobody believing in us," Poly running back Gerard Wick said. "The key thing was getting better each day and practicing hard every day. It's an exciting feeling."