Dallas Perez was a winner.
He won two state championships at Plantation American Heritage, one in baseball as an outfielder and one in football as a wide receiver. And in his first collegiate baseball season, he helped Nova Southeastern University win its first national title.
But despite all his talents, he won’t be there on Friday night as host NSU, ranked No. 1 in the nation, opens defense of its NCAA Division II national championship. Instead, Perez’s name will be on the wall in right-center field, and his infectious spirit will be in hearts of many.
Perez died in a car crash on Dec. 18. He was only 21.
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“It will be heart-wrenching,” said his father, Mario Perez, referring to being in attendance for Friday night’s opener against Tusculum. “I know how hard he had worked this offseason to be ready for this, and now he won’t get that opportunity.”
Mario Perez said more than 1,000 people attended a mass in his son’s honor, which was held at St. Gregory Catholic Church in Plantation shortly after Perez’s death.
Many of those people will be at NSU’s ballpark on Friday, including his mother Yoly, his sister Kelsey and his brothers Pinder and Kyle, who plays safety at FIU.
Kevin Suarez, NSU’s center fielder and one of Dallas’ best friends, will wear Dallas’ No. 21 this season in tribute.
“Dallas was the man,” Suarez said. “He was all about laughing and jokes. … His loss leaves a hole in me.”
Suarez remembers Scout Day this past fall.
Major-league scouts were invited to a scrimmage, and Dallas Perez put on a show, ranging to the warning track in right-center before making a diving catch on a drive by Suarez.
“He came out of nowhere,” Suarez said. “He was all scratched up, but he didn’t care. He was hyped.”
Perez, a 5-8, 170-pounder, had gone to Appalachian State to play football as a preferred walk-on. But when he didn’t like it there, he came home to play baseball and was a freshman during NSU’s championship run. He started 19 games.
Mario Perez, an attorney who doubles as the offensive coordinator at Heritage, was there when his son hit a grand slam against conference rival St. Leo.
“Me and [NSU pitcher] Jonny Ortiz spent 15 minutes looking for that ball in the bushes” beyond the fence in left-center field, said Mario Perez, who indeed found the prized artifact, his son’s first collegiate homer.
“Dallas loved to compete. He loved to win. But he didn’t care about awards or keepsakes. He was a lot more humble than I was.”
Mario Perez will never forget seeing a Florida Highway Patrol officer outside his door on the morning of Dec. 18.
He knew that this couldn’t be good. And it wasn’t.
Dallas Perez had gone out with his brothers that night. But while they spent the night at a friend’s house, Perez wanted to sleep in his own bed and was on his way home at 4:50 a.m. when he lost control of his car.
He clipped the vehicle in front of him and flipped down an embankment on the side of 1-75, between Sheridan Street and Griffin Road.
Dallas Perez’s Kia Optima caught fire, but he had already died on impact.
Suarez, who had been invited to hang out with Dallas and his brothers that night, but had opted to spend time with his family in Miami, tried to reach his friend on Sunday, but the calls went straight to voicemail.
Finally, he called Mario Perez, and he knew immediately something had gone terribly wrong.
“I never cried so much in my life,” Suarez said.
The next day, Sharks coach Greg Brown and all local NSU players who were home for Christmas break met at the NSU Baseball Complex at 1 p.m. to share their feelings, pray and reminisce about Dallas.
“I got there at 10 a.m. … I couldn’t sleep,” said outfielder Brandon Gomez, who knew Dallas for more than a decade. “This has hit me terribly. To go to the field and not see him or hear him … it’s hard.”
Gomez said Dallas taught him much.
“Whenever I have a bad day, I will remember that I’m playing for something much bigger than just myself,” he said. “Every guy on this team, we all carry a piece of Dallas on our backs.”
IN HIS HONOR
Brown said NSU’s theme this year is #DallasStrong, which is what the banner in right-center field reads, just below Perez’s No. 21.
There is also an effort underway to establish a scholarship in Dallas Perez’s name, and Mario Perez said he’s extremely grateful to Brown for continuing to honor his son.
Dallas, a finance major, was never a bad student. But Mario Perez said he was hard on his son, demanding excellence, and it wasn’t until this past fall when Dallas turned a corner academically, getting four A’s and one B.
“I think he finally understood why I was so hard on him,” Mario said.
Yoly, Perez’s mother, was the counterbalance to Mario. She was the more understanding parent, Dallas Perez’s confidante, always there for encouragement, and she feels his loss every day.
“He was our first child — he made us a family,” Yoly Perez said. “When Mario would reprimand him, I would come to Dallas’ rescue. We had a special connection. … A part of me died with him.”
This past fall, Dallas Perez took a course called “Guidance, Purpose and Significance.” In a video that Dallas Perez made as part of the class, he spoke about his father.
“Our relationship was a little rocky,” Dallas Perez said on the video. “But because of the positive outlook I’ve gotten from this class, I’ve built a great relationship with him. My life is a lot better than it was before.”
Mario Perez never got to see that video until after his son had died.