The scene was a familiar one Saturday night.
The South Dade wrestling team was up on the podium posing with yet another state championship trophy — No. 12 to be exact, and the Buccaneers’ fourth in row.
Yet the man in the center of the celebration made this state title so much different and so much more special than any of the previous 11.
That’s because principal Javier Perez, sitting in front of the makeshift stage in his wheelchair, smiled with his triumphant students and coaches with a championship medal proudly wrapped around his neck.
For the past 10 months, Perez has been an inspiration to the entire student body and faculty at the school, not to mention those who have followed his story.
On April 26, Perez was spending an early Tuesday evening watching his 5-year-old son Jordan play T-ball at Tamiami Park.
That’s when an SUV swerved out of control, caromed off the road and slammed into the fence down the right-field line.
Perez was struck by the car and pinned against the fence.
Marilyn Aguilera, 51, was charged with DUI and causing major bodily harm in the accident.
According to the arrest report, her blood alcohol level was .227, nearly three times the legal limit. She pleaded not guilty and the case, according to Perez is scheduled for trial in a few months.
“The last thing I remember to this day was seeing that car coming right at me and simply reacting by pushing an old man next to me out of the way,” said Perez who was credited with saving a 74-year old man’s life and rushed to Kendall Regional Medical Center where he lost both legs and barely survived, lapsing into a coma for the next month.
“The next thing I know I wake up thinking it was the next day when it had been an entire month.”
Not long after that, wrestling coach Vic Balmeceda came to see him and Perez made him a promise that when the Bucs got back up to state, he would be there — no matter what.
Sure enough, the state wrestling tournament was the first official South Dade athletic event Perez attended since the accident.
“He was laying right in that bed not looking all that great but he stared right at me and made me that promise,” Balmeceda said. “His determination and courage is unmatched, and I can’t even begin to tell you the profound effect it had on our kids this weekend when they saw him.”
It sure did with Elijah Varona.
After severely injuring his ankle during Friday morning warmups when two heavyweights fell on it, he proceeded to move around on crutches for the next two days. The only time he wasn’t on crutches was when he took to the mat and somehow defeated all four of his opponents to defend his state title and got a standing ovation from the crowd when he won Saturday night.
“I think what Elijah went out there and did probably reflects a lot on Vic,” Perez said. “Having been close to him, I can honestly tell you the job that he not only does on the mat with these kids but what he teaches them off the mat, about being great leaders in the community, what they’re going to do later on in life is going to allow them to be able to overcome challenges.
“Whether it’s something small or something as big as what I’m going through. And there you go, Exhibit A right out in front of us this weekend with what Elijah went out there and did. Truly remarkable and not something most kids would’ve been able to do. Regardless where life takes that young man, he’s going to be successful because he knows how to handle adversity and knows what to do.”
I can’t even begin to tell you the profound effect it had on our kids this weekend when they saw him.”
Vic Balmeceda, South Dade wrestling coach
Said Varona: “Seeing Mr. Perez up there had a lot to do with what I managed to do. We all love him so much and to see what he has gone through and the courage he has shown makes everything else we have to deal with seem like nothing, including my bad ankle. I felt like I was out there competing for him as much as anybody else.”
Perez said he is in the process of being fitted for prosthetic legs and figuring out how to walk all over again.
“The biggest challenge I’ve ever had to face, even bigger than the accident itself,” Perez said of learning to walk again.
“The last 10 months of my life? What can I tell you. I thank God that I have an unbelievable wife [Maytee], family, friends and an incredible support system. What’s really amazing is the amount of phone calls, emails, letters of support I’ve received from people I don’t even know and who don’t know me. That’s what has me so well both mentally and physically and allowed me to pull through.”
Perez is a man of strong faith and firmly is under the belief and understanding that, for whatever reason, was chosen for the mission that he is now on.
“I’ll be honest man, I wasn’t supposed to make it, I wasn’t even supposed to be here right now,” he said. “From what every doctor told my wife and family that it was nearly a zero chance of survival and here I am.
“The Lord? He works in mysterious ways and the way I look at it now, this is a blessing because now, my job from now on is going to be helping others. Helping not only people in situations like mine with missing limbs, but people that are having hard times in life in overcoming things. My mission in life from now on is to go out and help those people.
“The Lord has plans for everybody and I think this is his plan for me.”
As far as his plans to eventually go back and resume his old position at South Dade which is currently waiting for him?
“The timetable for me to be back up on my feet with the prosthetics is still up in the air,” Perez said. “But the promise I’ve made to myself and will hold to is that I’m not going back to that school in a wheelchair.
“I have not been back there since the day I walked out of there last April and the next time I go through those doors, it’s going to be WALKING through those doors. It’s going to happen, it’s just a matter of time.”