Linda Robertson

Hospitalized South Dade High principal Perez honored for his courage

South Dade High School baseball player Alek Manoah (far right) leads fellow athletes and coaches from the school in prayer during the Miami Herald's All-Dade athletic awards banquet at Jungle Island on Thursday May 26, 2016.
South Dade High School baseball player Alek Manoah (far right) leads fellow athletes and coaches from the school in prayer during the Miami Herald's All-Dade athletic awards banquet at Jungle Island on Thursday May 26, 2016. pfarrell@miamiherald.com

Javier Perez was a man in motion. He was an avid runner and baseball coach. Rarely did the South Dade High School principal sit at his desk. He was constantly roaming the halls, visiting classrooms, interacting with students during lunch, directing traffic at dismissal and pacing the sidelines at Buccaneer sports events.

He was known for his lightning smile, his jokes, his hugs and his bow ties, which he took to wearing to avoid the hassle of knotting a regular tie every day.

Perez’s life changed April 26, when a drunk driver plowed through a chain-link fence and careened onto the Tamiami Park baseball diamond where Perez was coaching his 5-year-old son’s team. Perez was dragged and pinned beneath the SUV. Doctors had to amputate both his legs, one below the knee, one above. He also suffered hip, hand and internal injuries.

Three days ago, he was weaned off a ventilator at Kendall Regional Hospital, but he still has many surgeries ahead.

If the outpouring of love and support for Perez has healing power, he will be back at South Dade sooner than expected.

“He has his kids and his wife, his school, his heart and his brain,” South Dade athletic director Mike Polizzano said. “He’s going to be strong. I bet he’ll be running another marathon within five years.”

Perez, 43, received another message of hope Thursday when he won the Leo Suarez/Walter Krietsch Courage Award at the Miami Herald’s annual All-Dade Athletics Awards ceremony. The award is named in honor of two former Herald editors.

The crowd grew silent and tearful as Cheryl Golden, the retiring executive secretary of the Greater Miami Athletic Conference, gave a tribute to Perez, who has worked for Miami-Dade Public Schools for 20 years.

Golden encouraged students to pursue higher education “so you can make him a new set of bionic legs.”

“Life after baseball was played with the same intensity as game day,” Golden said of Perez, who competed in high school, college and the minor leagues before becoming a teacher. “Now he needs all of us to be his No. 1 fan club. … so he can have the strength and courage to overcome this accident and rule South Dade again.”

The South Dade delegation of athletes and coaches accepted the award on Perez’s behalf, and first baseman Alek Manoah led everyone in prayer.

Perez’s wife, Mayte, the CAP counselor at Ronald Reagan High, is at his bedside. Their son and 12-year-old daughter are struggling to cope.

“Javi is breathing on his own. This is a huge step!” Mayte wrote on the GoFundMe page where $140,088 has been raised for Perez so far. She thanked supporters and said when she tells her husband about the get-well wishes “he is overcome with emotion.”

Perez faces a lengthy recovery but is just the sort of person who will accept the loss of his limbs as a new challenge, his friends said.

“He will turn this test into something positive, for himself and others,” said Annie Diaz, assistant principal at Miami Arts Studio who worked with Perez at Southwest High, where he was assistant principal and baseball coach. “He was determined to turn South Dade High around, and he did. If there’s a problem he will solve it — with a great attitude.”

Perez, a Cuban native who moved to the United States at age 7, has worked at seven Miami-Dade schools; previously he was Miami Spring Middle principal. He has been South Dade principal for three years, during which the diverse 3,100-student school has earned a reputation for having a calmer, more disciplined atmosphere. He quotes Gandhi on the Bucs’ website: “You must be the change you wish to see in the world.” In his first year, South Dade won three state titles — in football (as a big underdog), wrestling and baseball. South Dade, which draws students from Homestead, Naranja and Leisure City, was established as the county’s southernmost school in 1953 in what was then a rural farming area. The school’s tradition of teaching agriculture has continued with a horticulture/environmental studies program.

“He has set higher expectations for the students, he emphasizes responsibility and cooperation, and they know they can talk to him anytime,” said assistant and acting principal J.C. DeArmas. “They love him. If he was a senior he’d be voted Most Popular.”

Students held a candlelight vigil for Perez. They arrayed themselves in the shape of a bow tie and sent him the photo. They are wearing JaviStrong and Pray for Perez T-shirts — and bow ties. They’re holding a bingo benefit in Homestead on June 4 and the Javi Perez Road to Recovery 5K run June 5 at Amelia Earhart Park. Participants are asked to wear a bow tie.

Perez’s actions on the evening of the accident provide insight into his character. The out-of-control GMC Envoy first clipped a 39-year-old woman and was barreling toward Elias Espinoza, 74, who was standing on the baseball field. Perez yelled at the Little League players to run, then pushed his friend Espinoza out of the way.

“To save me, he got hurt,” said Espinoza, who was told one of Perez’s first questions in the emergency room was whether Espinoza was OK. “When it hit him, it caused the car to veer out of the way of the kids.”

Driver Marilyn Aguilera, 51, a dental assistant, is under house arrest for DUI in a crash that caused serious injury. She appeared “unsteady and confused,” and her reaction swung from polite to profane and from laughter to crying at the scene, police said. She failed roadside sobriety tests. Police found an open can of beer in her SUV. Blood tests one hour after the accident showed her blood-alcohol content was .227, almost three times above the limit of .08.

Aguilera has a poor driving record, with 14 tickets issued between 2007 and 2013. Aguilera’s attorney, Richard Gregg, said she is “devastated and heartbroken, and she said, ‘If I could give him my legs I would.’”

The South Dade High graduation ceremony is June 6. Perez will be there in spirit.

“The students keep asking me when he’ll be back,” DeArmas said.

He has left the principal’s office door open, just the way Perez would want it.

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