David Flores: Marine casualty was loyal Spurs fan
Web Posted: 04/22/2006 12:00 AM CDT

San Antonio Express-News

Whenever Marine Lance Cpl. Stephen Joseph Perez called home from Iraq, he usually had one burning question after catching up with his family.

How are the Spurs doing?

"He loved the Spurs," said Conrado Perez Jr., his father. "He always wanted to know how they were playing."

When one of his former teachers at St. Anthony High School sent him a Tim Duncan jersey last year, Stephen wore it proudly around the Camp Pendleton area in California.

"He said he got a lot of questions and looks about that," Kenny, his older brother, said Friday. "When a guy asked him why he was wearing that jersey in California, my brother told him, 'Because the Spurs are the best.' He could be blunt like that."

Sadly, one of our best and brightest was taken from us in Iraq last week.

Stephen Perez will be laid to rest at Fort Sam Houston National Cemetery at 11a.m. today, just a few hours before the Spurs host the Sacramento Kings in Game1 of their Western Conference first-round series.

That may come across as trivializing a brave American's life and death, but one of his aunts doesn't see it that way.

"No, not at all," Annette Gremmer said. "The Spurs jersey was the first thing he changed into when he came home."

Perez's funeral Mass starts at 9a.m. at the St. Anthony High School Chapel.

Perez, a 2002 St. Anthony graduate who played football and baseball for the Yellowjackets, was killed by shrapnel from an explosion April13 in an area between Fallujah and Karma. He was 22.

With the revelry of Fiesta and another Spurs playoff run starting, it's easy to get caught up in the festive atmosphere synonymous with San Antonio this time of the year.

But lest we forget, it's important we continue honoring the brave hearts in our armed forces during these times of danger and uncertainty.

"Something like this puts things in perspective for you in a hurry," said Frank Vavala, St. Anthony football coach and athletic director. "As coaches, we talk about a devastating loss, but that's just a game.

"There's no comparison. Stephen's death is devastating to me because, as a teacher and coach, you don't ever think you'll lose one of your kids."

Perez played tight end and defensive end on the St. Anthony football team and was a first baseman on the baseball squad.

"He was a coach's dream," Vavala said. "He was a great kid who never missed practice, never complained."

When he decided to quit school at St. Mary's and enlist in the Marines after the terrorist attacks of Sept.11, 2001, Perez went to Vavala for a letter of recommendation.

"He had flat feet," Vavala said. "He needed a letter from me saying that flat feet hadn't kept him from playing football and baseball. He was excited."

That Perez was a model Marine shouldn't surprise anyone. His loyalty to the Corps reflected the core of his soul.

"He was a really special person," his father said. "He had a glow."

Perez's parents divorced when he was an infant, but he visited his father regularly in Eagle Pass. Conrado Perez Jr. was a standout pitcher for Eagle Pass High School in the 1970s and went on to a stellar career at St. Mary's.

"My son's death has touched the whole Eagle Pass community because he loved Eagle Pass," Conrado said. "He always asked how the Eagles were doing."

Perez watched the last two games of last year's NBA Finals on TV while home on leave.

"He was very disappointed that the Spurs lost Game 6, but he said, 'I know they're going to win Game 7,'" said Kenny, 26. "He was ecstatic when the Spurs won. He was screaming at the top of his lungs."

Kenny said he was "a little surprised" when his brother enlisted, but he learned to understand his brother's motivation.

"He really didn't have a reason why he joined," Kenny said. "All he said was, 'I have to do this, I must do this.' I think he wanted to be a part of something historic that would make a difference in people's lives."

A bright light has been extinguished from our noonday, but we still will be able to see it when the stars come out at night.

Vaya con Dios, Stephen.