EL PASO — It’s third down and eight and wide receiver Isaac Perez needs to make a play for the Burges High School football team. He just hopes he can see the ball.
For Perez, the play won’t be just pitch-and-catch like it is for any other player. Catching the ball and running for the touchdown is a process of complex decisions that are made from the moment of the snap, to the instant the ball leaves the quarterbacks’ hand. Perez has to twist his body so that his right side faces the incoming pass. His left side is a permanent blind side.
He lost his left eye to cancer when he was two years old.
He must track the ball flying toward him at more that 30 miles per hour as it gets lost in the night sky hidden by the glare of the stadium lights. With only hundredths of a second to react, Perez cuts across mid-field, arms outstretched, snatches the leather of the football and makes the play.
For the lanky 17-year-old, this is just one moment in his many sports. Whether playing football or running track and field, each athletic moment involves a complex strategy in which compensation is the name of the game.
“It’s a mind game, “ Perez said. “I have to constantly account for which side of the field I’m on, not to mention the defenders and where the ball is coming from. I make sure I’m lined up in the right spot and check to see who is lined up across from me. I must pay attention to where the ball is at all times. When that is done I have to keep track of the ball and if I make the catch I just try to run towards the sidelines where I know where I’m going. The biggest thing is accounting for defenders who are looking to blindside me.”
The biggest hit of his life was off the field at the age of two, when he was diagnosed with retinoblastoma, a cancer that starts in the retina and grows rapidly, and in Perez’ case, it needed surgical removal of his entire left eye.
“I don’t remember it because for as long as I can remember I’ve only been able to see from one eye,” Perez said. “I don’t think it makes a difference. Since I’ve been compensating all my life it is normal for me. I do have a little problem parking a car though. Shooting a gun tends to be a little different as well. While most people close one eye to shoot. I don’t even have to.”
The prosthetic eye in his left eye socket is an intricate object of glass and coral. The crevices in the coral allow the muscles to control the eye’s movement. Only rarely does his eye move out of place. He adjusts to the challenge by always facing people straight on, in the same way he has approached all his challenges.
Perez’ mother, Christina Klaes, says her challenge after the cancer diagnosis was dealing with the fear that he would never live a normal life.
“You don’t want anything to happen to your child and I was always worried when he was little whether he was going to be treated differently by anybody,” Klaes says. “As Isaac got older I knew he would be fine despite what doctors had told me. He had so much energy and was able to do everything that other kids could do. So active, I knew he would be an athlete. He did bump into walls though.”
Perez was too young to remember his parent’s concern. Instead, he recalls the tough look on his mother’s face when she told him he was just like everyone else.
“I didn’t know I only had one eye,” Perez said with his signature smile. “I asked her one day and she told me that nothing was wrong with me, but I knew. I noticed that when I was playing hide and seek when I was younger that I was trying to hide and the other kids would find me. Later on, she looked at me and told me that there wasn’t anything wrong with me and that I could do whatever I wanted to, and I did It was because I though I was hiding, but half of my body would be sticking out the wall and I didn’t know any different. I wasn’t very good at that game.”
He uses the power of humor to cope with his condition in awkward social situations. Never knowing how people are going to react, Perez is quick to turn to his bag of tricks to lighten the mood.
“Sometimes I make a joke about my vision,” Perez said. “People call me the one eyed bandit. I don’t mind. I’ve even just taken out my eyeball and placed it in my hand. People stare and that makes me uncomfortable, that usually draws their attention. ”
Never wanting any special attention to his condition he has participated in sports since the age of six.
Starting baseball and basketball in middle school and now varsity football and track at Burges High School, he has found his way in the realm of athletics with the support of teammates and coaches.
“He never makes any excuses and doesn’t ever want any special conditions for himself,” said Manny Herrera, Burges football and track coach. “I would be doing Isaac a disservice if I did.”
Perez’ football season was cut short after he broke a clavicle in practice. That gave him time to move to another passion. As the all-district hurdler gears up for the track season, the hurdles before him are real.
“I remember my middle school coach asked the team if anybody wanted to do hurdles,” he remembers. “I didn’t even know what they were but I just knew I wanted to do them. Now my coach tells me that I have the best form of anyone out there.”
Having a vastly distorted depth perception is not normal for hurdlers, as every centimeter of space between them and the hurdle means clearing it cleanly or being launched head first into the track.
“The first time I ever tried going over a hurdle I fell pretty hard,” Perez said with a smile on his face. “That’s when I knew I had to continue and no matter what I was going to get over that hurdle and eventually I did.”
Perez also mist deal with all the normal pressures of being a teenager, girlfriends, driving, managing a social circle all while keeping up his grades while playing sports.
The next major hurdle will be college, since he aspires to attend the University of Texas at El Paso. With 17 years behind him and 15 of those half blind, he is optimistic about what lies ahead.
“I know that I can do anything,” Perez said, “There is nothing I can’t do. I want to be an example for others who have my same problem, that there is no reason why you can’t do anything.”