Player of the Year is all about performance and production, not college scholarship offers and recruiting service ratings. But even Matt Perez is special. I've seen him play in four games this season and never ceased to be amazed by his professional approach to the game, even when he is battered and limping and hurting.
No end zone dances, no trash talking, no finger pointing, no high fives, not even a wink and a nod. He goes to work with a lunch pail and helmet in hand and his ever-present elbow pads, his good-luck charm. And he never calls in sick or takes a play off.
Perez was a unanimous choice of staff writers who cover the games and coaches who have watched him or played against him as the Sun-Times Player of the Year for 2009. No one else was in the mix. When was the last time a player dominated a season as much as the Maine South running back/defensive end?
The Sun-Times Player of the Year award was introduced in 1951. Evanston's Bob McKeiver was the inaugural recipient. The first one I covered and wrote about was Evanston's Carlos Matthews in 1968. St. Rita's Billy Marek made an unforgettable impression in 1971. His ball-carrying exploits and charisma are legendary to this day.
Since then, the POYs who excited me the most were Oak Park's Eric Kumerow (1982), Tilden's Dempsey Norman (1983), Naperville Central's Ryan Clifford (1999), Maine South's Sean Price (2003), Wheaton Warrenville South's Dan Dierking (2006) and Naperville North's Jordan Tassio (2007).
I still remember going to Deerfield in 1982 to cover top-ranked Deerfield against Tilden in the opening round of the state playoff.
"What are you doing here?" Deerfield coach Paul Adams asked me, surprised that I had chosen this game to cover.
"Look at this way," I told him. "If you win, it'll be a short story buried in the back of the sports section. But if you lose, it'll be on the back page of the paper."
I can't say I had a vision of what was to come. But I knew Tilden was better than most people thought. After all, the Public League didn't get any respect from the suburbs. And I knew Tilden had a couple of promising juniors, quarterback Jamie Barton and wide receiver Dempsey Norman.
Well, Barton and Norman had breakout games, Tilden won 27-21 and, sure enough, the story was on the back page of the paper the next day. Norman went on to be Player of the Year as a senior in 1983.
At his retirement dinner, I presented Adams with a framed copy of the article.
But Perez tops them all.
Coaches talk about him as if they are preparing for or have just seen Jim Brown or Walter Payton or Barry Sanders. "I've never seen anything like it," said Loyola coach John Holecek, a former NFL linebacker, after viewing Perez' quarterfinal performance against Glenbrook South.
In selecting the All-Chicago Area team, one of the major questions to be answered was who was going to be the other running back. There were several candidates.
"I think my kid is good enough to be on the team," one coach said, "but Perez is clearly the Player of the Year."