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As Start-up Football Leagues Fight for Survival, Luis Perez Has Become the King of Spring

From the AAF to the USFL to multiple incarnations of the XFL, spring football leagues are trying—and often failing—to exist in the NFL’s massive shadow. But at the heart of these developmental leagues are players like Perez, who just keep fighting for a chance to play.

Luis Perez’s goal was never to become the King of Spring.

“When I was a kid, my dream wasn’t to be in the USFL, the Spring League, the AAF, the XFL,” Perez says, rattling off the list of leagues in which he has played quarterback and thrived over the past four years.

It’s true in the literal sense—Perez couldn’t possibly have dreamed of playing in those leagues, all of which were born since 2017 and some of which have already died. But it’s also true in the grander sense. Kids dream of playing in the NFL, not these acronyms.

It seems like every year brings a new spring football league launched by someone throwing hundreds of millions of dollars at the premise that America’s football appetite is hungry enough to sustain a league outside the NFL. It seems like it should work—but a handful of leagues have gone belly-up before completing their first season. And yet new challengers show up every year, fighting for eyeballs and claiming they’ll be able to develop talent worthy of the NFL. Each league has a funky new set of rules and create-a-team logos—and each league has Luis Perez.

On Saturday, Perez will play in the first XFL Championship Game, as the starting quarterback for the Arlington Renegades. The 2001 XFL culminated with the “Million Dollar Game,” a title which has been absolutely wrecked by inflation. The 2020 XFL had the misfortune of planning its launch at roughly the same time that COVID-19 arrived, and the league folded before crowning a champion. It’s been a confusing journey for the re-re-born league—but an even more winding journey for Perez.

Perez didn’t play high school football, as he focused on a stellar amateur bowling career—seriously, he recorded 12 perfect games as a teenager and nearly turned pro. He walked on at a juco, Southwestern College, won the starting QB job, won a league championship, transferred up to Division II, won a national championship with Texas A&M-Commerce, and has started in four separate pro spring football leagues. (Five, if we characterize the 2020 and 2023 versions of the XFL as different leagues.) He is the only QB to have won games in the Alliance of American Football, XFL 2.0, the Spring League, the USFL, and XFL 3.0.

Perez started this XFL season on the Vegas Vipers, but was traded after six weeks to the Renegades. In other pro leagues, getting traded midseason is a major logistical hassle involving a cross-country relocation. The XFL, though, has all its teams based in Arlington, Texas; players live in hotels and teams hold all their practices there and fly to play home games in their assigned markets, so moving from Vegas to Texas didn’t even require a plane. “It was just about a 25-minute Uber ride over to the Sheraton,” Perez says.

And with his extensive history of switching leagues and teams and playbooks at the drop of a hat, Perez quickly helped turn the Renegades’ season around. “He’s a galvanizing guy, he really brought the team together,” head coach Bob Stoops told ESPN. (Yes, Arlington’s head coach is that Bob Stoops, the Oklahoma legend.) “He’s a natural true leader… he’ll be instructing the receivers on how to run their routes and where he wants to throw it.” The Renegades’ two highest-scoring games of the season have come in Perez’s four starts, against the two best teams in the league: A 28-26 overtime loss to the DC Defenders, the team they’ll play in the championship game, and a 26-11 win over the Houston Roughnecks in the first round of the playoffs. Pro Football Focus gives Perez the highest offensive grade and “big-time throw” rate of any QB in the league. (Yes, PFF grades XFL games.)

But Perez hasn’t gotten the big break he craves. Although he’s had offseason stints with the Eagles and Lions, played in a handful of preseason games and spent some time on the Rams’ practice squad, he has yet to make an NFL regular-season roster. “What sucks is, they don’t tell you why you’re getting cut,” Perez says. So he keeps showing up in the spring.

If Perez is the King of Spring, he is Odysseus. His quest to make the NFL seems straightforward enough, but the winds and tides keep pushing him into various adventures and catastrophes he didn’t sign up for. It might not be the career he dreamed of, but it’s a remarkable one—and he’s still hoping to live his dreams. Can the XFL get him where he wants to go?

Perez’s pro career began at the dawn of something like a Golden Age of Spring Football. I’m not quite sure why we’re in a Golden Age of Spring Football, but compared to some of the other stuff currently having golden ages, like “creepy images generated by AI” and “Earth temperatures,” I’ll take it.

The dream of actually challenging the NFL is long dead. The original USFL tried in the 1980s, led and bankrupted by Donald Trump, and the original XFL tried in 2001, selling brashness rather than quality football. Now, it’s broadly understood that for any upstart pro football league to survive, it must try to exist within the NFL’s ecosystem. You can’t play in the fall or compete with the NFL for players—you have to play in the spring and sell fans on the idea that perhaps the players they’re watching will eventually make it to the NFL.

The first of this new generation of competitive spring leagues to get off the ground was the Alliance of American Football in 2019. Perez led the Birmingham Iron to a playoff berth that year, and then the playoffs never happened. The league folded with two weeks left in the regular season amid a power struggle between founder Charlie Ebersol and its principal owner; the dispute is still carrying on in courts today. Players like Perez were focused on football when the paychecks stopped. “You’re worried about game-planning and how am I going to defeat my opponent … the last thing you’re thinking about is whether the league is going to shut down,” Perez said.

Then came XFL 2.0, hoping to capitalize on some of the nostalgia from the original XFL. Perez won his first two games as starter of the New York Guardians … and then COVID hit. The pandemic shut down the world’s biggest sports leagues, so a football startup looking for a foothold barely had a chance. At least Perez and his peers got paid this time.

In 2021, Perez joined the Spring League, which could barely be called a pro league—when it launched in 2017, it billed itself as a place for players to get pro-level coaching and showcase their skills for NFL scouts and didn’t actually pay its players salaries. (Some players had to pay a $2,000 fee to join the league; the fee was waived for players like Perez who had NFL experience.) In its first few years, the Spring League did not attempt to cater to fans at all, with no championship game, no attendance, no team names, and no TV deals. That had slightly changed by the time Perez showed up two years ago—he led “The Jousters” to the “Mega Bowl.” The Spring League’s owners abandoned that concept and launched the USFL in 2022, taking the logos and IP from the 1980s league. (They actually agreed to pay players this time.) Perez went 9-1 as starter for the New Jersey Generals. Perez has made the playoffs in every league he’s played in that survived long enough to have a postseason—and even made the playoffs in one league that didn’t.

Even though it seemed impossible for even one spring football league to survive in a crowded American pro sports landscape, there are now two. The USFL is a month into its second season, and the XFL kicked off a week after the Super Bowl. The Rock, a part-owner and the public face of the XFL, cut a wrestling promo before the season opener proclaiming that “the X in XFL represents the intersection between ideas and opportunity.” (I guess it no longer stands for “Xtreme.”)

There are plenty of fun things about XFL 3.0. The fans in St. Louis filled their dome with close to 40,000 fans—proving that St. Louisans do love football, as long as their team loves them back. The DC Defenders’ fans are building record-setting beer snakes, and the league has replaced the late-game onside kick with an opportunity to convert a fourth-and-15 to keep possession—which Perez successfully executed as part of a 17-point fourth-quarter comeback against the Defenders.

But the novelty of the spring football boom may have worn off. The XFL’s TV ratings started off worse than what the AAF and XFL 2.0 recorded in 2019 and 2020, respectively, and have continued to fall throughout the season, with Arlington’s game against Seattle described as “one of the lowest-recorded audiences for a pro football game in modern history.” The USFL’s second season, meanwhile, had the worst first-week TV numbers of any spring league to date. There are plenty of reasons TV ratings should not be considered the prime metric to determine a league’s success … but if things are trending worse than they were for leagues that folded, it’s not a good sign.

Of course, none of this matters to Perez. It is not his job to care about the economics of spring football, or experimental rules, or what the X in XFL stands for. All he has ever wanted to do is play quarterback. He chose to play in the XFL this year instead of returning to the USFL because of the XFL’s more NFL-friendly calendar. The USFL season will carry on through July 1, while the XFL season ends in time for Perez to participate in NFL OTAs and minicamps in May and June, should a team give him a call. “When you’re in my situation playing in the spring, your goal is to make it to the fall season,” Perez says. “The last thing I want is for me not to be ready if a team calls me for a workout.”

Some might have given up after a second league folding. But Perez refuses. “I’ve been so close,” Perez says. “If that’s my dream and aspiration, why would I ever quit when I’m that close? Quitting is not even a thought. Like, it’s not even an option for me.”

And I think he’s right to keep pushing. Watching the way Perez has led his Renegades team—just like he’s played in prior springs—I am quite confident that there are worse QBs with NFL jobs. (I don’t want to name any, that would be rude.) (OK—Tim Boyle.) At the very least, Perez’s ability to learn and lead on short notice and win games with unusual rosters has to be worth a flier in case of QB injury, of which there are dozens every year. Quarterbacks like Josh Johnson, P.J. Walker, and Taylor Heinicke went from playing in the 2020 XFL to starting NFL games. Why not Perez?

I don’t know whether there’s enough juice to sustain a spring football league long-term, let alone two. But I know this: The most interesting part of the XFL is not the beer snake or the 3-point conversion or its celebrity owner. Those are fun—but not captivating. The soul of these leagues is players like Perez, who believe they belong in the NFL so fervently that they don’t even care what this new league is called or what its rules are.

If the Renegades win on Saturday night, it will be Perez’s official coronation as the King of Spring. After watching leagues fold before they could finish, he’ll get to actually lift the trophy at the end of a full season of football. But the greatest joy of watching Perez win would be the glimmer of hope that it means he’ll never have to play in the spring ever again.