Tony Perez was a man in motion until he wasn’t.
“He raises all this money and he gets you coming back because you see all the lives that he saves,” Betty Blair said.
Escondido’s Blair, and countless others, volunteer with Operation Game On. The organization that Perez heads points wounded military heroes toward golf.
Perez’s efforts get his sleeve tugged often by appreciative partners of those compromised.
“My husband fell into a deep depression after returning,” a wife of an injured warrior told Perez. “Now golf has turned into a great outlet for him.”
Operation Game On is in full swing with Perez’s return. Make that a grateful Perez as he dodged fate when his ticker revolted about a year ago.
Everyone knew Perez had a big heart. They didn’t realize it was failing.
Five of Perez’s arteries resembled the I-5 and I-805 merge at rush hour: All clogged up with the blood, instead of cars, having nowhere to go.
“It came out of nowhere because I was feeling fine,” Perez said. “They told me my first symptom would have been seeing the ground coming up on me. I cheated death.”
Someone decided Perez’s angel wings could wait. He survived emergency open-heart surgery and while he was mending, a tsunami of get-well cards, texts and phone calls came his way.
Perez is a staple in San Diego County golf circles, where for more than three decades he’s been the starter at the Farmers Insurance Open at Torrey Pines Golf Course.
Before someone takes a swing, Perez clears his voice by introducing him. In turn, everyone knows Perez’s name.
The players adore him, many of them meeting him through his son, professional golfer Pat Perez, the former Torrey Pines High standout.
In many circles, the elder Perez stands taller than his offspring. That’s especially true with Operation Game On, something Perez started 13 years ago to aid those paying the costs so we can enjoy the blessings of freedom.
Perez, 77, is more than a proud American. He was an Air Force master sergeant seeing action in Vietnam at some of its more epic battles.
“It wasn’t pretty,” said the normally chatty Perez, leaving it at that.
Perez remembered those Vietnam colleagues coming home with significant injuries and often being met with jeers instead of cheers. No way that was happening on Perez’s watch, as military personnel returned from Middle East battlefields.
To coax the disabled out of the shadows, Perez put golf clubs in their hands. He collects dough to get them outfitted and aligns them with other veterans that might be missing a limb or the motivation to chase happiness.
“Golf is the hook,” Perez said.
No matter how you slice it, Perez deserves a salute.
“Some guys are so depressed that they just don’t know what to do,” Perez said. “After about the third week, they get very comfortable talking to each other and soon they are heckling each other, just like any other golfers.”
One might hear, “Go Navy, Beat Army!”
What those golfers really mean is “Go Perez” and beat it if you doubt his fortitude.
At the recent Operation Game On’s 15-inch event, golfers attempted a hole-in-one at an oversized target with the aim of raising funds. Nearly $120,000 was brought in, with the regular tournament coming in the spring.
“It’s fun and it makes you feel good to give back,” Blair said. “We know that sometimes you can see the wounds and sometimes you can’t. But we know they are there.”
That Perez is again here-there-and-everywhere warms your soul. That one person can spread so much love is an inspiration.
The endeavor’s roots stretch to 2008, when Perez invited amputee veterans to announce golfers at Torrey Pines.
“I wanted Americans to see how these guys looked when they came home,” Perez said.
Not many dry eyes accompanied their read-outs. Soon Perez was fulfilling the warriors’ aspirations to play golf.
Perez got busy, as he’s apt to do. When Carlsbad’s TaylorMade quickly jumped in with a $40,000 donation it was, well, game on.
“God kept him here for a reason,” Blair said of Perez’s recovery. “And he lives it every day with Operation Game On.”