Kalani Simpson

Sunday, March 20, 2005

Memories of a son
taken too soon

WE come to this story too late. We join it at its too-soon conclusion, its sudden, sad end. An Internet Web page. A father selling off all the sports memorabilia he'd been saving for his only son.

They had always had sports, the two of them. Rich Perez Sr. had played minor league baseball as a young man. In their last phone conversation -- Rich Sr. remembers he took the call at a friend's house off Pali Highway on Super Bowl Sunday -- the son told his father he knew what he wanted to do. Maybe he'd walk on to the baseball team at Hawaii or UNLV.

Sports had always been a part of Rich Sr.'s winding, adventurous career path. He'd worked for the Rams for a while when the team was in L.A. He was a Harlem Globetrotters announcer for a time. He was the original host of "The Best Damn Sports Show Period," before Fox picked it up and dropped him off.

For several months in the mid-'90s he worked at the Foot Locker in Pearlridge, before corporate called him back to the West Coast. Someday, they always said, they were going to live here again.

But in the meantime he was at every sports event, and Rich Jr. always went with him. They knew everyone. If there was a big game or big fight the father was always on the fringes of it, and the son was always by his side. Everybody knew Rich Jr.

Mike Tyson loved the kid. They just got a heartfelt letter from Shawn Green.

"Little Richard just had an innate ability to spark an eternal friendship," family friend Dawn Habhab says. "And it never went away."

Rich Sr. always found a way to work the Pro Bowl into their schedule, and Rich Jr. reveled in it, loved the beaches, loved Hawaii, loved hanging out and meeting all the players. Rich Sr. was here again this year, broadcasting live in his latest gig as a Las Vegas radio sports talk-show host.

Rich Sr. was at the Hilton Hawaiian Village when the Marines came to deliver the news face to face.

"That was his favorite place in the whole world," Rich Sr. says.

RICHARD PEREZ JR. was a Marine. He died after a Feb. 10 truck accident in Al Anbar Province, Iraq. That was his job, the trucks. He loved it, he told his father. He loved being a Marine.

Rich Sr. is angry now. He's sad. He's proud. He is all of these things at once.

He is simultaneously and without contradiction both against the war and button-busting proud that his son was a U.S. Marine.

Rich Jr. had survived the war for Fallujah. He'd done dangerous duty going door to door leading up to the elections. He'd met David Letterman on Christmas Eve.

Both father and son were proud to say that in all his time there Rich Jr. had never fired a gun.

He'd seen things he never thought he'd see, he told his dad. But in the midst of all this, he was helping people.

Habhab is a professional researcher in Iowa, and she tracked down embedded journalists, she scoured CNN. Her estimate (the Marines don't keep these exact details by name, an official said) is that Rich Jr. was the 1,454th U.S. serviceman to die in Iraq, the 348th by accidental death.

He was airlifted to an Iraqi hospital, and his pulse stopped 22 minutes after midnight on Feb. 11. He was 19.

He'd had 10 days left until he was coming home. Ten days.

"We knew if he got through the Pro Bowl he'd be home," Rich Sr. says.

"We didn't make it," he says.

WITH ALL DAD'S jobs, the family -- mother, father, son, three girls -- moved often. Rich Jr. went to five high schools. But Rich never minded, always made friends. He was always everyone's friend.

"I have never," the Las Vegas Review-Journal quoted his last principal, Monte Bay, "ever, heard kids talk about other kids (the way they talked about Rich Jr.)."

Rich Sr. wanted his son to join him, after graduation, maybe get in on the sports radio show. But Rich Jr. had Marine recruiters over to the house instead.

His high school graduation -- he'd gone to night school to make it on time after initially letting his studies slip -- had energized him. He wanted to do something important, something big.

Rich Sr.'s father, Carl, had wanted to join the military in the '50s. But his mother -- Rich Sr.'s grandmother -- refused to sign the papers. Rich Sr. tried to talk his son out of it as well. But in the end he relented.

"He wanted to help people," the father says. "And he did that. He's a hero."

He was 17 years, 10 months, 21 days old when he left for boot camp. Fathers keep track of these things.

He was the first Marine in the history of his alma mater, brand new Coronado High School. He was the first up the ramp on the plane to Iraq, volunteering over his dad's objections once again.

He stopped at the top of the stairs and gave a dramatic Richard Nixon salute. Then he turned, and got on the plane.

SO HERE WE are, back at the end of the story, having missed all the best parts, the lifetime of lightness and friendship and love. We're back at the eBay auction, the sports mementos Rich will never need.

"I don't want to say he's not here," Rich Sr. says. "Because I know he's here with me."

They got his computer, and the hour's worth of footage that was on it. Some, Rich and his friends relaxing, all smiles. "Some are graphic," his father says. Some are war.

Rich Sr. is angry. He's sad. He's proud.

There is a picture in his sports collection, one he isn't going to sell. It is football player Pat Tillman, when he was just a rookie, with Rich Jr., when he was just a kid.

A friend from Hawaii sent flowers for the funeral, Hawaii flowers, birds of paradise and anthuriums and the like. Rich Sr. laid them in the casket with his son.

"He will always have the aloha with him," Rich Sr. says.

The father is back on sports radio again. You can hear him on Tuesday nights, when the Las Vegas show is simulcast here on KUMU 1500-AM. He's cut back on the days he's on the air.

"It's hard to do now," he says.

Most things are.

So here he is, getting rid of all this sports memorabilia he'd been keeping for when Rich came home. He doesn't want it now. He'll put it out into cyberspace, and maybe someone else will take it off his hands. Maybe some stranger can go to the Web page and, just for a second, think about Rich.

Maybe some other father can save it for some other son.

See the Columnists section for some past articles.

Kalani Simpson can be reached at ksimpson@starbulletin.com

E-mail to Sports Desk


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