For his first three years on campus, Jon Lee was a fairly nondescript biology major and sometime soccer player at Pacific University in Oregon.
But in his senior season, the one they now call "Lee-for-three!" has become a celebrated symbol of can-do spirit for the Boxers’ rebounding football program — and a lot more.
It has been a remarkable emergence for the Castle High graduate from Kahaluu, the depth of which his teammates on the tree-lined Forest Grove, Ore., campus are just beginning to grasp.
"He’s a great kid; I mean he’s someone everybody’s rooting for," notes Pacific head coach Keith Buckley, who has seen Lee go from a raw walk-on to a key contributor and respected mentor in a matter of months.
Lee chuckles at all that has unfolded since a couple of roommates talked him into the once off-the-wall notion of playing college football at a school that had been without a team.
The Boxers had a proud tradition until the small school (enrollment: 3,213), weary of competing against larger, more well-heeled opponents, dropped the sport after the 1991 season.
When they decided to bring it back for this season as an NCAA Division III entrant, the Boxers held campus tryouts, welcoming hopefuls, wannabes and the uninitiated alike. Lee, who had to ask for help in putting on pads, was definitely among the latter, having not played organized football.
At Castle, Lee’s athletic resume included running track and cross country and playing soccer, all of which were cut short during his sophomore season when he was diagnosed with lymphoma. He battled back, but the months of chemotherapy took a lingering toll. "I went from peak (form) to being second-to-the-last in about all the (cross-country) races," Lee said of his comeback.
At Pacific, he walked on to the soccer team, following in older brother Chris’ footsteps, until giving it up after two years to concentrate on a heavy load of science classes.
For exercise he "fooled around" with intramural football last year and surprised himself with a budding affinity for the sport. So when his roommates encouraged him to try out, the 5-foot-10, 190-pound Lee agreed and took up a challenge that began with the basics, such as getting used to a helmet and peering through the face mask.
"By no means was he a finished product," Buckley chuckles. "But he worked hard to learn and get better."
When Lee lined up for his first attempt in a game, a 26-yarder in the opener against Puget Sound, there was a disconnect between the snap and placement. Suddenly, on his approach, Lee was confronted with a football lying sideways on the turf.
"I thought, ‘There goes the chance for our first points (of the year)," his coach recalled.
But somehow, Lee managed to get the ball aloft and, like a flying saucer, it spun though the uprights, surprising even himself. Buoyed with confidence, Lee went on to also make kicks of 32, 23 and 34 yards and kicked an extra point in a perfect day that earned him the school’s first Northwest Conference special teams player of the week award in 26 years.
The Boxers lost their opener, 36-19, but understand they have found more than a kicker. "He’s become a leader in our program," Buckley said. "He’s a mentor in our student life program, helping the (24) freshmen we have from Hawaii. People look up to him."