After Nearly Quitting High School Football, Eric Lee Worked His Way to the NFL
Welcome to Why We Play, a series of discussions with current players and NFL Legends about their youth football experience and why they play the game.
Eric Lee didn't start playing football until ninth grade — even though his father was a die-hard NFL fan and both of his older brothers played.
"I had many interests growing up," Lee said. "I did everything from taekwondo, baseball, drama, and band. But I didn’t watch football.
"My dad was a die-hard Philly fan, born and raised in Philly. My two older brothers played. My oldest brother Jonathan loved football. Football was his thing, but for a while, I did everything but football."
The first sport Lee was serious about was track. He ran on the relay teams, ran the 800, and threw the discus. He didn't get introduced to football until ninth grade at Daphne High School in Alabama. And the next year, he almost quit.
"They played me a wide receiver and tight end, and I couldn’t catch," Lee said with a laugh. "I had like three routes I ran, but I didn’t get it done. I could run, I could lift, but the football just wasn’t me.
"I was going to quit after that ninth grade year. Then in tenth grade came, they moved me to D-line, and that was a blessing."
Along with the position change, Lee said a meeting between his coach and his parents helped fuel his motivation.
"Coach talked to my parents and basically was praising me in front of my parents," Lee said. That gave me motivation.
"I always took pride in my work ethic. So if anything, I can give effort and get something out of it. I wasn’t the most athletic; I was actually clumsy. But I learned and worked into my work ethic and got the most out of it."
With his motivation and work ethic, Lee became one of the better players on Daphne’s undefeated state championship team his junior year.
"One year I was going to quit, and the next year we go undefeated," he said. "That’s the kind of things kids dream about."
Lee earned a scholarship to the University of South Florida. In 2016, he entered the NFL as an undrafted free agent signing of the Houston Texans.
Like the vast majority of NFL players, Lee's career has been spent on the margins of NFL rosters. He spent 2016 and the start of 2017 on the Texans practice squad, before signing to the Buffalo Bills active roster in 2017. Later that year, he joined the New England Patriots, where he got his first game action. He even got playing time on the sport's biggest stage that year, as the Patriots advanced to Super Bowl LII against his father's favorite team, the Philadelphia Eagles.
"Prior to the game, I’m trying to get everyone a jersey to wear," Lee said. "My dad was like, 'I was at work today, and I was talking to people, and I don’t know what to do. I don’t know who to root for. I’m conflicted.'
"I was like, 'C'mon, I’m your son! What people are you talking to? I’m your son.'"
Sure enough, Lee's father showed up to the game in his son's Patriots jersey. But when Philadelphia beat Lee's Patriots team to win their first Super Bowl, the life-long Eagles fan was prepared.
"My dad also had an Eagles starter jacket," Lee said with a laugh. "When the Eagles won, he couldn’t put that jacket on fast enough."
Photo: AP/Paul Spinelli
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