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“The reason we’re in here is because we have a guy down. You don’t leave a soldier by himself.”
Wally Buono- Game Balls Presentation, July 16th, 2016
It was a more emotional than usual post game address from the CFL’s all-time wins leader. His squad had just prevailed 40-27 on a hot night at Saskatchewan’s Mosaic Stadium. They were 2-1 on the young season and showing signs that 2016 could be a promising one: even if their young halfback TJ Lee was lying on the trainer’s table with a season ending Achilles injury. Buono had moved the game balls presentation into the trainer’s/coach’s locker room so Lee could still be a part of it. Looking back, Lee admits that gesture helped kick-start his successful recovery process.
“For those guys to come in and show me the love and support throughout the injury and letting me know they were going to be there for me was pretty special,” recalls Lee of the post game event.
Fast forward to early March. With training camp less than three months away, the product of Eastern Washington needs a good pair of shades as the light at the end of his rehab tunnel becomes clearer each and every training session.
He is back sprinting to about 90 percent of his normal speed, jumping high and squatting 315 pounds- a weight he was comfortable with prior to going down- and ready to continue the assault on opposing receivers. Lee had 15 tackles, a sack and four knockdowns in the three games before his unfortunate setback. With Steven Clarke and Ronnie Yell also headed for full recovery, Lee is excited about what the defence is capable of in 2017. Especially when you factor in some of the free agent additions.
“I feel like we’re stacked. We have enough to compete, enough to deal with more injuries and enough to figure out who are the best guys for each position. This is football. Every day is going to be competitive.”
“I came in with Tony Burnett in my rookie year and I always knew he was a great athlete. I love his hunger, I love the energy that he brings and it is nice to have another guy like that on the field next to you.”
A big part of Lee’s rehab involved spending time with Clarke and Lee, whether that was in the gym or representing the club at various community events late last season. Each guy knows he will be counted on as more of a leader going forward, especially after the departure of Ryan Phillips to Montreal.
“I was able to talk to him (after he signed),” says Lee.
“RP has helped me throughout my career to be able to grow as a pro athlete and hold myself accountable for my professionalism. Everything I learned from him I will take forward and continue to build my brand as an athlete.”
Leadership is no doubt an important trait for any career. That’s one of the reasons Lee spent part of his offseason and rehab coaching a grade seven basketball team in his home in Bellingham, Washington.
“Working with children is my niche. My family ran a daycare ever since I was born so I always spent time around other kids,” adds Lee. “I always harboured dreams of becoming a basketball coach.
“In life or in sports you can’t control things that happen. You can’t control what the ref calls, you can’t control the playing time. The thing they can control is the work they put in on and off the court. That’s what I preached to them while I was coaching. It was also helpful for me to be able to run and participate in drills.”
The proximity to both his home in Seattle and the Lions’ Surrey training facility were big factors in deciding to move to Bellingham. TJ and his girlfriend Britney also love the community aspect of it, having attended movies in the park and other various summer activities since settling down there. Come this summer, it will be all about the road to redemption and proving to Buono and the coaches he has not lost a step.
“He’s just a great leader. What he wants, demands and expects from the guys is very direct. That’s what I love about the guy,” says Lee of his head coach.
“I also love how he lets the mission statement be known at the beginning of the year and reiterates it each and every day or before every game: If you don’t produce, you shouldn’t be on the field and you shouldn’t play. I like that. There are no hidden gems in terms of what he expects”
Perhaps TJ Lee III will be prominent in many more game ball presentations: only this time with his coach handing him the defensive honours.
Matt Baker: firstname.lastname@example.org