January 28, 2020

“I’ve learned to appreciate every single year.”- T.J. Lee On Signing Extension

On the afternoon it became official he’ll remain in orange and black for at least two more seasons, T.J. Lee paused for a moment of reflection.

When doing so, he was reminded just how quickly you could meet an obstacle. Flashback to week four of the 2016 season when he was lying on the table in a small training room inside the bowels of the old Mosaic Stadium. T.J. had just ruptured an Achilles tendon in only the 29th game of his young career.

A promising season washed away on one mere play. He couldn’t help but wonder what lied ahead. Now nearly four years later, it proved to be an obstacle not nearly too big for the defensive back to overcome.

“Having been through that serious injury, it all goes back to the grind and how you’re a product of what you do every day in the offseason,” said Lee on Tuesday afternoon.

“Once you see what it’s like to overcome something like that you just say ‘wow.’ So going forward now, I’m not scared of any injury. When they happen, I embrace the task of getting myself healthy because I’ve been through that, both mentally and physically.”

Lee’s one-year contract extension keeps him with the only pro team he has ever known through 2021. Although he was hours away from hitting the free agent market last season, he reiterated to he has never truly considered strapping on the pads anywhere else.

“This is where I want to be,” he said.

“I’m just grateful that both my family and the organization have continued to support me in my journey.”

“I’m thrilled to remain here in the future and to be part of the continued goal of winning multiple Grey Cups.”

T.J. Lee

What he has accomplished since that unfortunate turn of events in Saskatchewan is worth a story in itself. He returned in 2017 to lead the team with five interceptions.

One year later, he was named both a CFL and West Division All-Star after his most productive season to date: 81 defensive tackles, two sacks, a pair of forced fumbles and one of his three interceptions being returned for a touchdown. 2019 brought his first-ever team nomination for CFL Most Outstanding Player.

Not bad for a kid who first arrived in 2014 with plenty to prove despite an excellent collegiate career at Eastern Washington University where he set a school record with seven forced fumbles.

“It’s survival mode. You come in here looking at what you’ve done to get here,” recalled Lee of his first training camp.

“I was lucky to arrive here and get great leadership from guys like Ryan Phillips and Dante Marsh. You get a glimpse of the future and what might be in store if you can be around until a certain age. It may seem impossible to last as long as those guys did but once I made it through year one, year two and came back from the injury in year four, I realized it all happens so fast.”

“I’ve learned to take time to appreciate every individual year, every practice and the grind leading up to this moment.”

T.J. Lee

He will be 29 years old by the time training camp rolls around. Given the likes of Phillips and Marsh played well into their 30s, you can argue the best is yet to come for Lee. The one thing that fuels him the most is the thought of sipping from the Grey Cup for the first time. First comes the task of erasing the disappointment of a 2019 season that began with such high hopes.

“When you build good team chemistry and have good leaders around you like Reilly, Burnham, Newsome to go along with whoever else we re-sign on defence, that goes a long way in building the right championship mentality,” explained Lee.

“No two seasons ever seem the same but the goal is always to win the Grey Cup.”

BC Lions defensive back T.J. Lee (6) intercepts the ball from a Calgary Stampeders player during the first half of a CFL football game in Vancouver, B.C., on Saturday, November 2, 2019. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jimmy Jeong

Before camp number seven officially begins, Lee will also enjoy the nice balance of football training and Dad life. He and fiancee Brittany are parents to a two-year-old daughter, Maisyn and are expecting a baby boy in early June. The added responsibilities of fatherhood have given Lee an entirely new perspective on both his career and overall life.

“Because I’m away so much (during the season) and I didn’t have my own father in my life, this is the biggest thing ever for me,” said Lee.

“I have a childcare background because I grew up in my family’s daycare. To be in my kid’s life, helping them develop into the person that I want them to make me feel I’m making the world a better place from home.”

A football team is also a family in many ways. That was evident on that hot night in Regina when Wally Buono had the entire team cramp into that small training room so T.J. could be present for the game balls. You get the sense the best is yet to come.

Matt Baker: