Photo: Jesse Tinsley/ Spokesman Review
One of the reasons why veteran defensive back T.J. Lee III plays the way he does on the field is because he was a part of an Eastern Washington University football team that came back from a 19 -points deficit against Delaware to win the FCS national championship in 2010. The underdog mentality displayed in Lee’s time with the Eagles carried over to the following seasons — even to this day.
Lee recalls his toughness actually began when he was a kid growing up as the youngest in his family, who constantly had to deal with older siblings and relatives picking on him.
“I grew up with all my cousins and I grew up getting bullied and stuff. As a smaller guy, it really translates well in football,” Lee said.
While standing at five foot nine-and-a-half inches, Lee faced bigger and taller receivers. His upbringing influenced him to stand up for himself, then his teammates at Eastern Washington challenged him to earn every single snap.
Lee said confidently that he’s unblockable now because receivers like former Buffalo Bill Brandon Kaufman, 49ers receiver Kendrick Bourne and Rams standout Cooper Kupp, who moulded him into the player fans see today.
During practices, when things weren’t going Lee’s way, he would show persistence by telling his receiving corps. to line up against him until Lee felt he could guard all of them.
“One of the ones that moulded me was Kaufman, he’s one of the Eastern [Washington] all-time receivers. He was the one that really gave me the personal challenge that made me the best corner. He was tall and lanky, Bo Levi would put the ball somewhere that I couldn’t get it,” he recalled.
“It would be red zone one on one and I’d be like ‘go again.’ Then Kaufman would catch it on me. I’m like ‘go again, go again’ Eventually, I made it so it wasn’t a disadvantage because I had the confidence to play against those taller guys.”
From 2010 to 2013, Lee made 182 tackles and four interceptions plus seven forced fumbles for the Eagles. He started as a special teams player then emerged into a key playmaker for the Eagles’ defence that started in his sophomore year. Lee was a three-time First-Team All-Big Sky Conference player from 2011-13 and also a First-Team FCS All-American in 2013.
2010 | Eagles Stage Dramatic Comeback To Win National Championship
One of Lee’s biggest achievements in college was helping the Eagles captured the FCS national championship in 2010 against the University of Delaware. Although Eastern Washington came back from 19 points down near the end of the third quarter, Lee said the final stretch of the quarterfinal game against North Dakota State was just memorable as the championship game.
The quarterfinal came down to a crucial defensive effort from the Eagles, which set the tone for the remainder of the playoffs.
“It was nice and snowy. Even as dominant as Eastern Washington was, we had problems with North Dakota State. But that year, that’s when we beat them. It came down to the final stop by J.C. Sherritt, Matt Johnson and a few other D-line men. They were at the four-yard line and ran the ball, we stopped them at the one,” Lee recalled.
The Eagles were one step closer to winning the title. But Delaware wasn’t going to let Eastern Washington walk over them.
Facing that 19-point deficit in the championship game, Lee’s college teammate and Stampeders quarterback Bo Levi Mitchell awakened the offence, who would go on to score 20 unanswered points. With less than three minutes on the game clock, it was time for the defence to step up once again and secure the championship.
“I was playing nickel at the time and they kept running these switch routes on us when they needed it. Dante Calcote was one of these guys, one of my leaders I’ll never forget. As far as mentoring me at a young age,” he recalled.
“He was like, ‘We’re going to switch this, we’re going to switch this.’ And a couple of them we switched. But the last one for the game we didn’t know because we didn’t communicate. Or because everything was happening so fast and it’s a high-pressure moment. We just trusted our instincts and dude [receiver] caught the ball and fell one yard short of the first down.”
It was Eastern Washington’s first-ever national title. The remarkable 2010 season would lead to a new era for the Eagles. Over the next following seasons, the team would become a major contender to win the Big Sky conference and sometimes find a way to upset a bigger school in the Pac-12 conference.
A Hostile Environment At Montana
Although Lee said he was surrounded by a bunch of great athletes and football would always be bigger than himself, he still remembers the game against the University of Montana in his sophomore year like it was yesterday.
“I did go through a time when I was a sophomore playing at Montana. The fans were right on top of your head. It’s small, it’s like a little cocoon of noise and just kept coming around in a circle,” he recalled.
“It was right before halftime. The game was super close in Montana. The quarterback threw the ball and I was in cover two and got the interception. I don’t know if it was my first career interception but it was a meaningful one. The tension was high, there were so many people and you’re not used to the experience. You just felt the weight of the crowd,” he added.
Lee said that interception gave his team momentum for the second half. He’ll never forget that one of many interceptions he caught in his career, before jumping over his teammate and falling on his face.