David Lee: Booted Into Tech Hall of Fame
Sept. 22, 2011
This is the third of eight feature stories on the 2011 Louisiana Tech Athletics Hall of Fame Class which will be enshrined in a ceremony on Sturday, October 1 at 1 p.m., in the Waggonner Room of Thomas Assembly Center. All are invited.
2011 Class: Longtime NFL punter David Lee, CFL Hall of Famer Matt Dunigan, Kodak All-American Venus Lacy, three-time NCAA rebounding champion Paul Millsap, AP basketball All-American Mike McConathy, legendary broadcaster Dave Nitz, record-setting baseball player TJ Soto, Super Bowl champion Matt Stover.
by Teddy Allen
For David Lee, maybe they should have sized his Super Bowl V championship ring for his thigh instead of for his finger.
The long right leg on Lee's athletic 6-4 frame was a handy weapon for the football teams of Minden High, Louisiana Tech, and, from 1966-'78, the Baltimore Colts.
But it wasn't just his leg that got Lee's foot into the athletic door. He was All-State at Minden High as the team's punter and end, All-State in baseball, and lettered three years in baseball at Tech before becoming an All-Pro and world champion on Baltimore's great teams of Unitas, Mackey, Matte, Smith and Curtis.
Because of his long and star-studded athletic career that enabled him to be a Class A living advertisement for Tech's Bulldogs every time he walked onto a National Football League field, all of David Lee -- leg, heart and soul - will be in inducted into the Louisiana Tech Athletics Hall of Fame Saturday, Oct. 1.
"The people at Tech, the tradition at Tech, it's special, and to be elected in this group is very special," said Lee, the top vote-getter on the Colts' Silver Anniversary Team way back in 1977. "The Tech family is very important to me and always has been."
Lee's athletic life was defined in large part by time and timing: hang time, game time, being in the right place at the right time, being a bit ahead of his time, and taking the time to listen when those who cared about him tried to coach him up.
Those are the people he'll thank most Oct. 1.
"As the years have gone by, I've had time to think about all this stuff and realized how little control I had over it, other than the work I put into it," said Lee, 67. "I give God the credit. You don't succeed without some help."
It started with a mom and dad, both high school basketball players, who cared about their boys and played with them often in their Minden, La., back yard. David and little brother Danny, who'd go on to punt for what was then Northeast Louisiana University, were "jocks through and through," he said.
His first organized football experience was sixth grade. "Coach lined us up to see who could kick the farthest," Lee said. "Whoever could kick it the farthest was the guy."
Lee kicked it the farthest.
But going into 10th grade at Minden High, he'd decided to just play basketball and baseball. "I was tall and skinny, with the emphasis on skinny," he said. "Punting, I just sort of took for granted."
Then the day before football practice began, legendary Minden coach Pat Nation saw Lee by chance and asked him to be the team's punter.
"That's all the encouragement I needed," Lee said. "If not for him asking me that day, I don't know what would have happened."
What did happen was a scholarship to Tech, where he played from 1961-64. Nation had taught Lee an "idiot proof" way of punting, "plenty sufficient for high school," Lee said. Now Tech coach Joe Aillet taught him a higher drop to get more hang time.
"He explained to me that I wasn't kicking the ball, that a good punt results when you kick through the ball," Lee said. "You want to drop the ball where it's supposed to be, then swing your leg through it. The next day I was going at it pretty good."
"Coach Aillet had to get him to hang it higher because we couldn't cover the punts he made," said Tech teammate Billy Jack Talton, who'd known Lee ever since their Calvary Missionary Baptist Church upbringing in Minden. "He could out-punt the coverage about every time. Seemed like David would punt that thing out there consistently beyond 50 yards."
"We had some good punters prior to David, but along comes this great big tall long-legged guy from Minden who starts booming them out there 60 and 70 yards and you're standing there with your mouth open," said former Tech football assistant and quarterback Mickey Slaughter, another of Lee's teammates at Tech. "We weren't used to that. He had leverage because of that great big long leg of his - and such power: when the ball came off his foot, it sounded like a cannon going off."
In a time of non-specialization, Lee was sort of a one-man band, punting and playing on the scout squad. But as a sophomore, he played some end, even caught a few touchdown passes.
"He used to play in those independent basketball tournaments when he'd come back to Tech during the winter and spring," said longtime sports writer and Shreveport native Nico van Thyn, now with The Dallas Morning News. "People might forget that he was not only a great punter, he was a very good athlete."
"The hardest thing was standing around in practice," Lee said. "By the time I got to Baltimore, they didn't know what to think about a specialist, this 6-4, 230-pound guy. Coach (Don) Shula would see me doing pushups or running or kicking the ball into a screen at Memorial Stadium and holler during practice, `Hey David, you all right over there?' I didn't even have a special teams coach until '75."
Ruston's Dub Jones, the former Cleveland receiving great and in '64 an assistant with the Browns, suggested Lee join the team as a free agent instead of signing with the team who'd drafted him, Boston of the American Football League. After a year on the taxi squad, Lee was traded to Baltimore.
"Dub smiled at me and said, `We're trading you as soon as we can find the right place for you,"' Lee said. "That was special. And Baltimore was the right place." He was the NFL's punting champ as a rookie in 1966 and again in '69 when he was All Pro. The Colts lost to the New York Jets in Super Bowl III - "I think we all still struggle with that one; we felt we might have had the best team ever," Lee said - then beat Dallas for the world championship in '71. He retired in '78 after 14 years in the NFL.
At Tech, he's not in the record book for longest punt (the official Tech record is 75 yards) or for career yardage. But punting records weren't kept in earnest until after his college career, and the newspaper clippings still have him down for five punts over 60 yards as a Bulldog and two over 70 including one of 76 yards, same as his longest NFL punt.
"My philosophy about punting was just to do my job and help the team," he said. "Stats were never defining for me. One of my best punts ever was a 25-yarder that was downed at the 1."
Some stats that do matter include his wife and high school sweetheart Sandra and children Jared and Whitney.
"We're all Tech graduates; we've all got bricks on the walkway," said Lee, who moved to Bossier City after football and is retired from General Motors. "My athletic career got me an interview after football, but my education at Tech got me the job.
"For me, it seems things always just fell into place," he said. "I have no complaints. I'm living a blessed life and owe so many people who helped me at just the right time. Now, with the Hall of Fame, I don't know...I feel like now I'm really in solid with the Tech family."