The 2012 BCS National Championship Game: LSU had been preparing for this moment all season long and had proven their worth as the nation's best team. However, January 9th's game ended in disappointment for both the Tigers and Jarrett Lee alike.
The former LSU quarterback -- who lost his starting job mid-season to Jordan Jefferson -- says he was "frustrated" watching from the bench as his Tigers lost 21-0 to SEC rival Alabama and wished he could have had the opportunity to help the team get something going on offense.
"I just feel like I could have been given the chance, you know," Lee said, "had an opportunity to come in and get something going, you know, give them, Alabama, something else to worry about, but you know, it is what it is."
After an inconsistent career with the Tigers, Lee had enjoyed a redemptive senior season, leading LSU to a number one ranking while personally leading the SEC in passing efficiency into November.
"I mean we still had a special season, don't get me wrong, 13-1, but it was tough to see a goal we had made slowly was kind of fading away," he said.
Lee watched the clock run down during his last game as a Tiger and remained supportive of the team, waiting patiently for his number to be called. "It was very frustrating. I just kind of feel like I could have come in…" He hesitates. "I don't know if I could have come in and won the game, but I just felt like I could have given us an opportunity, or something more," he said.
Did he think that moment was coming? With a burst of energy he says, "I did! I really did. I thought I might get an opportunity or a chance, but obviously that didn't happen."
Post-game, much speculation has surrounded head coach Les Miles's decision to keep Jefferson in for the entirety of the game and Lee still hasn't been given any reason for that decision. "No, as soon as that game was over, I headed out to Arizona and played in another All-Star Game and now I'm here (at the NFLPA Collegiate Bowl) so I haven't really got the chance to talk to anybody about it."
To appreciate the position Jarrett Lee found himself in, it's best to look at Lee's journey in Baton Rouge.
The son of a then high-school football coach, he joined LSU's football program in 2007 as a highly-touted football recruit out of Brenham, Texas, knowing how important football was to the state of Louisiana. "LSU would send me quite a bit of letters. I didn't know anything about them, I was just like 'Man, there's no way. I don't really want to go there.' I started getting heavily recruited by them, got to know the offensive coordinator at the time, Jimbo Fisher, and that led to me taking a visit there."
"Saturday night we went to a game and you get to see the fans.They're crazy there; they love football, they're passionate about purple and gold. It's very alive, very loud, and that was it for me. I knew right then when we were leaving the next morning that I wanted to be a part of that; that's where I wanted to have a future," said Lee.
Lee red-shirted his freshman season, as the roster also had more experienced quarterbacks Matt Flynn and Ryan Perrilloux on the team. The Tigers went on to win a National Championship that year, and Lee grew more comfortable with the program throughout the season. "I had a great mentor in Matt Flynn, really got stronger in the weight room, got the playbook, and really grasped the system for that following spring," he said.
After Flynn graduated, it seemed as if Lee would be put into the backup spot; however, due to off-the-field issues leading to Perrilloux's dismissal from the team, Lee found himself battling with Andrew Hatch for the starting role. "I wasn't expecting anything like that, but things happen. I was still a true freshman that spring and was still competing with Andrew Hatch."
Eventually, Hatch got injured and Lee was thrust into the spotlight in week 5 versus Mississippi State. "Oh, it was awesome. We had just beat Auburn the week before, so I was kind of on Cloud 9, being a young 18 year old, playing in Tiger Stadium, that they had recruited me and I was finally there and the fans are screaming and yelling and it's Saturday night. We actually won that game and I had a pretty good game, so it was amazing. It was everything you wanted and more," he said.
He went on to start 7 more games, though Lee wasn't having the season he hoped for, ultimately finishing off the year 143/269 for 1,873 yards with 14 touchdowns and 16 interceptions. Throughout the season, Lee was dealing with the pressure on the field as well as bracing himself for the backlash due to his disappointing on-field performance. "Those fans there are passionate about football. They want to win obviously; that's what makes it so special. Yeah, I mean, you make some mistakes, you throw some interceptions, some bad plays, and you can definitely feel the vibe change and that's not something you want as a player, as a young player."
As is human, Lee had his down moments. "I guess about the middle of the season, I was still struggling as a young player and there were definitely times when I was like, 'Man, this does suck. This is tough. This isn't what I signed up for!' But it was one of those deals, where I just knew better days were to come."
He credits his close family and his offensive coordinator at the time, Gary Crowton, for keeping him in check during that time. "Well, it was tough. Don't get me wrong, it was very tough. As a young player, you don't really expect that to happen and when it does happen, it's very tough on you. The way I was raised is just to kind of put that stuff behind you, even though it does happen. You kind of keep it in the back of your mind, because you don't want it to happen again, but you just keep pushing forward, hoping that better things are going to come and that the opportunity is going to come again and you've got to be prepared for that moment and that's kind of what I did. Just kept pushing through, even through the hard times, thinking hopefully it'd kind of pay off."
The transition to spring ball was a tough one, especially as quarterback Jordan Jefferson became a viable option at starter. (Laughs) "Not a lot of fans were happy with me after that 2008 season. It was tough, that following year, that following spring, but I just kept pushing through. We kind of dueled it out and obviously he won the job. I don' t know, I guess that drive inside me to be great again, to be good again, was still alive. I just kept pushing through every day hoping it would pay off, that the opportunity would come again to redeem myself."
Lee and Jefferson continued to compete and Lee was ultimately named backup. "My sophomore season, I didn't get a whole lot of playing time. Jordan Jefferson got hurt in the Alabama game so I started the next week against Louisiana Tech. I still struggled in that game, so that didn't help out any. I felt like I kind of put too much pressure on myself in that game to be great, to kind of redeem myself, and that didn't work out too good. I didn't get a whole lot of playing time in 2009 except for that one start, but I was still pushing through."
At a school where football is an asset to life, it comes with the territory that everyone has an opinion.
"Honestly, I don't know if anyone ever came up to me and was just like 'you suck' or 'you're terrible' but there were times when I would hear someone when I was standing there and they didn't know I was there, didn't know I was around and I could hear them talking and that kind of, that's not a very fun feeling." Lee was also ripped apart on message boards, and though he completely refrains from reading them, he still had to sometimes hear what people had to say. "My grandad, he's bad at that, he's a message board reader and he'd always call me and text me 'hey, how about this?' and I'm like 'I can't be worrying about that, I have enough stuff on my plate as it is!'"
Regardless of what people were saying or writing about him, Lee held an image in his head that continued to motivate him. "Just throwing a winning touchdown, or the winning drive at the end of the game, you know something like that. That's kind of what kept it alive. I knew I had the ability, I knew I could do those kind of things, it was just if I would get the opportunity again after that rough season. The drive was still alive and I just kept going," he said.
Many people openly wondered why he didn't transfer from the program, but for Lee, it was about more than just being the starter. "A lot of people wonder why I didn't transfer, why I didn't kinda take that route, but that's not why I went to LSU. I didn't go to transfer. You know, it didn't always go my way, it didn't always work out the way I planned, but I still wanted to stay at LSU even though I was probably going to be backup, probably going to ride the pine. I went to LSU because it was championship football, SEC, and you win games and I still wanted to be a part of it, I didn't want to leave it. I knew my opportunity would probably come again. I didn't know when, I didn't know how, but it did, and I'm glad I stayed at LSU. I still have no regrets; although transferring did cross my mind, it was something I didn't fully go after 100%, but was something that crossed through my mind and obviously I didn't do that. Looking back, times were tough, but they weren't really that tough. I mean I was playing football at a top program, I was still enjoying it, still being a college student at one of the top programs in the country so it was tough, but life wasn't that bad at all. I'm glad I stayed there."
As Lee stuck it out, his situation improved a bit. "The next year was a little better. I got to come in in the Tennessee game and I guess play in a drive toward the end of the game that kind of led us to a touchdown to win the game and then the following game got to play against Florida quite a bit. I had a pretty good game that week, threw a touchdown toward the end of the game. It's just one of those deals that I look back and I'm glad I didn't give up on myself, kept pushing through, kind of dreaming about that moment again and it finally did happen and I was prepared for it, you know, seized that opportunity."
For Lee, having that game and throwing the touchdown was about more than just putting points on the board. "I was happy to come in and have that moment again, kind of get that same feeling I had in 2008, kind of like…I'm important again…kind of feeling involved."
With the sudden suspension of Jordan Jefferson immediately prior to the 2011 football season, Lee once again was given the opportunity to redeem himself. "That following morning, it was after two-a-days, I was playing golf. I remember getting the news and I was shocked, I didn't really know what was going on, I didn't really know what happened, I didn't really know who was involved. It was right before the beginning of the season, we had a big game coming up against Oregon, so it was kind of a crazy deal. I kind of just figured the best thing to do was get in there and do the best for what was needed. I know anyone on the team that's what they would have done. Get in there, work hard… (pauses) work on what I'd been focused on the last three previous years and you know that drive was still alive. Just get in there and be confident and get the job done."
Oregon, who had last appeared in the 2011 BCS National Championship Game and had returned the majority of its starters, was a daunting season opener. For Lee, there was even more personal added pressure. "We were back home in Texas and I had a lot of family coming to the game so it was really, really special. I knew we had a special team, I had worked with them all through two-a-days and through camp. We just went in there and got after Oregon and it was in front of family and Texas Stadium and you know, it was awesome. The atmosphere was great and for that just to be my first start in a while with some close friends on the team and to win that game and with kind of the distraction we had had, it was pretty awesome."
Lee led LSU to an undefeated early season and enjoyed that feeling of redemption. "In 2008, I could have quit. I could have given up, could have transferred, but I didn't because I knew my opportunity would come again. That seems kind of crazy, and kind of 'well, Jarrett, there's no way,' but it really did, I didn't feel like it was over for me at LSU, and I didn't know when or how that opportunity may come again, but it did, and I'm glad I kept preparing, kept working hard and this year it really, really paid off. Just going into the Oregon game, I was prepared for that moment and for that opportunity. We had momentum going, it was a special team, and I had prepared three years for that moment and it all kind of worked out."
One would think this is where the story ends. One final season of redemption, happily ever after. But even amidst the best season of his career, Lee still faced the competitive factor of football and could never get quite too comfortable in his starting role, especially after Jefferson was reinstated to the team. "That was tough again. After four games of being the starter and having Jordan come back, it was kind of one of those deals where you know, him coming in for a series or two it was kind of…I don't want to say frustrating, but you felt like you were getting the job done and bringing another guy in…but once again, I respected the coaches' decision. I just did the best I could do when my opportunity was in the game, when my number was called and not worry about the other stuff and I felt like I did a pretty good job of that. I knew we had a special team and we couldn't have any distractions in that aspect so I just kept going with it. We were still winning ball games and that's all that mattered."
It was no surprise that he'd have to fight for the spot, but Lee realized it did him no good to stress about it. "The worst thing I could do was go on the sidelines, go home at night, pout or sulk about. All I could do is go in there whenever my number was called, whenever opportunity came and not worry about all the other stuff."
He isn't going to deny that he definitely had those moments where he just wanted to be put in the game. "I kind of knew that wasn't going to happen. I knew the past few years, Jordan had been the starter. He had won big ball games, he had made big plays, so I knew he had earned that right to come in, too, that it was his team, too, so I just kind of knew how it was going to be. I couldn't worry about all that other stuff, it would just bring me down, bring the team down, so all I could do was do my job when I was in the game. That's really all I could do."
How did he manage to internalize everything? "I don't know. I mean, it's just something you just realize is what's going to happen, how it's going to be, and you just have to accept it and do your role, do your part. But it was tough, don't get me wrong, it was very tough."
Lee knew that in order to continue to play, he'd have to play extremely well. Each week was a competition, something that Lee actually enjoyed. "I think that's one thing that kind of helped as well, always knowing that, getting in there, competing, showing the coaches they can trust in you, have confidence in you. It really helped my confidence as well, knowing, not that the job was open, but 'hey, if he's struggling, I can come in and get the job done.'"
This method didn't always work in his favor, specifically during the title game, but Lee has no negative things to say about anyone involved. "Jordan and I have been back and forth in games over the past few years and it's kind of been a crazy deal, an experience for I'm sure the both of us, but I've enjoyed working with Jordan and I feel like we have a pretty good relationship and friendship, but we're also competitors at the same position and we have that fire inside to kind of beat out each other."
In response to all the pre-game rumors floating around, Lee says there is no validity to any of them.
"All that stuff, I don't know, all the emails people have said were sent in, or said that happened before the game, that's all completely false. Fans are going to be fans and people are going to write what they want to write. You know, it didn't work out like we wanted. We had a great season and Alabama came in and had a game plan and really got after us, so obviously people are going to say things, things that happened, but that's all false. I feel like the game plan we had the weeks prior to the game, had a great game plan, had great practices, and it just didn't work out. Alabama came in, give them credit, they were a good team, they came after us, had a great game plan and you know, we just didn't get it done that day."
Though he still may not understand why he wasn't called upon that night, he's not waiting for an answer. "To be honest with you, I'm not really worried about that. That's kind of in the past and you know, it was frustrating but it's over with and it happened and the coaches had a reason for it and I'm not really too worried about it."
Lee, who had two touchdowns in the Casino del Sol All-Star Game this past week and is participating in the AstroTurf NFLPA Collegiate Bowl game this weekend, is ready to move on.
"I went home to the hotel afterwards, was able to talk with my dad. I've got a very supportive family so that was great. We were a little frustrated because we didn't understand, we didn't really know what was going on, but you know, I didn't really have time to sit and sulk about it. Had about thirty, forty minutes of that, me and my dad talked, and then I was off to Arizona. I have another chapter to write. That's why I'm here, trying to give this NFL thing a shot. It's been a great experience and I'm happy to be here, something I'm having fun with and you know, it's a great opportunity."
He has a busy next few weeks and will continue to work out and prepare for the roller coaster of the next few months. "After the game, I'll probably take a week off to just chill, decompress. Play some golf, do something other than football (laughs), and then I'm coming back out here (to California) to work with (quarterback coach) George Whitfield for a few weeks, and then we have Pro Day in March, so I'll work out in Baton Rouge for a little bit prior to Pro Day, continue to work out, things like that. And the Draft comes around and we'll see how that goes, and just continue from there."
Where does he see himself in twenty years? "I want to be a coach, just because I've been around it my whole life (his father is now the quarterbacks coach at West Texas A&M), been around athletics my whole life, and I feel like I'm pretty good at that. I understand what's going on, what it's about and I think that's kind of my calling and I hope to continue that."
Will his coaching manner be influenced by his experience with the coaches at LSU? "It might, it might. The coaches at LSU really have been great. I know it hasn't always worked out in my favor, they really have treated me well. It's been great at LSU, I've learned a lot from them, had some great ones come through and go and learned a lot from them, nothing but positive things. They've helped me a lot and I've taken a lot from them that I hope to take with me in my coaching future. I feel like I have a great relationship with this coaches and if later on, down the line, if I ever need something that they'll be able to help me out. I've got a lot of respect for those guys."
Lee finishes off his collegiate career with eighteen starts (though he saw action in 43 games). In his final season, he went 104/167 for 1,306 yards with 14 touchdowns and 3 interceptions.
Reflecting upon his career as a Tiger, Lee takes this lesson with him. "Stay confident, stay focused and when another opportunity comes, which it will, it always does, you've got to be prepared for that moment. You can't just give up when things get tough. When things get hard, you can't just always quit or walk away from it. You've got to keep going and you know, that's kind of what I did. It was tough, it was hard, there were many times I just wanted to walk away and say 'Hey, this isn't for me.' but you know, that wasn't how I was raised, that wasn't really what I was about, so I just kept sticking with it and I feel like it's paid off pretty well."
He hopes his legacy as a Tiger will surround that same sentiment and maintains a positive outlook. "I feel like I'm doing pretty good. I'm still confident, I've taken a lot of positives, and it was a great ride. I'm kind of on to the next chapter of my life, moved past that (the National Championship Game), but I'll always remember LSU, the memories I made, the ups and downs. It's made me a better person, a better player, so I'll always remember that."