They were arranged in a neat “U” formation on LSU’s indoor practice field - offense on the left, defense on the right, special teamers at the end, all starched and shiny in their fresh white jerseys and new gold pants.
It was LSU’s annual football media day back in August, and everywhere reporters and cameramen jostled for interviews with Tigers players on the eve of a highly anticipated new campaign.
In the quarterback area, reporters crowded around senior Jordan Jefferson, LSU’s starter the past two-plus seasons. Next to him, another group swarmed sophomore Zach Mettenberger in his first interview opportunity since transferring to LSU.
Next to them, Jarrett Lee sat alone - unbothered, unquoted, essentially forgotten. If anyone had a question for him, it would have been “Why?” Why was he back for his senior season when Jefferson had beaten him out again for the starting job and Mettenberger, dubbed the “Mett-siah,” was the heir apparent to the position?
But few bothered to ask Lee even that. After a while, Assistant Sports Information Director Bill Martin, who was in the area supervising interviews, started chatting with Lee, essentially to keep him company.
“I remember saying, ?People will want to interview you as well. You’re going to be an important part of the season,’” Martin recalled.
At the time it seemed like an exercise in politeness. But Lee had an answer to “Why?” if anyone had bothered to ask.
Earlier last summer, Lee, his parents and some friends went to Ruffino’s restaurant for dinner. Like most nights, co-owner and former Tigers offensive guard Ruffin Rodrigue was in the house, greeting his new patrons and familiar regulars.
Before Lee left, Rodrigue invited him to see his new wine cellar. What he really wanted to do was ask that lingering question.
“I said, ?Jarrett, everybody wants to know why you didn’t transfer,’” Rodrigue said.
Lee replied: “You know, my parents, my girlfriend, everyone asks me that.” Then Lee pointed to a picture on the cellar wall.
The photo was from the 2010 LSU-Tennessee game. Former Tigers linebacker Kelvin Sheppard has his teammates huddled around him at midfield. In the throng is Lee, identifiable by the “12” on the back of his jersey.
“That’s the reason why, right here,” Lee told Rodrigue. “This is my family. I’m at home here.”
“Then, he kind of teared up,” Rodrigue said. “I didn’t get it until then.
“It’s not about personal success to him. He’s the ultimate non-?I’ guy. A true team player, that’s him.”
Flash forward from that moment back to August. Shortly after LSU’s media day came the infamous brawl Aug. 19 outside Shady’s, a bar on LSU’s south side. Numerous players were allegedly involved. Jefferson and linebacker Josh Johns were arrested and subsequently suspended for the first four games. Jefferson still faces a misdemeanor battery charge.
Faced with a crisis at quarterback two weeks before his team’s opener with No. 3-ranked Oregon, Les Miles didn’t turn to Mettenberger, but to Lee. A veteran hand, true, but a shaky one, right?
Wasn’t it Lee’s right hand that launched 16 interceptions as a redshirt freshman in 2008? Wasn’t it Lee who had seven of those interceptions returned for touchdowns? “Jarrett Lee Is a Walking Pick Six,” a headline from that season read.
Suddenly, LSU’s national championship aspirations looked as though they’d fade like a shimmering mirage on a stretch of hot asphalt.
A funny thing happened on the way to disappointment, though: Lee didn’t crack. He didn’t overwhelm, but he didn’t make egregious errors. He passed here, handed off there, threw the ball away when pressured and often threw off his back foot - one mechanical defect new quarterbacks coach Steve Kragthorpe has yet to completely wean out of him.
And he won. He kept the starting job when Jefferson’s suspension was lifted for the Oct. 1 game with Kentucky, when the boo birds rained down not for Lee’s play but for Miles and, likely, Jefferson, when he was inserted for a goal-line quarterback sneak midway through the first quarter.
Today, Lee and LSU are both where no one could have imagined they’d be together: No. 1. The Tigers are atop the BCS standings and every major poll going into Saturday’s epic showdown with No. 2 Alabama. And Lee is the Southeastern Conference’s highest-rated passer, just a notch ahead of Alabama freshman AJ McCarron. Lee has only completed 98 of 155 passes for 1,250 yards, but his 13-to-1 touchdown-to-interception ratio is one of the nation’s best.
“They say iron sharpens iron,” said Stephen Lee, Jarrett’s father and quarterbacks coach at West Texas A&M. “Coach Miles said he’s had a baptism by fire. That makes tough people.
“He’s had a lot of life lessons, some good and some bad, but there have also been a lot of great memories.”
Lee rarely gets introspective while talking with the media. Asked to reflect on his past troubled seasons at LSU and the purple and golden renaissance he’s enjoyed in 2011, Lee said there would be time for reflection when the season’s over.
But as far as his trials and troubles, the nasty messages left by angry fans on Facebook and the jeering he got in Tiger Stadium after so many of those interceptions, those he’s taken in stride as though every college student endures such abuse and heartache.
“That’s part of it,” Lee said with a slight shrug. “At the time it’s hard to deal with, but eventually you’re going to overcome it, and things are going to be good again. You’ve got to realize that your opportunity may come again, and you have to make the most of it.”
That Lee has, steering the Tigers to the brink of a game that will leave LSU or Alabama installed as the odds-on favorite for this season’s BCS national title.
But beyond what numbers will be on the scoreboards at Bryant-Denny Stadium, is the feeling of something else. Something even bigger than No. 1 vs. No. 2.
Lee has redeemed himself by being himself. By not walking away. By staying true to his team. His school. His home.
“I want my son to be like Jarrett Lee,” said Rodrigue, the kind of praise that is itself a victory.