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For the Bruins' John Lee, the Numbers Tell the Story: In Three Seasons at UCLA, He's 96 of 97 and 63 of 75

September 02, 1985|TRACY DODDS | Times Staff Writer

It was obvious from the start that the athlete in the Lee family of Seoul, South Korea was young Min Jong. He was a natural on the soccer field and, as a Little League pitcher, he made the Korean national team that competed against Japan, Taiwan and Hong Kong.

But when Kyou and Okja moved their family from Seoul to Downey in 1976, they had no way of knowing what the strange American sport of football had in store for their son.

Min Jong was in the sixth grade when he was brought here. He knew how to say "hello" in English, but that was about all.

He enrolled in school as John Lee and was speaking English in a matter of weeks.

Football wasn't quite that easy.

When he got to Downey High School, all his friends were going out for football. He didn't know much about the game, but he had seen it, and he wanted to play, too. So when the coach told all the new recruits to write on a piece of paper what position they wanted to play, John Lee wrote "kicker."

Now that he's an All-American kicker at UCLA, breaking every kicking and scoring record that he comes across, that seems to be a fitting introduction, the prelude to stardom. But nothing is ever that simple.

Lee tells this story: "The coach came over to me and said, 'You can't just be a kicker. We might let you kick, but you have to play some position. You're big enough to be a lineman. Pick a line position.'

"At that time, I was as big as I am right now. (He's 5-11, 187 pounds.) Asians seem to grow faster earlier and then level off. That's why the Little League teams are always so good. In the ninth grade, I was one of the biggest guys on the team.

"I told him I'd put down one of the line positions, but I didn't know the name of any. So he said, 'Put down noseguard.'

"I was trying to learn the position, but everything was so new to me. I didn't even always understand what was said in the huddles. I just knew I was supposed to tackle the guy with the ball. If there was a play called so that I had to go a certain way, there was a linebacker behind me who would hit me on the butt to tell me which way."

That year his freshman team was undefeated. He led the team in tackles and was named defensive player of the year.

But the coaches had to admit that he was right to begin with. He was best as a kicker. The next fall they told him he could play defense and kick for the junior varsity, or he could just kick for the varsity.

John Lee decided he would just kick.

"I love it," Lee said. "When you see the ball going end-over-end through the uprights, it's like hitting a home run."

But it becomes an obsession. Once is not enough. Twice is not enough. Streaks are not enough. Records are not enough. Nothing less than perfection will do.

"It really is an art," Lee said.

To study his new-found art, Lee sought out a master, Ben Agajanian. As every kicker in Southern California knows, Agajanian conducts a free clinic in Long Beach every Wednesday evening in the spring.

Uncle Ben, they call him. He'll work with any kicker who is seriously interested in working. Which means that John Lee became one of his star pupils.

Agajanian was at UCLA last week, having lunch with Lee between practice sessions and making no effort to hide his pride in Lee's success.

He calls Lee one of the best kickers he's ever seen, giving equal billing to another of his star pupils, Rafael Septien of the Dallas Cowboys.

Agajanian was one of the first true kicking specialists. After losing the toes on his right foot in a freight elevator accident in 1940, Agajanian adapted a square-toed shoe and kicked with 10 different pro teams over 18 years--taking time off to make his fortune in the sporting goods business.

He later coached in the NFL, but now he's officially retired. He plays in gin rummy tournaments, cruises around Long Beach in his antique Rolls Royce and stays on top of the kicking game by teaching the youngsters and serving as an adviser to the Cowboys.

Cowboy Coach Tom Landry has called him the top authority in the field of kicking.

So when Agajanian told the UCLA coaches in May of 1982 that they should sign John Lee to a scholarship, they did it.

"What did I see in John Lee?" Agajanian asked rhetorically. "First of all, I saw a hell of an athlete. Out of the 20 or 30 kids who were there when he came out, he did stand out.

"But what impressed me was the way he worked. He wouldn't miss a practice. He would always find a way to get there.

"And, probably most important, he would listen and he would learn quickly. You could coach him. Some kids just want to show you how far they can kick the ball, and no matter what changes you tell them to make, they just keep doing it their way to kick it as far as they can.

"John wanted to learn."

Lee learned the Agajanian way. That is, the new, soccer-style Agajanian way. When Agajanian was kicking, he was kicking straight-away. When he started coaching, he found himself working with an influx of foreign kickers, all soccer-trained and kicking the ball with the side of the foot.

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