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NO LEEWAY : When John Lee Suddenly Became Less Than Automatic, the Cardinals Gave Him the Boot

October 01, 1987|THOMAS BONK | Times Staff Writer

The weather is supposed to be beautiful in Seoul this time of year. That is what John Lee remembers and he's going back to check it out.

It should be a delightful trip. Maybe Lee will like it as much as the one he just took to Rosarito Beach and Ensenada. He probably could have kept his bags packed by the front door for a speedy getaway.

Actually, he doesn't need to hurry because if there's one thing Lee has now, it's time. From Baja to South Korea and all points in between, John Lee is on vacation. Actually, it's more like a forced absence from work, the kind you get when you're unemployed, as Lee is.

Leigh Steinberg, Lee's agent, prefers to think of his client's job status, however, as a leave of absence.

"He'll be back, I would expect, when somebody has kicking problems," Steinberg said.

Sure?

"Well, the strike makes this a year fraught with uncertainty," he said.

Still, there's a chance that the most accurate kicker in National Collegiate Athletic Assn. history, who became the richest first-year kicker in National Football League history, is just a 23-year-old washout. Can he call it a career already?

"I don't feel like, right now to be honest, I miss football at all," Lee said.

If his pro career indeed is over, it will be remembered as short and off to the side, as so many of his kicks were.

Said Gene Stallings, the St. Louis Cardinals' coach: "The bottom line is that he just didn't perform."

Lee, who was put on waivers in the last round of cuts before the regular season, emphasized a slightly different bottom line.

"It was really hell," he said. "That's the bottom line. I wish I could start all over again. But it happened. It's not the end of my life, but it's taken a lot out of me. The last year and a half was the longest in my life. Nothing happened that I was happy with. Right now, there's just no way I can play again. I've just lost interest, I guess.

"I kind of hope I start missing football. Maybe I'll get the motivation of picking up the ball and kicking it."

At least Lee isn't going to be broke until he feels that urge again. Even though his four-year $900,000 contract with the Cardinals was not guaranteed, Lee still got his $250,000 signing bonus as well as his first-year salary. So football isn't financially pressing right now.

What Lee is feeling instead is a need to withdraw, to get away from a job that he didn't enjoy. Football was fun in high school, fun at UCLA and fun for just a little while in St. Louis. He made his first six field goals in exhibition games, but then he hit a slump and began missing his kicks.

Stallings pointed out Lee's mistakes and Lee lost his confidence. Lee said there's nothing worse than a kicker losing his confidence, not even losing his job.

"When I got the call that I was being placed on waivers, I was relieved, to be honest," Lee said. "I was visiting with a bunch of players who got cut two days before and I told them that I wished I was in their shoes. I was just so relieved to get away from that organization over there, from that whole situation.

"It's kind of cocky for me to say I'm burned out because I'm only 23 and everything, but it was fun at UCLA and everything. But it just wasn't fun in St. Louis. That kind of made me think twice about pro football."

Stallings found himself doing a lot of thinking about Lee, who became one of his biggest disappointments. At UCLA, Lee made 86% of his field-goal tries. He was so accurate that his kicking was almost mechanical. From beyond the 40-yard line, Lee made 69.4% of his field-goal attempts. And inside the 40, he made 54 of 56 for 96.4%.

Stallings thought Lee would do the same thing in the NFL, even though pro kickers can't use tees as they do in college. That usually cuts down on distance in the NFL, but Stallings was caught completely off guard by Lee's short kickoffs.

"His leg just wasn't strong enough," Stallings said. "You're going to miss field goals, I understand that. But my gosh, his leg . I know that kicking off the ground and kicking off the tee are two different things, but we just aren't the type of team that can afford to be giving up field position on every kickoff."

Lee did not kick off at UCLA. But with 45-player rosters in the NFL, the field-goal kicker usually kicks off, too. Stallings tried to work around Lee's shortcomings last season by having punter Evan Araposta kick off. That seemed to work but Lee also was having trouble with his field-goal kicks.

He wound up making 8 of 13 after a 2-for-6 start. Lee also missed three extra-point attempts.

Part of the problem, according to both Lee and Stallings, was that the Cardinals tried three different long snappers in 11 games. Lee had two snappers in four years at UCLA.

UCLA Coach Terry Donahue said he understood how difficult such a transition had been for Lee to accept. "It had to be traumatic for John," he said. "I just know him."

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