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ORANGE COUNTY PREP FRIDAY : GENERALLY AMAZING : Santa Ana Tailback Robert Lee Has Never Met a Defender He Didn't Like to Punish

October 02, 1987|STEVE LOWERY | Times Staff Writer

On Dec. 14, 1985, Robert Lee, a self-described sophomore "baby" at 5-feet 11-inches and 200 pounds (try to burp that), took a handoff from Santa Ana High School quarterback Eric Turner and ran directly into the Mission Viejo defensive line.

He ran through that line, he ran through four tacklers, he ran 25 yards for a touchdown with 4:42 left in the first quarter of the Southern Conference championship game in LeBard Stadium. The touchdown, and a conversion kick, tied the score at 7-7.

In the fourth quarter, holding a 25-21 lead, Santa Ana had the ball on its 31. Lee took another handoff and broke through the line, then made a cut to his left so wicked that Mission Viejo Coach Bill Crow described it as "scary."

Lee ran toward the sideline, then turned up field. He met an oncoming cornerback with a straight arm so blunt, only a riot cop could really appreciate it. He ran 43 yards before being pushed out of bounds. A few plays later, Turner scored on a 12-yard run that clinched a 32-21 Santa Ana victory and the conference championship.

The Saints had entered the game as underdogs, having finished third in the Century League.

Lee entered frightened.

"Those boys were huuuuuge," he said. "I was just this little sophomore baby. I took one look at them during warm-ups and I said to myself, 'You can't do this, those boys are going to kill you.' "

By the time the game was over, Lee had rushed for 231 yards. More than a few people invoked the great ghosts of the past--Isaac Curtis (Santa Ana High) and Myron White (Santa Ana Valley).

George Tuioti, a teammate of Lee's on this season's Santa Ana team, had sat in the stands and "cried like a baby" as Robert ran.

"I was so proud," said Tuioti, a sophomore at the time. "He was unbelievable that night."

Crow said he hates to even think about the game.

"I'm still shocked," he said. "We knew he was good, but what he did was amazing. Just amazing."

And so goes the life of Robert Lee. A life of setting mouths agape. At 7, he fell off a bike and onto some broken glass, badly cutting his arm.

"There was blood all over," he said. "I just wiped it off. The neighbors were just staring at me, mouths wide open. One of them finally yelled, 'Cry!' I just got back on my bike and rode away."

During the summer of 1986, Lee bloated up to about 250 pounds. He was fat. He was still fat when his junior season started, and he averaged 38 yards a game in his first five. Then Lee read that he had been named a prep All-American . . . as a 240-pound fullback.

"That made me mad," he said. "They figured I was a fullback since I was so big at the time. I'm a tailback; I run. I decided that I had had enough."

In the last nine games of the 1986 season, Lee averaged close to 200 yards a game. He led the county in scoring during the regular season with 19 touchdowns. He took Santa Ana to another Southern Conference final. The Saints lost this one, 26-10, to El Toro.

He started this season at a tightly wound 190 pounds. He ran 5 to 10 miles a day over the summer, hit the weights and hit the pavement with his skateboard, which he rode everywhere.

"It's a great workout," Lee said.

In three games this season, he has rushed for 379 yards. He is the best running back in Orange County, case closed.

"Robert has always been able to do things that people can't believe, even me," said Charlie Lee, his mother. "He used to run all around the house, running into walls, just everything, and he wouldn't even blink. He just kept on going."

But if destiny was dropping hints around the house, it was a no-show at Lee's Junior All-American football games and practices. Lee started football at age 8 and from that time until he was 13, he played nothing but offensive guard and nose tackle.

"I thought I could be a running back, but my coaches would always say they needed me on the line," Lee said.

Lee did persist, but was always met with the same answer.

No.

After that, Lee was so turned off to football that he had decided not to play it in high school. Only after constant coaxing, and a few threats, from friends did Lee turn up at freshman practice a few days before the first game. In that first game, at running back, he played one quarter and rushed for 40 yards and a touchdown.

"I was so scared going into the game," Lee said. "I mean, the running back is the one who always gets beat up. He's the one everyone wants to hit. The first time I took a handoff, I said, 'What am I doing here?' "

He pondered the same question a year later as he turned the corner on a sweep against Foothill. It was his first varsity game and his first carry. As he turned the corner, he saw two things: a wide-open field and a cornerback. His mind told him he had everything to gain, like a touchdown, but his body bolted for the cornerback.

"I could have had a touchdown, but I saw that guy and I had to hit him," Lee said. "I just had to."

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