Robert Lee, Santa Ana High School's exceptional running back, said he has decided to quit football, something he said he has been contemplating for nearly a year.
Lee, who rushed for 4,388 yards in three years--the second-highest in Orange County history behind the 5,397 by Valencia's Ray Pallares--cited a loss of enthusiasm as his main reason for leaving football.
"I just don't (have) feelings for it anymore," Lee said. "I haven't had any emotion for the sport for a long time. I wanted to quit in the middle of the season. . . . I've been thinking about (quitting) for a year. I guess I was afraid to let people know.
"I was playing football for everyone but myself. Now I just want to be like everyone else, like a normal person. Not this guy who everyone pointed to saying, 'There he is, there's Robert Lee.' "
Santa Ana Coach Dick Hill called Lee's decision a "surprise" and a "disappointment," but said he and his assistants hope to persuade Lee to reconsider.
"We will be talking about this and working on it the whole semester," Hill said. "But Robert is young, and time is on his side. He might wise up by taking a year away from football. Personally, I hope that doesn't happen, but he's still a young person. . . . He could still continue with football after taking off a year."
Some speculate that pressures--both external and self-inflicted--led Lee to his decision.
"Robert had prepared himself for the best season of his life," said Andy Bonsall, a Santa Ana assistant who has a close relationship with Lee. "His goal for himself was to better his junior season (when he rushed for 1,930 yards). When he didn't live up to his own expectations (he ran for 1,481 yards), he perceived himself as a failure. I think he saw others inflicting that (on him), and, to some extent, he resents the sport because of it."
"Now he just wants to be regular Robert Lee. Just a kid who goes to college without playing football."
Santa Ana quarterback George Tuioti, a close friend of Lee's, said that although he is behind Lee "100%--whatever he decides," he thinks the decision is only temporary.
"I think he'll stay out until it's show-and-tell time (time to play football)," Tuioti said. "I don't think he's going to give up his first love."
Tuioti agreed that high expectations placed on Lee last season may have been too great.
"I get totally mad when people say he didn't have a great year," Tuioti said. "That guy was the best in Orange County, the best to ever come out of Santa Ana. Everybody was expecting 200 yards a game. I've gotten in fights in sticking up for him. He was so highly thought of, people had unreal expectations. I'm really sorry that they expected so much from him. He got us all the way to CIF. He was the one."
Lee said he plans to attend a community college in the fall, probably Orange Coast or Fullerton, and later pursue a business accounting degree at a university.
"People used to always tell me education was the most important thing," Lee said. "But now all I hear is football, football, football . . . that it's the most important thing. Then they think I'm crazy for doing this, but I'm just choosing to get an education."
Lee was being recruited by San Diego State, Oregon State and Cal State Fullerton.
"We had scheduled him for a trip last weekend," said Jim McAllister, Fullerton recruiting coordinator.
"But when we chatted with him, he said at that time, he wasn't going to be playing football. It surprised us because he's an awfully good player. . . . But our feeling is, well, that's his decision."
And, according to Lee, his decision is final.
"I want nothing to do with football," he said. "Except maybe watch the Super Bowl on TV."
Times staff writer Steve Lowery contributed to this story.