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VALLEY / VENTURA COUNTY SPORTS

Growing Pains

Lee Uses Abuse at Hands of His Father to Motivate Himself at Hueneme High

November 26, 2000|JOHN KLIMA | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

PORT HUENEME — The memory is stored behind his smiling face, below the scars on his arms and years removed from hurting him again.

Leslie Lee was in sixth grade, a 3-foot-9, 59-pound 11-year-old who played football for the local youth team.

His father, Bobby Lee, was a giant in comparison. In July 1994, court records show, a father's rage transformed a boy's life.

"He got mad one day and took it all out on me," Leslie remembers.

His mother, Emily Mondesi, told him to run. Even then, Leslie was fast. He raced away from the fury of his father, finding shelter in a neighbor's house.

Bobby Lee forced his way inside, picked up Leslie and dragged him out. That's where the scars come from.

Sometime during the struggle, Leslie remembers his father's fist closing one of his eyes.

Leslie went to the hospital. Bobby Lee pleaded guilty to felony child abuse and was sentenced to five years in state prison.

The story played out on the tough South Oxnard streets near Hueneme High. Yet Leslie Lee has become more than a routine success story. His survival has molded him into a warrior on the football field and into a model citizen.

"This is the kind of neighborhood where that stuff happens," said Larry Miller, Hueneme's football coach. "We got kids from crazy backgrounds. All they're looking for is a break in life."

Hueneme's football team is where Leslie Lee got his break. The senior helped the Vikings finish 7-4 this season and as tri-champions of the Pacific View League before they lost, 22-20, to Dos Pueblos in the first round of the Southern Section Division IV playoffs.

Immediately after Leslie was abused, Mondesi placed a lifetime restraining order on Bobby Lee, who is forbidden to come within 100 yards of Leslie, his younger brother Elan, 13, and his older brother, Bobby Lee Jr.

*

The metamorphosis of Leslie Lee began with a black-and-blue memory.

"This motivated me every day," he said. "I said, 'This is never going to happen again.' "

He began to lift weights to strengthen his body. From the little running back of the Hueneme Rhinos grew a ferocious high school player whose gentle and guarded composure fortified his resolve. He put shaken faith into the steady hands of Hueneme's coaches. At 17, Lee is a star running back expected to run away from the tough streets of Hueneme and into a Division I college program.

The demons of the past drive him to succeed.

"It's always in the back of my head," Lee said. "I'll remember it my whole life. He may consider himself my dad, but he'll never be my father."

Lee buried the memory beneath a warm yet shy persona. No one on the Hueneme coaching staff knew of his past until his sophomore season. Then at Camarillo High, his story came to light.

Bobby Lee came to watch his son play football.

Suddenly, the horrific night came rushing back.

Mondesi picked Bobby Lee out of the stands, where he was in violation of the restraining order. Campus officers asked him to leave.

On the sidelines, Leslie saw the scene unfold. There his past paraded before his eyes. The frustration turned to rage. The rage turned to tears.

"I noticed him in the stands and I was [livid]," Leslie said.

That was the day Hueneme coaches became the only fathers Leslie ever considered to be dads.

Miller remembers turning around to see officers escorting Leslie's father away. Then he saw Leslie fighting to control the anger within.

"The coaches had to calm me down," Leslie said.

*

To watch Leslie Lee play football is to watch him exorcise his past. He may not forget that fateful night, but he is free to cast those demons aside on the field.

"Angry," Miller said. "That's how he plays. Sometimes you can see it boiling. When he gets on the field, it explodes."

Lee's emotion adds a relentless dimension to his game. No longer a helpless child, he has grown into a chiseled 5-9, 175-pound teenager who squats 475 pounds and benches 285. His speed is exceptional. This season, he rushed for 1,049 yards and 13 touchdowns.

The scars have long since healed on Lee's body, but they remain fresh on his soul. He has refused to let the past destroy his future.

"That's the difference between Leslie and other guys," said Miller, a 1969 Hueneme graduate whose informal study of his roster found about 90% of his players come from broken homes. "Rather than use this as an excuse not to do something, Leslie uses it as an excuse to do something."

No coach is closer to Lee than assistant Tony Pinedo. It's trust earned the hard way, sealed with a fatherly touch.

"[The past] was hard to bring out," Lee said. "I don't go around talking about it. [The coaches] understood what I was going through."

Said Pinedo: "Our kids have been given up on before. They are not impressed with fast-talking coaches. Leslie saw that we were not going anywhere. We're always there for him. And he opened up. I truly believe that kid takes inventory of his life."

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