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For USC's Marqise Lee, there's quite a story behind the smile

The world knows Marqise Lee as the nation's best receiver and a Heisman contender. But what he's had to contend with in his turbulent young life is astonishing, though it stays hidden by his ever-present smile.

December 24, 2012|Bill Plaschke
  • USC receiver Marqise Lee takes a break during a practice at Howard Jones Field.
USC receiver Marqise Lee takes a break during a practice at Howard Jones… (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles…)

And for Christmas, Marqise Lee gives us his smile.

It’s a breathtaking smile, a constant glow both impish and welcoming, his mouth curling out and eyes lighting up into quite possibly the shiniest holiday ornament on the Los Angeles sports landscape.

The smile is his gift. It is also his sword.

“You know that guy in the movie ‘Platoon’ who keeps smiling and laughing even as they keep shooting him?” said Armando Flores, one of Lee’s former foster parents. “That’s Marqise.”

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The smile has come to symbolize the jaw-dropping football feats of this USC sophomore, who was voted the nation’s best wide receiver while becoming a favorite for next year’s Heisman Trophy. Yet to those who know him best, the smile is less about stardom than self-defense.

“He smiles so much, you never know what is wrong with him,” said his younger sister Stacy Lee. “I guess he doesn’t want to show anybody his pain.”

You see the smile. What you don’t see are the seven tattoos, high on his arm and shoulders so they’ll be hidden by a shirt, the ink of his grief. There is a tattoo for the deaf mother who was ordered to relinquish custody when he was a child. There is a tombstone tattoo for the brother who was murdered by a rival gang who shot him five times in the back. There is a praying hands tattoo for, among other things, the brother who is serving time in a Mississippi jail for attempted murder.

“People say things happen for a reason; well, I’m not trying to hear all that,” Lee said. “I don’t care about any reasons, some things just shouldn’t happen.”

You see the smile. What you don’t see is Lee dropping to his knees in a crowded end zone before every game and making the sign of the cross seven times, once for each member of his family and support system. He prays long and hard for the group that inspired his unusually selfless Twitter handle, @TeamLee1.

“If you notice, I’m always one of the last guys to leave the end zone,” he said. “I’m praying for the safety of a lot of people.”

You see the smile. What you don’t see is Lee sleeping on the couch at his Inglewood home, or sleeping on the floor next to Robert Woods’ bed in his campus house, or sleeping almost anywhere but on his own bed in his own room. After being tossed between foster homes and cheap hotels while growing up in South Los Angeles, Lee can best rest when he’s literally surrounded by family and friends.

“He’s got a bed, but he doesn’t use the bed,” said Steve Hester, whose family informally adopted Lee during high school. “After all he’s been through, he likes to spend his time in the middle of people who love him.”

You see the smile, but you didn’t see him in the visitors’ locker room after this fall’s 39-36 loss in Arizona. Lee had just completed one of the greatest games for a wide receiver in NCAA history, with a Pac-12 Conference-record 345 yards receiving, 469 all-purpose yards and two touchdowns. But he couldn’t haul down a potential Hail Mary touchdown pass on the game’s final play. Even though the ball was batted away in the end zone, he considered it a personal failure.

He crumpled to the ground and wept. He continued weeping as he walked off the field. He staggered into the locker room and punched a mirror, cutting his arm. He disappeared into a back room where he continued to loudly weep and moan while Coach Lane Kiffin was attempting to give his postgame speech.

The coach finished talking, walked back to console Lee, and told him he wasn’t required to meet with the media.

“It’s OK, coach, I got this,” Lee said.

Just like that, Lee turned on a switch, walked confidently out of the locker room, took his place in front of a concrete stadium wall, and addressed a scrum of reporters with phrases like, “I don’t care about the stats. ... The main focus is actually winning the game.”

Kiffin remembered those words such that he scrawled them on a white board in the team’s locker room. I remembered only the stunningly quick return of Lee’s smile, and so I recently asked him about it.

“When I was little, I used to dream of living in one place,” Lee said. “Now I’ve got a home on a football field with more than 100 brothers. ... If that doesn’t make you smile, nothing will.”


When Marqise Lee says, “I’ll be home for Christmas,” he’s talking about a stocking full of addresses.

He will climb into his 1996 Impala on Christmas morning, leave his rented home near USC and drive through South Los Angeles streets whose cluttered and cracked narrative matches his own.

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