Jarrett Lee looks for perfect finish
NEW ORLEANS -- Jarrett Lee began the first game of LSU's season as its starting quarterback. He'll end the Tigers' last practice as their backup center and guard?
Wait. What? How did Lee go from a quarterback to a 206-pound offensive lineman?
"We're switching jerseys with the centers," said Lee. "They wear our jerseys, we wear theirs. That's for the final practice."
Oh, OK. So Lee will swap numbers with fellow fifth-year senior guard/center T-Bob Hebert for Saturday's workout at the New Orleans Saints' facility. Lee will wear the massive No. 53 jersey of the 304-pound lineman. Hebert will try to squeeze into Lee's No. 12.
"It's definitely a sight to see," said Hebert, who came to LSU the same year as Lee. "There's a lot of guts hanging out. And a lot of oversized mini-skirt-looking jerseys going on."
Said Lee: "I've got a lot of experience with him."
Lee has a lot of experience with everything. His bizarre LSU career has been an elevator ride up and down the depth chart, with stops for a national championship in 2007 and, who knows, maybe another one after Monday's night's Allstate BCS National Championship against Alabama.
He's been the big-time recruit. The frustrated player who thought about transferring over lack of playing time. The emotionally fragile quarterback who couldn't shake a botched throw.
In 2011, he went from potential third-stringer to starter and then back to second-teamer. But without him, LSU wouldn't be No. 1, undefeated and four quarters from another ring fitting. CBS analyst Gary Danielson even said during a late-season broadcast that Lee would be his choice as the Tigers' team MVP. And he's right.
"It's been wild," Lee said. "It sure has. I don't regret it all. It's helped me grow, not only as a player, but as a person. Moments like this -- being part of this special team -- well, I don't regret anything that's happened to me at all."
It's been wild. It sure has. I don't regret it all. It's helped me grow, not only as a player, but as a person. Moments like this -- being part of this special team -- well, I don't regret anything that's happened to me at all.
--LSU QB Jarrett Lee
If LSU wins Monday evening, it likely will come with Lee standing exactly where he's been since throwing two consecutive interceptions against this same Bama team two months ago: on the sideline. He was pulled from the Tigers' lineup with 7:56 remaining in the third quarter and has barely played since.
Quarterbacks coach Steve Kragthorpe broke the news to him. He called Lee into his office and said Jordan Jefferson, who had missed the first four games because of a suspension, would return as the starter.
Lee tried to talk him out of it. After all, LSU was 9-0 with Lee in the starting lineup. He had completed 62.3 percent of his passes with 13 touchdowns and only three interceptions. The first-quarter interception against Bama was his first in the previous 100 pass attempts.
Didn't matter. Jefferson is the guy who had helped rescue the Tigers that Nov. 5 night at Bryant-Denny Stadium. That was more than enough for LSU to make the switch.
So Lee was out, and Jefferson was in. And since the change, the Tigers have gone 4-0 and won by a combined 177-39.
We know what happened next. It happens a lot in college football. Lee threw a hissy fit. Ran a 4.2 sprint to the media and complained about the unfairness of it all. Returned home to Texas until LSU coaches begged him to come back.
"Jarrett Lee has to do what's best for Jarrett Lee," he said in a tearful interview with ESPN's Tom Rinaldi.
Actually, Lee didn't do any of that. Complain? Lee wouldn't complain if he ordered a porterhouse and the waiter brought him lima beans on a bed of tofu.
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Instead, he did what he's always done: be the good teammate. Never have you seen him in pout mode when the TV cameras zero in.
"I'm just thinking about the game," he said. "I know the coaches and they've done a great job this year handling this situation. If I'm on [TV], it's not that type of face where I'm thinking, 'I should be in there. I should be playing.'"
His old man didn't raise him that way. What is it that Stephen Lee always told his son?
Life's not fair. Fair is a place where you ride rides.
Stephen Lee coaches quarterbacks at Division II West Texas A&M. He was on the road when LSU played Bama but checked into his hotel room about the same time Jarrett was throwing his first interception. Then came the second INT. Then came the benching after a 3-of-7, 24-yard performance.
"He was disappointed in himself," Stephen said in a phone interview. "He had told me during the week, 'This is one of the biggest games of my life. I want to keep this thing going.' He was down about that game. But the bottom line is this: When you're out there, play well. Otherwise, be a team player and do what you're asked. All that other stuff -- let it go."
Lee can remember every detail of those two interceptions. Earlier in his career, he'd still be curled in the fetal position. Not now.
"I think that's what affected me in the past," he said. "I couldn't get over it. But immediately after [the Bama game], I realized I had to put this behind me."
He won't start in The Rematch. And depending on how the game unfolds, he might not play at all.
But Lee isn't in a funk. He wants to start. He wants to play. But more than anything, he wants a second national championship ring.
"J. Lee is one of those guys where it's all about team first," Hebert said. "It's no complaints. He just keeps working and comes to practice everyday with his mind right. I think we can all learn from him and how he's handled the adversity."
It's about perspective, isn't it? As recently as spring practice, there was talk that Zach Mettenberger would be the No. 2 quarterback and Lee would drop to third-teamer. Then Jefferson got suspended for his role in a late-August fight, Lee zoomed up the depth chart and the Tigers kept winning.
"I know this: There is absolutely no way they're in this game without him," said Glen West, Lee's head coach at Brenham (Texas) High School, in a phone interview. "He has to know that. Because when his number was called and he was needed, they won. They would not be in this position without him, I believe that wholeheartedly. You could argue that if he's not the [LSU] MVP, he's the co-MVP."
Lee is semi-embarrassed by such talk. He said he did "what you're supposed to do. It's no different than anyone else would have done on this team."
This is a guy who's a sucker for Van Halen, golf and John Elway. He also has a sentimental streak.
When he talks about his teammates, it's as though they're close relatives. Brothers, actually.
He brightens when talking about his 2007 national championship ring. He tries not to think about his last practice or his last game in an LSU uniform.
"The whole senior thing hasn't hit me yet," he said. "But LSU is a special place. You create memories here."
Stephen Lee won't be in a hotel room watching the national title game on TV. He and the entire Lee family will be in the Superdome. Meanwhile, West will be in San Antonio for a national coaches' convention. But he'll find the nearest flat-screen Monday night. He'll root, as always, for Lee.
"I hope you call me on Tuesday and you want to do another interview because Jarrett took them for the winning score on the final drive," West said.
Wouldn't that be something? It would be the perfect ending to an imperfect LSU career.
Gene Wojciechowski is the senior national columnist for ESPN.com. You can contact him at email@example.com. Hear Gene's podcasts and ESPN Radio appearances by clicking here. And don't forget to follow him on Twitter @GenoEspn.
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