Raised by women since he was a toddler, T.J. Lee III learned to pay attention to the little things.
“Like keeping the toilet seat down,” said Lee, who’s now an All-American cornerback at Eastern Washington partly because he’s a devil for the detail.
“Yes, I’m a film junkie – this year more than ever,” said Lee, his eyes brightening at the subject of proper cornerback play. No man is an island, but a boundary corner is the closest thing. “It’s always man to man, and the receivers are usually taller than me,” said Lee, who at 5-foot-9, 190 pounds looks for any edge he can get.
He finds it in the film room, including the all-important “tells,” Lee calls them, the tendencies every opposing player carries into a game. “It’s all in watching film – that’s 80 percent of the game,” Lee said.
The eyes of the quarterback? That’s pee-wee league stuff. Lee watches the body language of the offensive line, then the posture of the receiver before, during and after the snap. Their heads, their knees. “Once you watch film you can make an accurate diagnosis of who they are,” Lee said.
“He takes it above and beyond,” EWU cornerbacks coach Cherokee Valeria said.
The diagnosis on Lee himself? It’s complicated, starting with his childhood. After his parents separated when he was 3 years old, his mother Pamela moved from Texas to West Seattle and set up house with Lee’s aunt and grandmother.
“They kept me focused, on top of things,” said Lee, who along with older brother Patrick moved early in to sports. That included AAU basketball in the second grade and football one year later. Lee took the ball and literally ran with it, playing running back all the way through high school.
In his senior year at West Seattle in 2008, Lee rushed for 1,413 yards and 21 touchdowns. He attracted interest from several colleges, but former Eastern assistant coach Tory Hunter – “a pretty cool dude,” Lee recalls – helped seal the deal.
However, the year Lee arrived in Cheney, Hunter departed for Idaho.
“I cried when I heard the news,” Lee said.
That fall, Lee was crying from the pain. As a scout team running back, he was getting beat up every practice by the likes of Renard Williams and the rest of a salty defense. “I talked to coach Baldwin, and I told him that it didn’t feel the same anymore, that my knees are hurting,” Lee said.
So Lee was moved to slot receiver. That lasted a few weeks before the coaches put him on the other side of the ball. Lee played special teams, then moved up the charts at cornerback toward the end of the 2010 championship season.
“The coaches started gaining trust in me,” said Lee, who saw action in nickel situations. “It made me feel like I was contributing.”
Even as the Eagles stumbled to a 6-5 record in 2011, Lee hit his stride at cornerback. In his first start of the year, at South Dakota, he had five tackles. He finished with 48 total tackles and two interceptions and earned first-team All-Big Sky Conference honors.
Last season was even better. Lee started 13 of 14 games, ranking third on the team with 90 tackles and finishing with 11 passes broken up to rank 10th in school history. The reward: second-team All-America honors from The Sports Network in addition to a second straight spot on the All-Big Sky first team.
The key to improvement, Lee contends, is recognizing that there’s no such thing as a perfect play, by the individual or the team.
“He’s basically a second coach in the film room,” Valeria said. “I’ll talk about our technique and what we have to fix, and then he’ll talk about it from the player perspective.”
Lee also has reached out to the other players, especially on game day.
“I’m very passionate, and I show it on the field,’ Lee said. “Opposing coaches see how active I am on the field – ‘Let’s go, let’s do this.’”
The attitude is infectious. Eastern cornerback Ronald Baines, who met Lee at a high school all-star game in Cheney in 2008, calls Lee “one of the guys you want to be around and learn from.”
With a handful of games left in his Eastern career, Lee said he wants to be remembered “as somebody that everyone knows they can depend on.”
After that, Lee hopes to realize a childhood dream of playing in the NFL. “I’m going to sell out for that dream and do whatever it takes to get there,” Lee said.