He pulled LSU’s offensive carcass out of the fire on more than one occasion last season, but the only reward Jarrett Lee got in January’s Cotton Bowl against Texas A&M was mop-up duty.
He planted a knee on Jerry Jones’ pricey patch of real estate to run out the clock that night on the Tigers’ convincing 41-24 victory. Now he returns to Cowboys Stadium eight months later, the hopes for glory of an entire promising now troubled season pinned to his shoulder pads.
If you think that Lee might be panicked by suddenly being thrown into the role of starting quarterback and leader - his teammates voted him their offensive team captain for Saturday’s opener with No. 3-ranked Oregon - you’d be mistaken.
His entire college career has been a series of sudden demands divided by long stretches of waiting that had him, ever so fleetingly, consider leaving LSU.
“He’s been in our stadium and he’s been baptized under fire,” LSU coach Les Miles said of his new senior starter. “It can’t get any hotter for him than the places he’s been.”
His first starting role was an emergency one. Starting quarterback Andrew Hatch was concussed by a knee from one of his offensive linemen in the 2008 game at Auburn, forcing Lee into the fray.
He threw a pick six (more on that later), but also threw a pair of touchdown passes to lead LSU to an improbable 26-21 victory.
The starts would keep coming for Lee in the next eight games. So would the pick sixes. He threw seven of them - seven - an almost remarkable feat when you consider that former LSU quarterback Jamie Howard so infamously threw three of them in that meltdown at Auburn in 1994 and never threw another.
Lee got banged up in that second-to-last regular-season game in 2008 against Ole Miss, giving way to a promising true freshman named Jordan Jefferson. When Jefferson turned in an MVP performance that New Year’s Eve in the Chick-fil-A Bowl, Lee’s future appeared to be a fait accompli. Everyone waited in anticipation for the news that the Brenham, Texas, native was transferring somewhere, probably to a program closer to home.
That news never came. Lee stuck it out through 2009 though he threw just 40 passes - and made one shaky emergency start against Louisiana Tech when Jefferson was hurt - and through 2010 when he kept being called on time and again to rescue what became an increasingly sluggish offense under Jefferson.
It was Lee who threw the winning touchdown pass at Florida, on point in the end zone to Terrence Toliver. It was Lee who led LSU to the Tennessee 1 on that crazy final possession before Jefferson came back in to seal the untimed deal. And it was Lee who hit Rueben Randle on a key 47-yard completion late against Alabama, keeping the ball away from the Crimson Tide with a three-point lead.
“I didn’t come to LSU to transfer,” Lee said. “I didn’t want to leave. I came for the great tradition and to be around some great people.
“No one convinced me (to stay). It’s just the thought went through my mind (about transferring) and I decided I wanted to be at LSU.”
And now here he is, thrust into a difficult, some might say unwinnable situation once again.
You won’t catch Lee saying that, though.
“I don’t think I’ve been set up to fail,” he said. “When you come into this league you know it’s tough.”
Tough in terms of the teams you have to play - and the teams for which you play.
It doesn’t seem to be in Lee’s makeup to complain about his lot - certainly not in public, anyway.
It’s one of the traits that his father Stephen, himself a quarterbacks coach at West Texas A&M, admires about his son.
“He’s always right in the middle,” Stephen Lee said. “Personality-wise, maybe that helps him in these situations. He’s not a big celebrator, but when things are tough he doesn’t get too down, either.
“He’s my son but he’s a good guy. He’s got a good heart. And he understands he’s held accountable for the way he plays and for his actions.”
In one of their conversations about whether Jarrett would stay and finish his career at LSU, Stephen Lee said he didn’t try to tell his son what to do. Instead, he told him to make the kind of decision he could live with looking back when he’s 40-years-old.
“I told him to make his own path,” he said. “I think he has. And to be honest, there’s no amount of money you could pay to get the life education he’s gotten in the last couple of years.”
You don’t have to be a Tigers fan to root for Lee to become the story, to rise above this whole sordid train wreck of an offseason and leave a legacy not of mistakes but marvelous, winning play.
At least when he finishes this season, whether it’s in victory formation or not, it’ll be on his own terms, having made the decision he can live with the rest of his life.
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