For Lee, well-deserved recognition
Senior wide receiver named to Allstate Good Works Team
Published: Tuesday, September 17, 2013
Updated: Tuesday, September 17, 2013 17:09
I sat next to senior wide receiver Fred Lee as he sobbed tears of joy Tuesday afternoon. It brought me back to February of this year, the first conversation I had ever had with Lee.
He was sitting in The Spectrum’s office and telling me about his goal to become a motivator. His roommate, senior cornerback Najja Johnson, had suggested the two of us meet. He knew Lee wanted to write a book, and he knew I could help by writing a story about it.
So we sat and talked for about an hour that morning. As the conversation proceeded, I became more and more awestruck by everything Lee had to say and the fervor with which he said it. He was opening up to a stranger, telling me his life story, and the details were incredible. My this-is-a-good-story sense was tingling. Lee had overcome tremendous odds and had dreams bigger than anything I can tangibly compare them to – even his gargantuan hands.
Over the next month, I spent more time with Lee than anyone I had ever written about, and eventually I penned an article about him called "Lee, and they will follow."
No story could ever do justice to the kind of person Lee is. He inspired me to be a better person in the month I spent with him. His efforts to motivate others were recognized Tuesday.
As we sat on the bleachers inside the gymnasium of Starpoint High School, I watched as tears poured out of his eyes and rolled off his face with haste. He had just received the Allstate Good Works Award, given to college football players who display extreme leadership and commitment to community service while maintaining strong grades. There were 150 college football players nominated; 22 were chosen, 11 from Division 1A. Lee is the only recipient from the Mid-American Conference.
An Allstate agent announced the award. Lee immediately grabbed his face in shock. He said he had never felt such joy.
“Never in my life,” he said. “It’s not a touchdown, not a pass, nothing that felt like this.”
His voice trailed off as his tears took over. He said while his teammates have racked up accolades, he had never received an award.
The recognition was a surprise. He was under the impression he was simply talking to an assembly of Starpoint students in the gymnasium Tuesday. It wouldn’t be a rare occurrence; he frequently speaks to kids at the school.
He spoke Tuesday to a group of about 300 kids about his struggles as a child to accept who he was and if he could become someone who mattered. His mother told him to do something every morning, and he relayed that message to the kids: When you wake up in the morning, brush your teeth, wash your face and then say these words in the mirror: “I am somebody, I am important and I love me.”
The kids repeated after him. By the end of the talk, they were shouting it at his command. There were five tenets of his speech: respect, responsibility, self-control, courtesy and cooperation. He even created a song to incorporate each term, and four of his teammates – senior receiver Alex Neutz, sophomore quarterback Joe Licata, senior tight end Jimmy Gordon and senior safety Derek Brim – clapped and sang along in front of the crowd.
If you read this newspaper, you probably know I am often critical of UB’s athletic department. In that moment, I was proud to be associated with this university and proud to cover the athletes setting an example like that for a group of impressionable kids.
Mostly, I was proud of Lee.
“Just to get an award and be recognized for the things I try to do, it means a lot, man,” he said. “It really does. I really do try.”
Lee started helping out at Starpoint last year, around the time I first interviewed him, when he asked the school’s principal – Gil Licata, father of starting quarterback Joe – if he could come talk to the students.
“He just approached me one day about working with the kids because of his many experiences growing up, and we just opened the doors for him,” Gil said. “He would talk to them one on one, in groups and on weekends about choices they had to make. The thing about Fred is that it all came from his heart.”
In addition to being thankful for Lee's contribution to his school, Gil is grateful that his son, Joe, has friends like Lee at UB. He said Lee is over at the Licata household all the time, and the family loves him.
“We’re going to try to make him Italian,” Gil laughed.
Bart Mazzara, a freshman at Buffalo State College who graduated from Starpoint in June, was one of the high schoolers Lee impacted.
“Fred helped me through everything,” said Mazzara, a wide receiver and safety in high school. “He motivated me better than anyone has ever motivated me in my life. Every time I talk to him, I get chills because he knows the right words. He is a sensational and genuinely good person.
“Every time he came to Starpoint, I would look forward to it. I would look forward to that Wednesday talking to Fred Lee. He’s one of the best people I’ve ever met in my life. I even wrote an essay about him and how he impacted my life and made me go on the straight and narrow path. He did all that for me … what he did for me, I never will forget.”
Lee also impacts people his own age. Alex Neutz, his record-setting comrade at wide receiver and best friend, was on the same recruiting trip as Lee and has been his roommate since their first day on campus.
“He’s helped me come miles and miles,” Neutz said. “He’s changed my life. He’s an incredible person, and you can see it in his passion. He cares about everybody he touches.”