It was obvious from the start that the athlete in the Lee family of Seoul, South Korea was young Min Jong. He was a natural on the soccer field and, as a Little League pitcher, he made the Korean national team that competed against Japan, Taiwan and Hong Kong.
But when Kyou and Okja moved their family from Seoul to Downey in 1976, they had no way of knowing what the strange American sport of football had in store for their son.
Min Jong was in the sixth grade when he was brought here. He knew how to say “hello” in English, but that was about all.
He enrolled in school as John Lee and was speaking English in a matter of weeks.
Football wasn’t quite that easy.
When he got to Downey High School, all his friends were going out for football. He didn’t know much about the game, but he had seen it, and he wanted to play, too. So when the coach told all the new recruits to write on a piece of paper what position they wanted to play, John Lee wrote “kicker.”
Now that he’s an All-American kicker at UCLA, breaking every kicking and scoring record that he comes across, that seems to be a fitting introduction, the prelude to stardom. But nothing is ever that simple.
Lee tells this story: “The coach came over to me and said, ‘You can’t just be a kicker. We might let you kick, but you have to play some position. You’re big enough to be a lineman. Pick a line position.’
“At that time, I was as big as I am right now. (He’s 5-11, 187 pounds.) Asians seem to grow faster earlier and then level off. That’s why the Little League teams are always so good. In the ninth grade, I was one of the biggest guys on the team.
“I told him I’d put down one of the line positions, but I didn’t know the name of any. So he said, ‘Put down noseguard.’
“I was trying to learn the position, but everything was so new to me. I didn’t even always understand what was said in the huddles. I just knew I was supposed to tackle the guy with the ball. If there was a play called so that I had to go a certain way, there was a linebacker behind me who would hit me on the butt to tell me which way.”
That year his freshman team was undefeated. He led the team in tackles and was named defensive player of the year.
But the coaches had to admit that he was right to begin with. He was best as a kicker. The next fall they told him he could play defense and kick for the junior varsity, or he could just kick for the varsity.
John Lee decided he would just kick.
“I love it,” Lee said. “When you see the ball going end-over-end through the uprights, it’s like hitting a home run.”
But it becomes an obsession. Once is not enough. Twice is not enough. Streaks are not enough. Records are not enough. Nothing less than perfection will do.
“It really is an art,” Lee said.
To study his new-found art, Lee sought out a master, Ben Agajanian. As every kicker in Southern California knows, Agajanian conducts a free clinic in Long Beach every Wednesday evening in the spring.
Uncle Ben, they call him. He’ll work with any kicker who is seriously interested in working. Which means that John Lee became one of his star pupils.
Agajanian was at UCLA last week, having lunch with Lee between practice sessions and making no effort to hide his pride in Lee’s success.
He calls Lee one of the best kickers he’s ever seen, giving equal billing to another of his star pupils, Rafael Septien of the Dallas Cowboys.
Agajanian was one of the first true kicking specialists. After losing the toes on his right foot in a freight elevator accident in 1940, Agajanian adapted a square-toed shoe and kicked with 10 different pro teams over 18 years--taking time off to make his fortune in the sporting goods business.
He later coached in the NFL, but now he’s officially retired. He plays in gin rummy tournaments, cruises around Long Beach in his antique Rolls Royce and stays on top of the kicking game by teaching the youngsters and serving as an adviser to the Cowboys.
Cowboy Coach Tom Landry has called him the top authority in the field of kicking.
So when Agajanian told the UCLA coaches in May of 1982 that they should sign John Lee to a scholarship, they did it.
“What did I see in John Lee?” Agajanian asked rhetorically. “First of all, I saw a hell of an athlete. Out of the 20 or 30 kids who were there when he came out, he did stand out.
“But what impressed me was the way he worked. He wouldn’t miss a practice. He would always find a way to get there.
“And, probably most important, he would listen and he would learn quickly. You could coach him. Some kids just want to show you how far they can kick the ball, and no matter what changes you tell them to make, they just keep doing it their way to kick it as far as they can.
“John wanted to learn.”
Lee learned the Agajanian way. That is, the new, soccer-style Agajanian way. When Agajanian was kicking, he was kicking straight-away. When he started coaching, he found himself working with an influx of foreign kickers, all soccer-trained and kicking the ball with the side of the foot.
Agajanian made a study of it and decided that the soccer-style kick worked best. He also decided that the key to accuracy was not to spot the target and then try to adjust the kicking motion to put the ball there. The key was to keep the motion identical each time, and simply to adjust the angle of the body to line up with the target.
Agajanian holds up the thumb and first finger of his right hand in a 90-degree angle and says, “This is all you need to know. If you perfect your kicking motion so that it’s always the same, and then you learn to find your spot on the field at a right angle to the goal post, you can’t miss.”
Early on, as he was perfecting this theory, he nailed two 2-by-4 boards together at a right angle to help his kickers find their spots. Now he teaches them to step off the distance.
When Lee takes the field, he goes to the spot where the ball will be teed up. He adjusts his body to the angle of the goal posts. Then he takes three careful giant steps backward and two sliding steps to his left. He focuses on the spot where the ball will be, and when the ball gets there, he takes two big strides forward and swings through with his right leg, hitting the ball with the side of his foot exactly the same way every time.
It’s that simple.
In three years at UCLA he has made 96 of 97 extra point attempts and 63 of 75 field goal attempts. Inside the 40-yard-line, he’s made 42 of 43 field goal attempts.
Agajanian taught that system to Septien and to Norm Johnson, the kicker who preceded Lee at UCLA and who is with the Seattle Seahawks, and to countless other kickers scattered across the country.
Lee said: “It’s not exactly the same. Rafael takes four little steps. I take three big steps. But it’s the same idea.”
If it’s such a good idea, then why doesn’t everyone put the ball through the uprights with the kind of consistency that Lee and Septien show?
Agajanian taps his temple and says: “Kicking is very much a mental game. A kicker has to be very disciplined, very intelligent. For years, I’ve been fighting the image of kickers as flaky. . . . They may seem that way because, on the sideline, they have to keep their own concentration their own way. But they aren’t flaky.
“The good kickers I have known over the years have been very intelligent, like John.”
Agajanian teaches his proteges to concentrate on nothing but kicking when they are on the sideline. He tells them, “You’re not a coach. You’re not a cheerleader.” It’s best not to get too much into the game. A kicker needs to know how the game is going so he knows when he might be called upon, but he shouldn’t get too wrapped up in the emotional swings.
Adrenaline doesn’t help a kicker at all.
The strain of concentration is such that Lee has a headache after every game.
Lee said: “You always know what the score is and how important a kick is, but you try not to think about it. When I get out there, it’s just me and the ball.”
Actually, there are 11 Bruins on the field every time Lee kicks, and he is well aware of the help he gets out there. He jokes that he shares the credit so that he can share the blame, except that, on those rare occasions when he does miss, he takes all the blame himself.
Lee figures he does one-quarter of the work, with one-quarter going to the blocking linemen, one quarter to the person who snaps the ball and one-quarter to the holder.
The first two years that he kicked for UCLA, his holder was quarterback Rick Neuheisel. He was a little worried about how it would go after Neuheisel graduated, but receiver David Clinton held for him all last year, and he had absolutely no complaints. Clinton is back this year.
Senior Terry Theodore has snapped the ball for every one of Lee’s 63 field goals and 96 extra points. Theodore came to UCLA as a walk-on and earned a scholarship to snap the ball.
Time was, coaches didn’t figure a kicker was worth a scholarship, much less the person who snaps the ball. But, think about it, the Bruin kicking team has accounted for the majority of UCLA’s points ever since Lee arrived.
“Any one of those guys could make me miss, if he didn’t do his job,” Lee said. “So when you look at my stats, you know what a good job they have done.”
Just look at those stats.
“When you have a defensive weapon like John Lee, you have to lean on him sometimes,” Coach Terry Donahue says, without apology. But he adds, “We hope to have him kicking more extra points this year and fewer field goals.”
Last season the Bruins did have to lean on him too much, needing six field goals from him in the first game to beat San Diego State, 18-15. It didn’t say much for the Bruin offense, but it put Lee in the National Collegiate Athletic Assn. record books. He started the season with a streak of 16 straight field goals. Before the season was over, Lee had accounted for winning kicks in six of UCLA’s nine victories and he had the NCAA record for most field goals in a single season at 29.
Before he had reached the midway point of his junior season, Lee had passed Heisman Trophy winner Gary Beban as the all-time leading scorer at UCLA.
Lee has been the leading scorer for the Bruins every season, scoring 87 points as a freshman, 81 points as a sophomore and 117 points as a junior, demonstrating astounding consistency year after year.
He’s going into his senior season with a streak of 69 straight extra points. He missed one when he was a freshman.
He misses so rarely that his misses are more memorable than his game winners--not much of a reward for near-perfection.
The one field goal he has missed from inside 40 yards was a key one--a 37-yarder that would have given the Bruins a tie in the final seconds of a game at Arizona. He said later that he topped it, hit the ball a little too high. Arizona kicker Max Zendejas said he was shocked when Lee missed it.
But a shocking miss like that does not send Lee into a slump. On the contrary, every miss gives him a sigh of relief.
“I know that, percentage-wise, I’m not going to miss very many,” Lee said. “So when I miss, I know it’s going to be a while before I miss again.
“I’ve never missed two kicks in one game and I’ve never missed two in a row. Not even in practice.”
Asked what he would do if he ever did miss two he said: “I’d call Uncle Ben.”
When he missed the field goal at Arizona, the game was on national television. His parents were at home in Downey, not just watching, but video-taping.
They may not know the game as well as some parents, but they knew what that miss meant to their son. They were waiting at the airport that night when the plane landed.
“When I got off the plane--which was late--there were TV cameras and everybody wanted to talk to me about how I missed,” Lee said. “It was awful. It helped me a lot that they were there for me. They hadn’t planned to pick me up that night, but I knew they would be there.”
They all went home and watched that bad kick over and over, analyzing what went wrong so it wouldn’t happen again.
Lee appreciates the way his parents have backed him in his kicking. Most Asian parents, he says, want their children to concentrate on academics, only.
“They knew I would go to college, whether I played football or not,” Lee said. “My older brother (Yoon) graduated from UC Irivine in computer science. My oldest sister (Susan) has a degree from UCI in psychology and is a legal assistant. My older sister (Helen) is a graduate pharmacy student at UC San Francisco (Medical School).
“My parents are not the typical Asian parents. They’re Americanized enough to know that I can do both.”
Lee is majoring in sociology, but planning to make a career in real estate.
“They know that what I’m doing is important to me, and they’re proud of me,” Lee said. “Within the Korean community, my dad was picked as father of the year. That made me feel good.”
Surely, when Kyou Lee brought his family to America, he didn’t expect to get all this attention. He could not have anticipated that his son would gain the recognition of an O.J. Simpson.
Lee laughed and said, “Probably not. I don’t think he knows who O.J. Simpson is.”
JOHN LEE: YEAR BY YEAR
Year FG-FGA 0-19 20-29 30-39 40-49 50+ LG XP-PA PTS 1982 15-19 0-0 4-4 7-7 3-5 1-3 50 42-43 87 1983 16-20 1-1 5-5 7-8 2-5 1-1 52 33-33 81 1984 32-36 2-2 8-8 8-8 12-15 2-3 51 21-21 117 Totals 63-75 3-3 17-17 22-23 17-25 4-7 52 96-97 285 PCT. .840 1.000 1.000 .957 .680 .571 .990
NCAA CAREER FIELD GOAL LEADERS
No Kicker School Years FG-FGA PCT. Under 40 1 Luis Zendejas Arizona St. 1981-84 78-105 .743 53-59 2 Kevin Butler Georgia 1981-84 77-98 .786 50-56 3 Fuad Reveiz Tennessee 1981-84 71-95 .747 45-53 4 Larry Roach Oklahoma St. 1981-84 68-101 .673 46-54 5 Paul Woodside West Virginia 1981-84 65-81 .802 45-49 6 Jess Atkinson Maryland 1981-84 60-82 .732 40-48 7 Obed Ariri Clemson 1977-80 60-92 .652 47-55 8 Chuck Nelson Washington 1980-82 59-72 .819 47-53 9 John Lee UCLA 1982-84 58-68 .853 38-39 10 Don Miller Miami 1978-81 56-83 .675 38-50
No 40 Plus 1 25-46 2 27-42 3 26-42 4 22-47 5 20-32 6 20-34 7 13-37 8 12-19 9 20-29 10 18-33
NCAA statistics do not include bowl games NCAA SEASON FIELD GOAL LEADERS
No Kicker School Year FG-FGA PCT. Under 40 1 John Lee UCLA 1984 29-33 .879 16-16 2 Paul Woodside West Virginia 1982 28-31 .903 23-23 3 Luis Zendejas Arizona St. 1983 28-37 .757 19-22 4 Fuad Reveiz Tennessee 1982 27-31 .871 14-14 5 Chuck Nelson Washington 1982 25-26 .962 22-23 6 Chris White Illinois 1984 24-28 .857 16-17 7 Bruce Kallmeyer Kansas 1983 24-29 .828 13-14 8 Mike Prindle Western Michigan 1984 24-30 .800 17-20 9 Bobby Raymond Florida 1984 23-26 .885 18-18 Mike Bass Illinois 1982 23-26 .885 12-13
No 40 Plus 1 13-17 2 5-8 3 9-15 4 13-17 5 3-3 6 8-11 7 11-15 8 7-10 9 5-8 11-13
NCAA statistics do not include bowl games UCLA SCORING RECORDS POINTS
GAME 26 SEASON 117 CAREER 285 CAREER 214
GAME Joe Fleming vs. Redlands, 1926 (3 TD, 2 FG, 2 PAT) SEASON John Lee, 1984 CAREER John Lee, 1982-84 CAREER Gary Beban, 1965-67 (Non-Kicker)
FIELD GOALS MADE
GAME 6 SEASON 32 CAREER 63 LONGEST 55
GAME John Lee vs. San Diego State, 1984 SEASON John Lee, 1984 CAREER John Lee, 1982-84 LONGEST Frank Corral vs. Oregon, 1976
FIELD GOALS ATTEMPTED
GAME 7 SEASON 36 CAREER 75
GAME Efren Herrera vs. Washington, 1971 SEASON John Lee, 1984 CAREER John Lee, 1982-84
POINTS AFTER TOUCHDOWNS MADE
GAME 9 SEASON 60 CAREER 121 CONSECUTIVE 69
GAME Zenon Andrusyshyn vs. Pittsburgh, 1968; Efren Herrera vs. Washington, 1971 SEASON Efren Herrera,1973 CAREER Efren Herrera, 1971-73 CONSECUTIVE John Lee (Last 15 of 1982, all 33 of 1983, all 21 of 1984)
POINTS AFTER TOUCHDOWNS ATTEMPTED
GAME 9 SEASON 64 CAREER 127
GAME Zenon Andrusyshyn vs Pittsburgh, 1968; Efren Herrera vs. Washington, 1971 SEASON Efren Herrera, 1973 CAREER Efren Herrera, 1971-73
GAME 18 SEASON 117 CAREER 285
GAME John Lee vs. San Diego State, 1984 (6 FGs) SEASON John Lee, 1984 CAREER John Lee, 1982-83