NO LEEWAY : When John Lee Suddenly Became Less Than Automatic, the Cardinals Gave Him the Boot

Times Staff Writer

The weather is supposed to be beautiful in Seoul this time of year. That is what John Lee remembers and he's going back to check it out.

It should be a delightful trip. Maybe Lee will like it as much as the one he just took to Rosarito Beach and Ensenada. He probably could have kept his bags packed by the front door for a speedy getaway.

Actually, he doesn't need to hurry because if there's one thing Lee has now, it's time. From Baja to South Korea and all points in between, John Lee is on vacation. Actually, it's more like a forced absence from work, the kind you get when you're unemployed, as Lee is.

Leigh Steinberg, Lee's agent, prefers to think of his client's job status, however, as a leave of absence.

"He'll be back, I would expect, when somebody has kicking problems," Steinberg said.

Sure?

"Well, the strike makes this a year fraught with uncertainty," he said.

Still, there's a chance that the most accurate kicker in National Collegiate Athletic Assn. history, who became the richest first-year kicker in National Football League history, is just a 23-year-old washout. Can he call it a career already?

"I don't feel like, right now to be honest, I miss football at all," Lee said.

If his pro career indeed is over, it will be remembered as short and off to the side, as so many of his kicks were.

Said Gene Stallings, the St. Louis Cardinals' coach: "The bottom line is that he just didn't perform."

Lee, who was put on waivers in the last round of cuts before the regular season, emphasized a slightly different bottom line.

"It was really hell," he said. "That's the bottom line. I wish I could start all over again. But it happened. It's not the end of my life, but it's taken a lot out of me. The last year and a half was the longest in my life. Nothing happened that I was happy with. Right now, there's just no way I can play again. I've just lost interest, I guess.

"I kind of hope I start missing football. Maybe I'll get the motivation of picking up the ball and kicking it."

At least Lee isn't going to be broke until he feels that urge again. Even though his four-year $900,000 contract with the Cardinals was not guaranteed, Lee still got his $250,000 signing bonus as well as his first-year salary. So football isn't financially pressing right now.

What Lee is feeling instead is a need to withdraw, to get away from a job that he didn't enjoy. Football was fun in high school, fun at UCLA and fun for just a little while in St. Louis. He made his first six field goals in exhibition games, but then he hit a slump and began missing his kicks.

Stallings pointed out Lee's mistakes and Lee lost his confidence. Lee said there's nothing worse than a kicker losing his confidence, not even losing his job.

"When I got the call that I was being placed on waivers, I was relieved, to be honest," Lee said. "I was visiting with a bunch of players who got cut two days before and I told them that I wished I was in their shoes. I was just so relieved to get away from that organization over there, from that whole situation.

"It's kind of cocky for me to say I'm burned out because I'm only 23 and everything, but it was fun at UCLA and everything. But it just wasn't fun in St. Louis. That kind of made me think twice about pro football."

Stallings found himself doing a lot of thinking about Lee, who became one of his biggest disappointments. At UCLA, Lee made 86% of his field-goal tries. He was so accurate that his kicking was almost mechanical. From beyond the 40-yard line, Lee made 69.4% of his field-goal attempts. And inside the 40, he made 54 of 56 for 96.4%.

Stallings thought Lee would do the same thing in the NFL, even though pro kickers can't use tees as they do in college. That usually cuts down on distance in the NFL, but Stallings was caught completely off guard by Lee's short kickoffs.

"His leg just wasn't strong enough," Stallings said. "You're going to miss field goals, I understand that. But my gosh, his leg . I know that kicking off the ground and kicking off the tee are two different things, but we just aren't the type of team that can afford to be giving up field position on every kickoff."

Lee did not kick off at UCLA. But with 45-player rosters in the NFL, the field-goal kicker usually kicks off, too. Stallings tried to work around Lee's shortcomings last season by having punter Evan Araposta kick off. That seemed to work but Lee also was having trouble with his field-goal kicks.

He wound up making 8 of 13 after a 2-for-6 start. Lee also missed three extra-point attempts.

Part of the problem, according to both Lee and Stallings, was that the Cardinals tried three different long snappers in 11 games. Lee had two snappers in four years at UCLA.

UCLA Coach Terry Donahue said he understood how difficult such a transition had been for Lee to accept. "It had to be traumatic for John," he said. "I just know him."

Apparently, Lee felt that Stallings did not, and that was what really started bothering Lee the most. Stallings took Lee to task during team meetings, a point on which each agrees. According to Lee, Stallings also coached him improperly at practice, which Stallings disputes.

"The one thing I can't take is the criticism in front of everybody," Lee said. "That really devastated me. It killed my confidence. I didn't want to get brainwashed, but I did. I lost more confidence every day. I looked into the mirror and said, 'What's going on? Why am I kicking like this?'

"He was a typical, Southern tough man," Lee said. "Very tough. I wish he realized that if you criticize a kicker for his performance, that it is devastating for his mental confidence. It just totally kills you. The last thing a kicker needs is criticism. I can't really blame him because he criticized everybody. But if you don't like your kicker, just get rid of him. That makes sense to me."

It also made sense to Stallings, but not until after he had criticized Lee, first in the media and then in the team meetings. Stallings said that he handled Lee as he did any other player and that if Lee took it wrong, it probably was because of a lack of maturity.

"Obviously, I felt like it was important to point things out," Stallings said. "We point it out to everybody else. If an offensive lineman misses a block, you don't ignore it. If a receiver drops a pass, you don't let it slide by. The kicker is part of the football team. If we want a kick in the corner and it goes down the middle, then that's brought out."

Lee said that Stallings treated him at practice according to how well he kicked in games.

"He believed that it's not right for the kickers to stand around and do nothing in practice," Lee said. "If they performed well in the game, he could take it. But if they didn't, he couldn't take it. He wants you to practice. He kind of suggests that I should keep kicking and kicking and kicking.

"What bothered me was that he would bring all this up at team meetings. He would say other kickers that he knew kick every moment. Not only doesn't that make sense, but nobody I know kicks every minute. That's like a pitcher going out there every practice and pitch and pitch and pitch. Even quarterbacks take a break."

Stallings said Lee must have misunderstood him.

"I don't care what they do (in practice)," he said. "I want them to kick on Sunday. They can stand over there and watch, for all I care."

Last season began late and ended early for Lee. Steinberg had problems getting Lee signed, so Lee did not report to the Cardinals until four days before the first exhibition game. The season ended for Lee on Nov. 16 in a game at New Orleans when he was pushed into another player on a kickoff, injuring his right knee.

Five days later, Lee had a exploratory arthroscopic surgery and although the Cardinals announced that there was no ligament or cartilage injury, Lee did not return to the team. Stallings believes Lee was less than committed to rehabilitating his injury in the off-season.

"He needs to try and strengthen his leg, to start with, which I don't know if he ever did," Stallings said. "It's got to be an obsession with him. He's got to work. It's got to be a high, high, priority. If it were me, it would be."

Stallings thought Lee made it a low, low priority. Lee said he didn't pick up a football until April, but he said his leg was strong when he reported to training camp. He also admitted that it sure wasn't what it had been.

"That injury, although it happened in November, I'm not sure how much it affected my kicking ability," he said. "But I never felt as strong as I did in college."

Before the strike, the Cardinals replaced Lee with free-agent kicker Jim Gallery, who was cut twice by Buffalo and once by New England. In his first game, Gallery put 4 of 5 kickoffs into the end zone.

"The fans gave him a standing ovation," Stallings said. "He's got a strong leg."

Said Lee: "He's also got a minimum contract."

Stallings finally became convinced that Lee was expendable during the exhibition season. Lee made a 21-yard field goal against Cleveland and missed a 48-yarder against the Chicago Bears. He missed one extra point and his kickoffs were still too short to suit Stallings. Still, it was a tough decision to waive Lee.

"John Lee is really a very likable person," Stallings said. "I'm sure he had some added pressure because he was drafted so high and got such a big contract, but I really wanted him to do well and he didn't. I had to go by what I see and what I saw wasn't good enough."

Now, Lee doesn't have to worry about all those Cardinal team meetings that he described as "cold" and "impersonal" anymore.

"I don't think the business is that cold," Stallings said. "I want my children to do right, too. Sometimes they need a little getting after."

Did Stallings handle Lee correctly? Stallings wasn't sure.

"Sometimes we don't always handle them right," he admitted. "But, obviously, at the time I thought we were handling him right."

Steinberg is certain of Lee's ultimate success in the pros. He points out that many kickers begin slowly and bounce around from team to team until they finally settle into the right situation with the right team.

"I believe John Lee will be a proven kicker in the NFL in the near future," Steinberg said. "What happened to John isn't unusual. It's only unusual in regard to how high he was drafted."

It's also a little unusual because of how much was expected of Lee. Every kick would be sure-fire. The goal posts would look so wide, you could fly a plane between them. Each time he kicked at UCLA, Lee fantasized that he was playing guitar with Van Halen. In the pros, he would be leading an entire orchestra.

But that's not the way it has worked out. Instead, he's on his way to a month in Seoul, where 12 years ago he was known as Min Jong. That was before he was John Lee, field goal kicker, long before so much pressure got to him that football ceased to be fun and became, well, work.

"It's amazing how people treat you," Lee said. "I started out in St. Louis making six in a row (in exhibition games) and there were people out there putting out signs in that stadium that said 'John Lee is a Godsend.' That kind of blew my mind. It just didn't make any sense. I felt like these guys were crazy. Anybody can make six in a row. I'm used to making 22 in a row, like I did in college.

"I got carried away. And then when I did miss, the whole world came down on me. It just killed me psychologically. That kind of thinking made me think twice about pro football. If that's all there is to it, it's a big disappointment.

"For myself, there was a lot of pressure being a second-round draft pick, getting the contract I did, that they expect good things from you. Whatever the reason, I could not give them the results. Every time I got out on the field, there was tremendous pressure on me.

"If I change my mind and just try to go for it next year, I will definitely feel less pressure. I could just go out there and kick and not worry about other people thinking about me.

"Maybe next year by this time, I might just totally change and start kicking. But right now, I'm just trying to have a good time."

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