There are many ways to lead. Especially on the football field. There are the yelling and screaming animated leaders. The stoic, silent, lead-by-example leaders or the locker room/huddle pep talk leaders. Senior Justin Lee leads by laughter.
“He is always looking to make people laugh, keep the mood and mentality high and does a terrific job of that,” said senior quarterback Lance Rongstad. “He is also one of the hardest working guys we have. He cut some weight this summer to become more agile and back to that explosive athlete he was when he came here before the injuries. His concentration is through the roof right now and he is ready for the year.”
Standing at 5-9, Lee may not fit your prototypical wide receiver body type, but his quick, agile and versatile style of play has landed him success on the football field, while his personality has separated him from a group of more than 100.
“In a lot of ways he’s a catalyst for our offense,” said assistant coach and offensive coordinator Eric Medberry. “He has a goofy personality, he’s upbeat and has fun and when that happens the whole group is a bit looser. It’s fun to watch because when he is playing well, healthy and capable he is a fantastic player, is explosive and gives our offense a different dimension. Couple that with the fact he is having fun while doing it and it gives us that spark.”
But it hasn’t always been fun and games for Lee, a native of Elgin, Ill., a suburb about 35 miles northwest of Chicago. After putting in his time as a redshirt freshman he was ready for the challenges of college football. But before he could step onto the field in a game situation, he suffered a torn ACL on a simple jump cut, a move he had made countless times.
“It was very frustrating. Especially coming off my freshman redshirt year, working so hard and having it all taken away in a snap of a tendon,” Lee said.
Lee ended up taking the semester off and moving back home to rehab. Once he was able to walk he got a job. Working a job he didn’t especially like and rehabbing four days a week, Lee was ready to make the move back to Bemidji.
“It wasn’t ideal, it wasn’t what I wanted, but maybe it was what I needed,” Lee said. “It made it a lot easier (to come back). It really made me realize that BSU is where I want to be.”
Lee did come back the next fall, but after six games suffered a season-ending ankle injury in practice.
“It’s definitely not the way I wanted things to go, but ultimately it was just an obstacle I had to overcome,” Lee said. “I think I’m a better man for it and maybe a little better athlete too, believe it or not. It bumped up the cerebral aspect of the game in order to overcome the injury and the ankle. It was a rough start, but things are on the right track now and I just want to end strong in my last year of football and in the best shape I can be.”
Injuries behind him, Lee took advantage of his first full season to total 211 all-purpose yards and score seven touchdowns – three different ways. Lee, a high school quarterback, along with Rongstad, were the only two players in the league to run, catch and throw for a touchdown in 2010.
Despite not finding the end zone in 2011 as a junior, Lee ramped his triple threat abilities up another level and rushed for 317 yards, totaled 191 receiving yards and threw two passes for 52 yards.
Now entering his senior season, Lee hopes to contribute in anyway to help the Beavers win, but he will also be focusing on his final semester as a biology major.
“I came into BSU thinking I might want to be a medical student one day, so I was already in some biology courses.
“Over the years that changed. Being up here and meeting some of the people that I’ve met, I’ve been exposed to the outdoors and it has really become part of my identity. I love the woods, getting outside and hiking, going through rivers and canoeing on lakes. I’m still in biology, but my emphasis is a little more towards the outdoors and natural recourse management.“
“Coming from to Chicago he adapted pretty quickly up here,” Medberry said. “He is a guy that really embraced all the opportunities you have in Bemidji. It’s been fun to watch that part of Justin grow and develop.”
One of those opportunities has taken him to the top of 80-foot white pines.
“I’ve been able to climb white pines and do chlorophyll fluorescence measurements of tree tops at night,” Lee said. “Dangling from a branch 80 feet off the ground is pretty gnarly.”
On the field, in the locker room or in class, Lee has lightened the mood for Bemidji State football and led by laughter.
Rongstad explains, “If you think he is funny on the football field, sit in class with him. He keeps that light too. Everywhere he goes he puts smiles on people’s faces.”
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