TAMPA — He has seen his dad for a total of a few minutes — lifetime. His mom has been in and out of prison. Three of his cousins are in jail, including one on death row. He has lived among killers, prostitutes and drug dealers, in and out of foster homes, sometimes homeless.
He is 17.
On the football field he is No. 23, a Gaither High senior linebacker. His name is Sammie Lee.
“You can see it in his eyes and hear it in his voice,” Gaither coach Kirk Karsen said. “The life he has led. You can also see it in the way he plays.”
Says Lee: “I play like my life depends on it.”
The band plays. The crowd cheers. The helmet is strapped on.
He is in his head.
“Every play, every second of every game, every practice, is most important,” Lee said. “I give everything when I play because it has given so much to me. Football is a resource.
“It is my way out.”
He runs through running backs, flattens receivers, smashes quarterbacks, again and again.
“It is,” Lee says. “It’s awesome.”
He is so appreciative.
As a freshman and a sophomore at Wharton he was, in his words, “lost.” His mom was in and out of jail and he was in and out of foster homes. There was no football because his grade-point average was 0.7.
Along the way he landed under the legal guardianship of his sister, 21-year-old Yashima Milton, who is working to become a nurse. He moved to Gaither, met Karsen, made friends on the football team.
He started running toward the light, in the classroom and in the weight room.
He raised his GPA to 2.5, his bench press to 340 pounds and his squat to 600, making him the strongest kid on the team. He collected 43 tackles, seven for loss through the 2018 season.
He began to trust people, really trust people, for the first time.
He gained respect, so much, in fact, that Karsen made him a captain for 2019.
“He makes sure everybody is doing what they are supposed to do because the team is so important to him,” Karsen said. “Even in warmups he will make the whole team do an exercise again if they don’t do them correctly.”
On a recent Thursday, there he was in the middle of the field, barking orders, his right arm raised, a tattoo on the inside of his biceps waving over the muscle: “Even though I walk through the valley of death, I will fear no evil for thou art with me. Thy rod and thy staff they comfort me. Psalms 23:4
Lee says he is not overly religious, but he is spiritual and the passage felt significant and comforting.
“As a kid I went through some things that I shouldn’t have gone through,” said Lee, who got the tattoo a couple of years ago. “But that’s not going to stop me. I now have faith that things can get better.”
At the moment, the 5-foot-11, 215-pounder doesn’t have a college football scholarship offer, but that might have something to do with Lee not yet taking the SAT, which he is doing in the coming weeks. Eventually, Karsen believes the offers will come.
Either way, Lee says he is going to college, if necessary as a football walk-on with the ultimate goal of gaining a degree in physical therapy.
He is proud of himself, but there is much work to be done.
“I don’t mind telling my story because it is my reality,” Lee said. “It’s what I went through. I think that if someone hears my story it might help them get through a tough time. I think about where I came from, and I see where some of my family is now, and I know I want to do better.
“Playing football at Gaither has helped me see that.”
Hillsborough football games, Week 1
All games Friday night.
Clearwater Central Catholic at Berkeley Prep, 7
Cambridge Christian at Winter Garden Foundation Academy, 7
Carrollwood Day at St. Petersburg Catholic, 7
Seven Rivers Christian at Bayshore Christian, 7
Tampa Catholic at Naples Palmetto Ridge, 7
Plant at Armwood, 7:30
Chamberlain at Tampa Bay Tech, 7:30
Gaither at Jefferson, 7:30
Robinson at Hillsborough, 7:30
Plant City at Jesuit, 7:30
Middleton at Alonso, 7:30
Blake at Riverview, 7:30
Newsome at Bloomingdale, 7:30
Wharton at Brandon, 7:30
Durant at King, 7:30
East Bay at Lennard, 7:30
Freedom at Steinbrenner, 7:30
Strawberry Crest at Leto, 7:30
Orlando Christian Prep at Seffner Christian, 7:30
Sickles at Spoto, 7:30