“Oh man. Darron Lee just goes,” sophomore safety Tyvis Powell said. “It’s like he’s got this energy in him and he goes out and makes these big plays. You see it in a game, but you also see it in practice. He’s not like somebody that just comes out of nowhere. I’m used to seeing him make big plays. I hold him to a high standard just like he holds me to a high standard.”
The other trait that often comes up is his competitiveness, something that Lee doesn’t shy away from.
“I'm very competitive. I guess what sets me apart are the leaders I have,” he said. “(Fellow linebackers) Joshua Perry and Curtis Grant help me separate myself. They've been the biggest help, laid out a blueprint for what to do, and I just learned from them and just feel I could come in and help.”
He’s been that way since his early days of organized sports. As a 4-year-old, Lee’s first foray into athletics came on the soccer field. It didn’t exactly go to plan, though. Lee’s mom Candice, a news anchor at NBC4 in Columbus, said she learned that he was competitive, but she also learned that she needed to find a new sport to serve as an outlet for his energy.
“I’ve seen that (competitiveness) in Darron since he played soccer at age 4. He didn’t like losing, he didn’t like the idea of not scoring and he was almost impossible to deal with when they lost,” she said. “We knew soccer was not Darron’s sport because he wanted to touch the ball. That fall was so miserable because he would leave the field in tears, I was in tears and I finally said, ‘OK, this is not your sport.’”
With soccer clearly not the correct option, she turned to a youth football league in their hometown of Chattanooga, Tenn. Lee started off on the line because of his size and even playing some linebacker, but he worked his way up to playing quarterback. He also played baseball, but excelling on the gridiron came naturally to him.
After moving to the Columbus area in 2007, Lee went on to star at quarterback for New Albany. His success both there and at safety led to some offers and attention on the recruiting trail, but the hometown school was slow to offer a scholarship. Rated as a three-star prospect, he ignored the doubts of recruiting analysts.
“Stars don't really mean anything to me,” he said in his typical quiet, matter-of-fact fashion. “Honestly, I believe (they should) get rid of it. Obviously, you see some people pan out and you see some people who don't pan out. Stars don't mean squat to me.”
Undeterred after a first Ohio State camp didn’t result in a scholarship offer, Lee came back to a second one and earned an offer a couple weeks after his impressive showing in the return visit. Undeterred after a redshirt season, Lee came out with a monster spring and won the starting job at outside linebacker.
That meant his first game as an Ohio State starter would come against Navy, an interesting matchup in the Lee household given that Candice spent seven years of active duty in the Navy. Her experience in the military gave her plenty of perspective that she passed on to her son.
“I told him either lead, follow or get out of the way,” she said. “I have a take-charge kind of attitude and demeanor when it comes to getting things done. When he says he’s all about business, it’s that military preparedness type of attitude that he got from me. We might not be at war all the time, but the military is always preparing for that. I tried to make sure he knows to always prepare for the next challenge.”
Her affinity for the Midshipmen obviously took second place to her love of her son and the Buckeyes in Baltimore, but Candice still worried about the test that Navy’s triple option would provide. Hoping for him to make it out of the contest without injury and with a win and a few tackles, she readjusted those expectations when she saw him before the game.
“When he came out of the tunnel during warmups I was watching him and he had this huge grin on his face like he knew he had finally achieved what he worked so hard for from August of last year until that moment,” she said. “I knew right then he was going to have a good game because I could see it on his face.”
His breakthrough came in the third quarter with Ohio State trailing. Sophomore defensive end Joey Bosa stripped Navy quarterback Keenan Reynolds, and Lee scooped up the fumble and returned it 61 yards to give the Buckeyes their first touchdown of the 2014 season.
“I saw Joey shed a block and attack the quarterback,” Lee said. “It was really just job assignment. I was lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time.”
After the game, Meyer noted that he wasn’t surprised because he’d seen Lee practicing that way since March. His fellow position players are quick to acknowledge his exploits, which are in part a product of his boundless energy off the field.
“Darron has had a really big impact,” Perry said. “He’s a guy who last year he went through it a little bit, I think it was a good thing for him to kind of have his eyes opened up and work in and play football with the scout team just so he could learn the game a little bit. You see what he’s done this year, he makes big plays and he’s a guy that is really explosive. He’s a trigger guy who goes.”
His teammates and coaches are now believers, but the rest of the college football world was a little late to the party. During the Navy game, CBS announcer Verne Lundquist repeatedly referred to Lee as “Duh-RON,” leading Candice to explain over Twitter that her son’s name is pronounced the same way as the husband in “Bewitched.”
“I didn’t realize it was so difficult,” she said with a laugh. “You see kids playing all the time that have way more difficult names to pronounce.”
In the three games since, a butchering of his name has yet to happen again. Chalk it up as another victory for a determined player who is using his competitiveness to turn skeptics into believers every step of the way.