The true freshman linebacker had just watched from the sidelines as Clemson handed Ohio State a 40-35 loss in the Orange Bowl to close out the 2013 season on a losing streak after beginning with 12 straight victories.
Later that night – or early the next morning, really – he made his way through the Buckeyes’ Fort Lauderdale hotel to the room that housed fellow true freshmen Billy Price and Evan Lisle. Like Lee, Price and Lisle were two of the seven Ohioans that dotted Ohio State’s 24-member class of 2013. Despite the odd hours, he wasn’t subtle about his wake-up call. According to Lee, Price was already awake while Lisle remained fast asleep.
“I banged on their door,” Lee told BuckeyeSports.com. “I almost busted it down. I didn’t care that it was 3:45 in the morning. We had to talk. He was up, too. Him being up, it was like, I know what you’re thinking about.”
The duo retreated to the balcony to vent their frustrations of a season that they both thought could have gone better for both themselves and the team. Price said the talk was “life changing.”
“If the older guys weren’t going to perform, we were going to,” he said when asked about the general theme of the conversation.
Fueled by the loss he had just witnessed, Lee said he told Price they needed to do better. After 24 consecutive wins under head coach Urban Meyer, the Buckeyes missed out on a national championship shot when Michigan State knocked them off, 34-24, in the Big Ten title game. That sent OSU to the Orange Bowl, where Clemson took advantage of a porous Ohio State defense and a handful of miscues.
Knowing their redshirts had been burned, the duo vowed to improve and contribute in 2014.
“What we talked about was preparing for what we just went through,” Lee said. “We knew that wasn’t the team we were. We were way better than Clemson. We were better than Michigan State. We were better than a one-point victory over the Team Up North.
“We just knew we had to dip our head down and we had to work. We knew we had to be ready for any type of challenges and obstacles that would come our way, and a lot of challenges and obstacles eventually came our way. I told Billy, ‘Stay the course. Even when it gets really tough, stay the course and we’ll see where it ends up.’ I told him I thought we’d end up in a promising place and we’d end up as winners. It turns out we were.
Lee noted that they went into winter conditioning and spring practice without any assurances of a starting role. The linebacker had yet to burst onto the scene, and while Price had a reputation as one of the strongest Buckeyes and the benefit of four exiting starting linemen, he too was far from a shoe-in as a starter.
They viewed that talk as a promise to work hard together. A little more than a year after the balcony meeting, they were standing on field at AT&T Stadium bathing in confetti after knocking off Oregon to win the CFP National Championship.
“We came out and had a lot of young guys step up,” Price said. “I think one of the biggest reasons for our success was having the young guys step up, not just the older guys.”
A night that was responsible for one of the worst memories of their collegiate careers ultimately led to the best one.
“That’s a story I can tell my kids and grandkids,” Lee said. “It’s a great story.”