The WSU wonder walk on

THERE ARE BIG QUESTIONS at punter this spring at Washington State, so it seems like the perfect time to revisit our occasional April Fool’s Day series. For your reading pleasure, the following represents in our opinion the finest April 1 piece Cougfan.com has ever run.

By all accounts, Cougar walk on Ray Lee can punt a ball higher and farther than anyone ever has at Washington State. He still holds over a dozen NAIA records, including the longest punt and highest season average. And pro scouts have said that with refined mechanics Lee could enjoy a long and lustrous NFL career.

"He's from another planet," gushes Paul Sorensen, former WSU All-American and long time Cougar football follower. "Watching him punt is like watching a sci-fi film - - all your knowledge and beliefs on the physics of punting become suspended when this kid kicks the pigskin."

Sorensen is only barely exaggerating. During practices last fall, WSU coaches had to ask Lee to tone his punts downs so as to make them returnable. In 1997, his last full season of college football, he averaged nearly 70 yards per punt with a standard hang time of 5.7 seconds. Keep in mind most NFL punters went the entire 2001 season without recording a 70-yard punt. And also consider that a five second hang time in the big leagues gets you a trip to Honolulu for the Pro Bowl.

So why on earth do many feel Lee, 25, is a long shot to beat out redshirt freshman Kyle Basler for the starting punter position?

Well, that's a question with more than one answer.

Both disciplinary and legal reasons cut Lee's previous foray into college football short. Since that time, he's lived in virtual solitude, having moved to Athol, Idaho and working as a logger these past five years for his uncle, Carl Lee, himself a Cougar walk-on in the 1960s and teammate of WSU coach Mike Price.

Since enrolling at WSU last fall and walking on to the football team, the transition from North Idaho mountain man to student/athlete has been a bumpy ride.

Indeed, the biggest obstacle facing Lee since arriving in Pullman has been his inability to stay out of the doghouse. You see, when Lee isn't kicking the letters off a Wilson, he's getting an earful from the coaching staff for violating team rules and displaying an attitude that one Cougar coach described as being "contrary to the team concept" and "generally piss poor."

Lee admits the change in environment after a five-year lay-off hasn't been easy.

"When you're working the Selkirks (mountain range), there aren't any rules," Lee recently told Cougfan.com. "It's just you against the trees. Down here, it's hard sometimes to take all the bull; team meetings that don't have a single thing to do with me and crap like that."

Lee was a nationally recruited punter six years ago from tiny Trapper Lake High School in Hunters, North Dakota, receiving scholarship offers from the likes of Notre Dame, Florida State, Nebraska, and Colorado. He was named the nation's best high-school punter by several publications including College Football Weekly and Kick Scholastic Magazine.

But Lee snubbed the bright stadium lights of these big time programs and signed on with nearby Thornton State University in North Dakota. He chose the NAIA school due in large part to its proximity to his home and the rodeo scholarship they offered his high-school sweetheart.

Lee had a spectacular freshman year, setting Dakota Athletic Conference and NAIA records with a 94-yard punt against Dakota State and by averaging a jaw-dropping 67.8 yards per kick.

But the next spring, when the relationship with his calf-roping girlfriend went south so did Lee's behavior. Before his freshman year was over he'd been cited for logging on restricted land, DUI (reduced to negligent driving), twice for urinating in public, three times for minor in possession of alcohol, and for tampering with livestock.

Just months after local media had forecast Lee as the first TSU Blue Hawk to make it to the NFL, his scholarship was revoked and he was expelled from school.

"That's all in the past," Lee said. "The only people bringing up that ancient history are the ones who are afraid of my succeeding. Being the best has always made me a target. I say ‘bring it on.' My uncle always tells me there's no room for rear-view mirrors on the road of success. I'm looking one way: forward."

But what isn't ancient history is the pending DUI charge he received in Whitman County last fall or his apparent aloofness toward his Cougar teammates. That misdemeanor charge, coupled with his violation of unspecified team rules, resulted in Lee's suspension from the 2001 Sun Bowl squad midway through the season.

"They didn't ask me to walk-on here because they saw film of me holding hands with other players," Lee said. "As for the driving charge, just another Barney Fife with an inferiority complex. Soon as my public defender gets off his butt, that'll be dropped."

And then there's the matter of his five-year absence from the game, a break Lee says has made him a stronger punter and human being.

"My pastor at the Church of the White Wolf in Athol told me I had to learn to accept that I'd been given a gift before I'd be spiritually ready to punt competitively again," Lee said. "Pastor Matthews also taught me that a gift like mine represents beauty, and beauty represents truth. Since the day my soul embraced that wisdom, my punting has improved a ton and I knew I was ready to make the journey back (to the gridiron)."

But there are technique issues as well. Lee has the tendency to hold onto the ball too long, averaging a "get off time"--the time it takes for the ball to go airborne from the moment it's snapped - - of 2.9 seconds. This mechanical deficiency resulted in nine blocked punts at TSU, numbers that would likely double in Pac-10 play.

Control has also been an issue dogging Lee since high school.

"I guess a good analogy would be (baseball pitcher) Randy Johnson," said WSU graduate assistant Jeff Barker. "Remember how wild he could be early in his career with the Seattle Mariners? That's Ray. When he's not sending them into orbit, he's knocking the hat off some poor sap on the sidelines. As phenomenal as his average was at Thornton, several slices kept it from being about 10 yards higher."

Barker, who earned all-league honors as a punter at Mississippi Southern, has been given the task of speeding up Lee's delivery and bringing consistency to his punts. But Barker says his attitude may be the biggest obstacle for the punter to overcome.

"There's no question Ray's attitude has hurt his chances," Barker said. "The coaching staff is in a "last chance" mode with him, and his teammates have made no secret they'll be coming after him this spring. It won't be easy."

But the brash punter sees it differently.

"I plan on being an All-American and the first punter to finish in the top three in Heisman trophy votes," Lee said. "I don't need anyone to like me to accomplish this. But I will tell you one thing: five years from now all these coaches and players will be bragging that they knew me when."

This article was originally published on April 1, 2002.

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