The Oregon offense was efficient and the defense was stifling the Huskies at every turn. As the 3rd quarter drew toward a close, a sweet Duck victory seemed assured. But then the tide started to turn. For Washington's Mark Lee, fate was soon to intervene.
Oregon's catalyst QB Reggie Ogburn went down with an injury and was forced to leave the game, providing the first momentum shift.
Washington's Joe Steele scored a touchdown with :30 left in the 3rd quarter to put the Huskies on the board and creep back to within shouting distance, but just barely.
Then with 3:33 left in the game, the Huskies pushed the ball over the goal line again to pull to within 17-14. It was now a ball game, if not for the clock that was eating away.
UW coach Don James elected to kick off deep instead of an on-side attempt. It was a risky proposition with less than four minutes left, but he trusted his defense.
The D held Oregon to a 3-and-out, and James sent senior defensive back Mark Lee into the game to return the punt - for the first time in his career. The previous returner (some guy named Paul Skansi) had fumbled away two punts earlier in the game, and The Dawgfather didn't want any more turnovers.
With just 1:58 left in the game and the Autzen Stadium fans on edge, James had terse words for Lee before sending his new return man running out onto the field.
Little did James know that he was about to create a legend and send Mark Lee into Husky immortality.
"Don James pulled me aside", recalled Lee recently to Dawgman.com. "He told me to just CATCH THE BALL and then RUN OUT BOUNDS. He didn't want any turnovers."
Sounds simple enough.
"But then the Duck punter (Mike Babb) out-kicked the coverage. Now all bets are off if the punter out-kicks the coverage, alright?" Lee pauses to laugh again, before continuing.
"I go to track down the ball, and I catch it one step from the sideline and right in front of Don James. After catching it I started to run backwards about 10 yards and I see Bruce Harrell, Jim Pence, Antowaine Richardson, and others creating a wall for me," said Lee.
"And when I turned the corner I was gone…"
And so were the Ducks, as Washington capped an improbable come-from-behind win on the road in Eugene.
"Later on I saw film of that punt return. As I caught the ball and started running backwards, I saw Don James throw down his headset," said Lee.
In scampering his way around the wall that the Husky special teams had set up for him, Lee saw that there was only one Duck who stood a chance of tracking him down.
"One guy got his hands on me," said Lee. "But it wasn't enough. Once I got around him things just opened up."
As Lee crossed the goal line, it was quite a scene at Autzen Stadium. Most of the green and yellow fans were stunned into silence, save for the pocket of Husky fans in the corner of the end zone going dawg-wild. On the field of play, the white-shirted Huskies mobbed Mark Lee in the end zone and danced along the sidelines. The Oregon players trudged back to their sideline, save for the one player who had had a shot at Lee but missed
He was face down to the turf at midfield, spread-eagled and motionless for a full minute.
It summed up the Ducks' collective sentiment after having outplayed Washington for most of the game.
Mark Lee returned two more punts for touchdowns during that 1979 season. One came in the mud to dramatically beat the California Bears, and the other came in Los Angeles when the Huskies whipped UCLA 34-14.
The sloppy field in Berkeley's Strawberry Canyon is the one that remains most vivid in Lee's memory.
"Ah, that was a tight game. The field was really muddy and rainy. We forced them to kick late, as the game was almost over. (The Huskies trailed at that point 24-21). I caught the ball at about the 35-yard line and went full speed to my right, and as I went to make a cut - it was the strangest thing - everyone in front of me simultaneously fell down! Somehow I managed to stay on my feet. And the field was WIDE OPEN for me all the way to the end zone. It was like the Good Lord parting the Red Sea," said Lee.
Mark Lee would go on to play several years with the NFL's Green Bay Packers, and returned a punt 96 yards for a touchdown in 1981. Of course since it was a 96-yard return, I had to ask Lee about his violation of the unwritten coach's rule that states you aren't supposed to field a ball inside your own 10-yard line.
"Well, like I said, when the punter out-kicks the coverage, all bets are off. On the other hand, when you're back there you get so scared that you broke the rule that you know you better do something!"
As for his following with the current Huskies, Lee said that he had drifted away from the program a bit a few years back when he became disillusioned with the manner in which the Huskies played and practiced. But he is feeling a little optimism now with coach Gilbertson at the helm.
"It has been hard to watch. The Huskies aren't hungry anymore. It's been too much country club... I had a chance to talk to Gilbertson for about 40 minutes, about a week prior to the Ohio State game. I stated my concerns and I told him that I'd sure like to see us getting back to being more intense. I told him if he ever wanted guys like Joe (Steele) and Doug (Martin) and others to speak to the team, to let the current players know what it means to be a Husky, we could get that done."
And in looking back, do people still bring up Mark Lee's miracle punt return?
"Every year I do celebrity golf tournaments and things like that", he said. "And some Duck fan usually approaches me and says, 'Are you that Mark Lee that returned the punt?' When I answer yes, they always say something like, 'Oh! You ruined my entire weekend!'"
Derek Johnson can be reached at email@example.com
Mark Lee's Miracle Punt Return
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