No longer an average Joe

Football: Senior quarterback Joe Lee has found the spotlight this year at Towson, leading the Tigers to their best season since 1994 and to the brink of a Division I-AA playoff bid.

November 13, 1999|By Christian Ewell | Christian Ewell,SUN STAFF

There is certain price to pay for the type of season that Joe Lee is having -- 3,818 yards passing, six 400-yard games, 21 touchdown passes.

It comes in the form of needling on a balmy Tuesday in November while the Towson Tigers prepare for their game at Colgate.

The game today in Hamilton, N.Y., is the latest of those that could be called the Most Important Game in Towson Football History. If the Tigers (7-3, 4-1 conference) beat the Red Raiders (8-1, 4-1) and Lehigh loses to Bucknell, Towson will win the Patriot League and earn its first NCAA Division I-AA playoff bid.

But four days before game time, the folks on the team are in a musical mood after practice.

Gasping as he walked up a hill, cornerback Jabari Garrett led a group of players in chorus, "Sometimes I dream, that he is me " and anyone familiar with Michael Jordan's ads knows what must follow.

"Like Joe, if I could be like Joe."

How does a fairy-tale season change the way you're perceived?

"Well," Lee said, "you can hear these guys right now."

You might have heard the story already: Average Joe leaves home in Front Royal, Va., to go to Towson. Joe sits for four seasons. Joe plays. Joe passes and Joe completes. A lot.

In a year, Lee has gone from perpetual headset model to one of 16 candidates for the Walter Payton Award, given to the top player in Division I-AA.

Towson coach Gordy Combs briefed the nature of the turnabout: "In your wildest dreams."

Not that Lee will really take notice. Last week, after throwing for 463 yards and two touchdowns against Dayton, running back Jason Corle read the final statistics.

"Joe, you had 463 yards, two touchdowns."

"But I had to throw the ball 70 times to get it."

"He's modest, so he hates the attention," said reserve nose guard Scott Lenz. "He hates it, but he deserves it."

Fullback Joe Spera and tight end Mike McGlinchey said they remember returning to their apartment after their roommate Lee threw for 467 yards in his first start against Monmouth on Sept. 4. "We were more excited for him than he was," McGlinchey said. "That's the way he's been the whole year."

Lee has taken the needling very well -- "Oh, I'm having a great time, having a blast," he said, mostly because his success has meshed with that of the team. The Tigers are having their best season since an 8-2 record in 1994.

It means more articles in the student newspaper, The Towerlight. It means classmates care to ask about the game when they don't go. It means that the Domino's delivery man knows the person he's dealing with when he shows up at a player's apartment.

"The crowds are a lot bigger, and a lot more people seem to know what's going on around campus," fullback Gene Liebel said, contrasting the present with the 5-6 mark in 1998. "Last year, people didn't care what happened."

Towson was expected to finish dead last in the league, partly because the team had gone 1-10 (plus a forfeit) in its first two seasons of Patriot League play. Seven of the losses were by more than three touchdowns.

One of the team's tormentors has been Colgate, which had posted victories of 34-3 and 35-14 over the past two seasons. Combs expressed the hope that veteran Red Raider players might dwell on the past as opposed to the team the Tigers have become.

"Their coaches respect us," Combs said. "It depends on how much the players respect us."

"We want to make the playoffs," said Lee, whose passing yardage is a school record and a Patriot League record. "But to go from worst to first, that's what we set out to do."

Instead of full scholarships, the Patriot League allows preferential packaging, a neither-fish-nor-fowl approach to need-based financial aid that helped Towson attract better talent than previously. Its former conference, the Eastern College Athletic Conference, was strictly for walk-ons.

While key members of the senior class -- Lee, Corle, Garrett, middle linebacker and leading tackler Andre Atkins -- entered before the team's Patriot League membership, 13 of the 22 starters have come since the 1997 upgrade in recruiting enticements.

On a vastly improved defense, seven of the starters came from the first preferential packaging class. On offense, there's Jamal White, who has broken school single-season records for pass receptions (75) and receiving yardage (1,237), and three members of an offensive line that has allowed just 12 sacks on the school-record 522 times that Lee has dropped back to pass.

With those forces working in the Tigers' favor, the team for the first time beat Bucknell and Dayton and nearly beat nationally-ranked Lehigh. If not for losses to Morgan State and Columbia, a win today might have assured Towson of a playoff berth regardless of what Lehigh does.

Scouts for the Jets and Giants showed up at Minnegan Stadium last weekend for a look at Corle, an open-field terror poised to become the school's leading pass-catcher, as well as its career record holder in rushing yards, scoring, touchdowns and all-purpose yardage.

It's a good indication for Corle, Combs said, one he has seen with former Towson backs David Meggett and Tony Vinson, who have gone on the NFL.

That attention is the only kind that hasn't come to Lee, who at 6 feet, 198 pounds, is seen as too weak, too small and too slow to play professionally.

In the end, what Lee will have is nice stories to tell his grandchildren, though "hopefully, I'll be able to show them a championship ring."

Lee should graduate in December with a degree in psychology, returning to a less-luminous profile.

"I've just got to find a job doing something," he said. "Maybe doing something with the government. Not quite sure yet."

Tigers today

Opponent: Colgate

Site: Andy Kerr Stadium, Hamilton, N.Y.

Time: 12: 30 p.m.

Radio: WTMD (89.7 FM)

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