Whenever Ejilah Lee is tired or stressed and his hectic schedule feels overwhelming, he thinks about his mother.
Then he pushes forward.
Lee, a Kansas State sophomore linebacker, draws inspiration from her for many reasons. If she could work two jobs to make ends meet, he figures he can give his all to the Wildcats. If she could raise three children as a single parent, he figures he can overcome anything.
“My biggest motivation is my mom and working hard for her,” Lee said. “She got me to this point, so for me to do bad things or not do as well as I am capable of is a disappointment to myself and to my mom. I don’t want to disappoint my mom, so I work as hard as I can every day to make her proud.”
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Lee’s mother, ShaRon, is most certainly proud of her son. She remembers a time not long ago when his focus was basketball and his tackling skills left much to be desired at Blue Springs High. To see him leading K-State with 27 tackles and making key plays in big games is more than she imagined.
Even Lee admits he is ahead of schedule.
“It is a surprise,” Lee said, “because at first I was like, I just want to be the guy who can fit in this gap and then if I can make plays it will come along. Now I am comfortable and more confident in my game. Now I know I can fly around and hit people.”
His biggest hits have come in the form of sacks. He has two of them in four games. Many wondered how quickly Lee could make the transition from pass-rusher, which he played as a freshman, to full-time linebacker. It was a challenge. Life is more complex when you play every snap.
Yet, you wouldn’t realize it watching Lee. He was K-State’s best all-around defender against Louisiana Tech, making 12 tackles and delivering a huge hit to Bulldogs quarterback Jeff Driskel in overtime. He also made and an important pass breakup on a two-point conversion against Oklahoma State.
“He’s becoming fundamentally better and better,” K-State coach Bill Snyder said. “He’s becoming a better tackler, which is important because he’s playing a little bit more in space. At the same time, he still has the capacity to be a pretty decent pass rusher, which he’s proven, and he can do it from wherever we line him up.”
That type of praise is traditionally reserved for upperclassmen.
How did Lee get here so fast? It all goes back to his mother.
ShaRon supported Lee and his athletic side at a young age. When he was a freshman in high school, he lived with his father in St. Joseph, while she lived in Gladstone and worked at CVS Caremark in Lee’s Summit as a resolution specialist. Between trips to her job and to Lee’s games, she estimates she drove roughly 150 miles a day.
“You know how they say you’re supposed to get your oil changed every three months?” ShaRon said. “For me it was once a month, easy.”
When she wasn’t driving, she was working. She requested overtime, and took a weekend job waiting tables at Applebee’s. At times, she estimates she had one day off per month. More than once, she caught herself attempting to unlock the front door of her house with her work identification badge instead of a key.
Her commutes grew shorter when she moved to Blue Springs and Lee requested to move in with her and his two sisters. But her demands as a parent grew. Stress was her worst enemy, but she battled it by thinking of Lee and her daughters.
Then she pushed forward.
“I always told my children, ‘Things are going to work out,’” ShaRon said. “But I am also a believer that if you want something, you have to work and sacrifice to get it.”
To that end, she expected perfection from her children. Still does.
She likes to tell a story about the time Lee asked to postpone his recruiting visit to K-State so he could attend a Drake concert. She shook her head. Go to Manhattan and work hard, she said, and maybe Drake will watch you play football someday.
Whenever Lee calls home frustrated, she has a simple message: get your mind right, because you’re the best linebacker on the team. Lee once challenged her, saying she couldn’t know that without watching practice. Her response: I don’t have to watch anything. I know you.
The way Lee is playing, those conversations are becoming rare.
“When I watch Elijah now and see how much he has grown as a football player and as a person, it makes it all worth it,” ShaRon said. “Our lives are all about Saturdays now.”
Lee hopes to continue his breakout season on Saturday against No. 2 TCU and its powerhouse offense.
But he knows what to do if things get tough. He will find his mother in the crowd. Then he will push forward.
“I didn’t expect to be this far so early in the season,” Lee said. “But at the same time, this isn’t what I am fully capable of. There is still more left in the tank.”
Kellis Robinett: @KellisRobinett