UMass cornerback Mike Lee making the most of his second chance

Last modified: Tuesday, October 23, 2012
AMHERST — As he sat on the bench in the first quarter of Saturday’s game at Miami (Ohio), University of Massachusetts junior Mike Lee knew he was going to eventually return to the field.

Lee knows too well what it’s like to be off the field and he wasn’t going to let a jammed shoulder put him back on the sideline.

In the spring, UMass coach Charley Molnar suspended Lee with no promise he’d ever be reinstated. Molnar wouldn’t specify what prompted the action, only that Lee has “pushed the envelope too many times.”

Lee was not part of the team during the summer or the beginning of August training camp. His shoulder injury Saturday didn’t hurt as much as watching his roommate Christian Birt go to practice in August.

“It was a rough summer. There were times I would literally just sit in my house when my roommate would leave to go to practice and knowing I couldn’t go to practice with him hurt,” Lee said. “I thought I would never be back, never step on the field again.”

Lee got workout assignments from teammates and did them on his own, figuring if he was going to get reinstated, he better be in shape when he got back. Lee said UMass would re-evaluate his situation when camp began. “No matter what, I had to stay in shape even if I just came back to play a role on the scout team or play a role on special teams. I just knew I had to stay in shape so if I came back, I’d be on top of my game.”

Molnar hoped that the fear of losing football for good would scare Lee straight.

“What Mike needed, in my opinion, was tough love. He needed to know that we cared about him,” Molnar said. “Everybody thinks that coaches just care about what guys do between the lines. Mike needed to do some growing up and maturing and own up to mistakes that he made.”

When he met with the coaches about returning, defensive coordinator Phil Elmassian presented Lee with three questions.

“Coach Elmassian asked me who am I, what do I want in my future, and what am I going to do now to fix it,” Lee said. “I had to focus more. I love UMass. I’ve been here for four years. I didn’t want to be anywhere else.”

Elmassian believed Lee wasn’t a bad person, just somebody that made some bad choices.

“He’s made some decisions some time that are not in his best interest,” Elmassian said. “We have no problem working with him. He wants to do the right things. He really does. He really is a good kid.”

The Lee who was reinstated 10 practices into preseason camp with the understanding that he wouldn’t play in the team’s season opener at UConn, was a different person from the one Molnar suspended.

“Mike took his discipline and now has moved forward and hasn’t looked back,” Molnar said. “He’s been very, very positive and now understands that he wanted to be part of the football team. When he was separated from the team he appreciated all the things he was getting by being a member of the team, not only on the field, but off the field. I think it really hurt him when he realized he was physically and mentally in position to help the team and he couldn’t. I think that really bothered him. After that he’s been pretty good. He’s been a totally different kid than he was in the spring.”

Lee, who started at cornerback last year, has become more of a hybrid player, lining up at corner, safety and even a linebacker/nickelback.

He made six tackles against Indiana, but his breakout game came Saturday at Miami when started the game in the nickel package. He hit RedHawk running back Dawan Scott behind the line of scrimmage for a 2-yard loss.

“Just to get back on the field and make plays for my team felt pretty good,” he said.

But he had to leave the game shortly after with his shoulder injury.

“When I got hurt on Saturday, it kept running through my head, I’ve got to push through it,” Lee said.

He returned in the second quarter and intercepted Miami quarterback Zac Dysert late in the second half to help keep UMass in the game.

“He’s really been practicing quite well and had a good performance for us on Saturday,” Molnar said.

Lee was glad just to have the chance.

“Knowing that I’m back on the field now with the opportunity to make plays, feels real good,” he said. “It feels amazing, because at one point in time I thought it would never be true.”

Matt Vautour can be reached at mvautour@gazettenet.com. Follow UMass coverage on Twitter at twitter.com/GazetteUMass. Get UMass coverage delivered in your Facebook news feed at www.facebook.com/GazetteUMassCoverage.