On the floor of their Boise Bench apartment, as Darren Lee helps his 1-year-old daughter Adalyn build a tower of blocks, she quickly dismantles it.
“She’s really good at doing that,” he says.
Like father, like daughter.
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Lee, a senior linebacker on the Boise State football team, has made his name tearing down obstacles and tackling opponents. His career has been all about taking on new responsibilities with vigor.
Special teams ace. Defensive starter. Student. Husband. Father.
“He’s always done that. In whatever role he gets, he tries to star in it,” Boise State senior linebacker Ben Weaver said.
After totaling 49 tackles his first three seasons, mainly on special teams, Lee has saved his most productive season for last. He has started nine games and racked up 64 tackles (fifth on the team), including 6.5 tackles for loss (third). His strip and ensuing fumble return for a touchdown Sept. 24 at Oregon State in his second start sealed a victory.
Lee entered the season as junior Joe Martarano’s backup in the middle. A knee injury in the opener and a broken leg Nov. 18 limited the Fruitland High grad to two starts, but Lee stepped in and made sure there was no dropoff.
“It was exciting to get out there and play a lot of defense, which is what I’d hoped to do since I got here,” Lee said. “It’s kind of weird, because it’s what I wanted, but it came at the expense of Joe getting hurt.”
Perhaps as much as anyone on the field in Tuesday’s Cactus Bowl against Baylor (8:15 p.m., ESPN), Lee is going to soak in the moment. He’s expecting it to be his final football game.
Having graduated Dec. 17, he intends to enter the academy Jan. 9 to train to become a Boise police officer.
“It still doesn’t feel real it’s going to be his last one,” said Gabi, his wife of two years. “I’m excited for what’s next, but it won’t be until August that we’ll realize it.”
Though it will be the last time he dons the pads, Lee’s leap of faith six years ago has more than paid off. He signed with Boise State in February 2010 out of Susanville, Calif., without much fanfare.
Boise State coaches saw him at their summer camp a few months before, and Lee knew he wanted to come to Boise once he visited. He had one copy of a highlight tape, which he sent to the Bronco staff, yet they never received it. Luckily, they saw what they liked in person.
Lee, who took a two-year church mission before arriving on campus, has carried out the Hammer before a game nine times. It’s a symbol for those who made the best special teams play the week before that has morphed into a reward for the biggest hit or block. No one else has carried it more than three times.
From the start, here’s a guy that when we talk about work ethic and blue collar here, he’s a great example, a guy that’s set it since day one. He’s a good role model. ... In an everyday sense, what we do behind these doors and all that, we’re preparing these guys for life through football, and Darren Lee’s a great example.
ANDY AVALOS, Boise State’s defensive coordinator
Defensive coordinator Andy Avalos said he and other players call him “Papa Lee.” It is a persona he’s embraced, especially since Adalyn was born last November. During the season, his class and practice schedule are set up to make most days like a 9-to-5 work slate, and he gets his homework done while on campus. So when he’s home, he gets to focus on time with Gabi and Adalyn.
“I thought it was going to be tough, make things more complicated,” Lee said. “That’s the way I was ready to take it. (Gabi) is amazing, really good being organized. In my eyes, it really simplified my life. There’s no real gray areas. Do I go out with the guys? ‘No, gotta go home to the family.’ ”
Adalyn did her part to make the new responsibility of fatherhood as easy as possible. She was born during a bye week.
“Our doctor swore it was just a coincidence,” said Gabi, a Middleton native.
Added Darren, with a laugh: “He’s a big BSU fan, so I don’t know.”
Lee said one of the biggest things he has taken away from his time at Boise State is that he “can handle difficult situations.” From waiting for his chance to shine on defense, or adding the responsibility of being a family man, he has found a way to get better.
He’s kind of in a different phase than some of these guys are, but it doesn’t change who he is, his work ethic and his habits. ... You’re talking about, ‘Pick somebody in this room you want to follow and be like,’ I don’t think there’s many guys that wouldn’t say Darren Lee’s not exactly the direction they want to head.
BRYAN HARSIN, Boise State head coach
Unless the NFL starts to show a lot of interest, Lee will don a different uniform soon. But there’s still one last time in the blue and orange one, completing nearly seven years of being affiliated with the Broncos. And there’s one last thing to do.
“I made some mistakes on the field, sure, but I threw everything I could at it,” Lee said. “... It would be so great to finish it with a win. Then it’s time to refocus and star in my new role.”
Cactus Bowl: Boise State vs. Baylor
▪ Time: 8:15 p.m. Tuesday
▪ Where: Chase Field, (40,400, grass, home of baseball’s Arizona Diamondbacks), Phoenix
▪ TV: ESPN (Rece Davis, Joey Galloway, David Pollack, Molly McGrath)
▪ Radio: KTIK 93.1 FM, KBOI 670 AM (Bob Behler, Pete Cavender)
▪ Tickets: $40-$115, available at BroncoSports.com/tickets, by phone at 208-426-4737 or the Boise State ticket office
▪ Vegas line: Boise State by 7 (over/under is 67)
▪ Coaches: Boise State, Bryan Harsin (31-8, third year; 38-13, fourth year overall); Baylor, Jim Grobe (6-6, first year; 116-121-1, 20th year overall)
▪ 2016 records: Boise State 10-2, Baylor 6-6
▪ Key stats: Boise State’s two losses this season were by a combined nine points; Baylor has lost six straight games by a combined 262-157 points.
▪ Bowl records: Boise State 11-5 (won six of past seven), Baylor 11-11 (lost four of past seven)
▪ Series: First meeting
▪ Weather: Chase Field has a retractable roof, which is expected to be open for pre-game activities and closed for the game. Tuesday’s forecast calls for sun, highs in the mid-60s and lows in the mid-40s.