The Road of Parris
Parris Lee’s (B.A. ’13) journey began on the streets of East Harlem. Hard work brought him to Georgia State where he scored the school’s first touchdown. Today, he’s following his football dreams in the one of the most unlikely places — Serbia.
Parris Lee is irreplaceable in the Georgia State football record book.
He scored the first touchdown — ever — for the Panthers on Sept. 2, 2010. Watch it on YouTube. That’s Lee stretched out there on the Georgia Dome turf, straining, yearning, willing himself to the goal line and reaching out with the tip of the football to cross the white stripe. It’s Lee’s record forever.
He had to survive a traffic jam of linemen on the play (36 power), and he disappeared for a moment, which happens in the scrum when you’re 5-foot-9. But Lee reappeared, planted a foot, jumped, fell and seemed to crawl on the back of a teammate the last few inches.
There was a lot of determination in that run. Determination is something Lee holds high and tight and treats as sacred, like a football. He scaled a wall of ambivalence surrounding his education with that same determination. It was the worst thing, he says, on the streets of East Harlem in 2001, when he was 11 years old, to be considered a “geek.” His only thought about that thing called homework was that he wasn’t doing any stinking homework.
The tyranny of poverty added some height to that wall, but determination vaulted him over what dooms so many kids.
Today, he’s a 26-year-old college graduate. He has a job playing professional football in Europe. Lee survived life’s flip of the coin with this inventory: a constant push from his mom, a teacher who cared and the encouragement of his college coach, Bill Curry.
“My mom always reminded me [in college] of how far I’d come, and how proud I had made her,” Lee says. “She gave me a real perspective about how much I could change this family if I didn’t give up. I gave my family hope. I gave the kids on my block hope. I had to finish school just to show her how much I love her.”
In East Harlem late one afternoon in 2001, Parris and his friend, Jerry, walked up 106th Street from the park. Parris lived in the Wilson “projects” next to the Harlem River. Jerry lived in the Franklin “projects,” just around the corner on 2nd Avenue.
“Hey bro, I gotta go see my mom real fast,” Jerry said, and he ran off. Parris was 11 and Jerry was 13. In the next 10 minutes, before he got to see his mom, Jerry was beaten by some street rivals.
He died from his injuries the next day.
“Bad people get a hold of kids at a young age,” Lee says. “It was senseless.”
It was the random violence, the meanness, that had him thinking he was doomed at 11 years old.
“People from where I was from don’t always graduate from high school,” he says. “I don’t have many friends from that time who are not in jail or dead.”
I gave my family hope. I gave the kids on my block hope. I had to finish school just to show her how much I love her.
Lee’s story had all the subtitles for a failed life: no education, desperate, dead-end kid. And then his scenery changed, and so did his future.
His mother, Michelle, and his stepfather, Darryl, moved to Kinston, N.C., when Lee was in the eighth grade. While his friends in New York met wardens, he met a teacher with a warden’s strictness, Ms. Faulkner, who told him, “Parris, you can do this.”
“It was the first time I ever did homework,” he says. “Ms. Faulkner said I couldn’t play sports until I had a 70 aver age. My average when I got there was 49.”
Lee started doing his homework, and they let him on the football team, the varsity, when he was just a ninth grader. He scored 15 touchdowns and was lifting 225 pounds as a freshman. By the time he was a junior in high school in Jacksonville, Fla., Lee was a bona fide Division 1 recruit. The major programs stiff-armed him because of his height, but the mid-majors — Central Florida, Central Michigan, Houston, Bethune-Cookman and Georgia State — flocked to Fletcher High to see Lee.
“He was elusive, and he was strong. He had ability,” says Curry, whose name is also irreplaceable in the Georgia State record books as the university’s first head football coach.
Lee, who was part of Curry’s first signing class, did not have a truckload of memorable moments for the Panthers.
He was a role player, an all-purpose running back for three seasons under Curry, rushing 71 times for 251 yards and four touchdowns. He returned 34 kicks for an average of 19.2 yards.
Lee’s spirit on the practice field delighted Curry. He would be dejected about playing time and Curry would yank Lee aside and say to him, “Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee, I’m Parris Lee, and you’re not.” Lee would smile and furiously work in practice to get more snaps.
Curry, who has been the head coach at Georgia State, Kentucky and Alabama, said he gets a call or email every day from one of his former players. He still gets a thrill from watching one of his former players carry the football.
“I watched one of his games from Serbia over the Internet, and the first time he touched the ball, he ran 45 yards through everybody,” Curry says. “I just loved watching his enthusiasm.”
Curry remembers his high school counselor in College Park, Ga., telling him he had no business going to Georgia Tech in 1961. He wasn’t a good enough student.
Lee’s high school counselor told him he had no business going to Georgia State in 2009. He wasn’t a good enough student.
“When he graduated several years ago, I told him, ‘Don’t strut, and don’t be mean, but you need to go in there to that counselor and show her that diploma,’” Curry said.
You can hear the admiration in Curry’s voice.
“He came from the toughest circumstances,” Curry says. “To say he has emerged from the darkness is an understatement.”
Lee took his good fortune home to Jacksonville this summer to train high school players, including his little brother, at his former school, Fletcher High. He will be the wide receivers coach this fall and then decide his next step in Europe.
That first touchdown for Georgia State was a crude operation. At first, there was no consensus it was a history-making touchdown. The players looked around, there was a pause in the crowd, and then the line judge came running in from the side with arms raised signaling touchdown.
“The quarterback (Drew Little) grabbed me and yelled ‘You scored!’ I yelled back ‘I did?’”
That touchdown didn’t catapult Lee to stardom, or to the NFL. But it did help get him to Serbia. Donald Russell, a former college teammate, told Lee of a website and how he could create a video for European football teams to consider him for a roster spot.
Lee created a profile with game film and put it on the site in August 2015. He wasn’t hopeful. But when he checked the site a month later, he was amazed. Teams had tried to contact him and left messages. One team, the Sremska Mitrovica Legionaries in the first division of the Serbian Football League, were still pursuing him. Lee and the team talked for two months. The team said it liked his film, and wanted to know if he would be their ambassador and teach the game to Serbian young men.
“Of course,” Lee says. “I didn’t play much my senior season at Georgia State, so my legs were fresh, and I wasn’t beat up. I can still go.”
They struck a deal. Lee flew to Belgrade in February. The team paid for his travel and paid him a salary. Lee stayed in a flat in a two-story house just outside the city center in Sremska Mitrovica. “Nana,” the landlady took care of Lee and the other American player, Sean Willix, a quarterback from Houston Baptist University. Two big meals a day and just as much in smiles.
The flat was flat-out un-Southern. The walls were a bright green and decorated in unicorns. There was a lot of red splashed in, too. There were high ceilings, which slanted abruptly so you had to watch your head leaning over the sink to brush your teeth. The electric stove had just three burners. He had a balcony, and you would think, after talking to him, it was the penthouse overlooking Central Park.
Lee ran for 412 yards and had 352 yards receiving in six games. He was a return guy at Georgia State, but Serbian opponents took one look at his elusiveness in the open field and refused to kick the ball to him when he lined up deep.
Sremska Mitrovica Legionaries
The Legionaries finished 2-8 and in last place with Lee also playing defensive back. Lee did as promised and shared himself.
The crowds were what you would find at a small, local high school in the South, about 500 people, and Lee would stay and fill every autograph request.
“They mostly wanted pictures with me,” Lee says. “I kissed babies, too.”
The team, Lee says, want him to come back next season.
The people in Serbia have tempered Lee. He watches them crawl under cars as mechanics, round up chickens and pigs as farmers, and he has seen them shovel snow so deep you couldn’t get out of your own front door. His teammates have 9-to-5 jobs working in the markets, in the fields and in offices.
“The work I did at Georgia State allowed me to take my guard down and not make people do things my way,” Lee says. “I was more open in Serbia. I was thinking about things I had never thought about.”
In the five months in the Belgrade area, Lee could translate, not a foreign language, but a foreign culture. He was in constant wonder, especially with the fruit trees growing in the spring right in front of him and locals urging him to pick a plum.
Lee has soaked up Serbian humility and culture in Sremska Mitrovica, which is northwest of Belgrade. His favorite food is the spiced meat patty pljeskavica, which is the Serbian hamburger of pork, or beef stuffed with kackaval cheese. He has toured Roman ruins and majestic cathedrals.
He’s talked with locals about their jobs and dreams. The women, Lee said, are “drop-dead gorgeous.”
“The economy is not great here, but these people find a way to smile,” Lee says. “They work every day, they make things happen here. They are cab drivers and own shops and work for themselves. You have to admire them.”
On a street in Belgrade near midnight last March, Lee got hassled by a local. The man spoke enough English for Lee to understand that after 17 years he was still upset with U.S. President Bill Clinton and NATO. Bombs were dropped and missiles were fired there in March 1999 during the Kosovo War.
That horrific piece of geopolitics happened when Lee was nine years old. He was being held responsible for something he had nothing to do with, but Lee did not ball his hand into his fist and get ready for a fight with this man or his four friends.
Instead, Lee stuck out his hand and said he was sorry for the mayhem on the man’s hometown. The man continued to scream.
Lee remained calm. Lee is a fast runner, but he didn’t look for an easy exit or decide there would be some unruliness, as if he was busting through tacklers. He chilled. The man chilled. One of the five men shook Lee’s hand, and then the group, with their pal’s vents cleared, was on its way.
The Serbians find him a curiosity at times, asking if they can touch his dreadlocks.
“They are like ‘wow,’” he says, as they marvel over his hair.
In return, Lee is wowed by Serbia.
“I had never been to the top of a mountain,” Lee says. “I went to the mountains and looked down on the city. Wow, man, wow.”
Update: Lee recently signed with the Bergamo Lions, an Italian team based out of Bergamo, Italy and part of the Football League of Europe.
“I leave in January and can’t wait!” Lee says. “It’s a beautiful thing to travel the world doing what I love.”
Ray Glier is a former sports editor and now reports for The New York Times, USA TODAY, The Boston Globe, The Miami Herald and CNN, among others.