The Hard Way
By Justin Zackal
For the Herald-Standard (from Nov. 2, 2005)
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. - His face was downcast as reporters clamored around his chair pointing notepads, microphones and television cameras in his direction.
They had just found the leading tackler on the West Virginia football team, and once settled they stood like statues trying to pick up the deep murmur of his voice.
Contained and asked to be reflective are certainly not the preferred environs for a player like Kevin "Boo" McLee.
On the field, he is a man of assertiveness and reckless abandon. His life away from football and back home in Uniontown is one of detachment and sorrow.
All things considered, McLee should have a heart made of granite. He was once so lost in many ways, from his wayward learning of the playbook to mourning the death of the woman who raised him from his infancy.
How, then, could McLee sit there as his team's most productive player and begin to talk candidly with such a humble demeanor and a softened heart?
'A Little Backward'
Not far away from McLee, on the gridiron as a fellow linebacker and on this night in the interview room, is a homespun Oklahoman named Jay Henry. Having just fielded questions from a reporter about the smallmouth bass he caught while fishing during the team's weekend off, Henry turned to talk about his friend McLee.
"Boo and I came in together and after our first camp he was struggling," Henry recalled. "Since we came in together we've been really close as far as linebackers are concerned. We talked to each other a lot about how things are going and he's obviously having a great year. It's good to see he's doing so well because it means a lot to him."
Henry, the starting middle linebacker this year, was sort of McLee's on-field confidant. The coaching staff grew impatient with McLee and switched his position twice, from weakside linebacker to strongside before his sophomore year and back to weakside this season as a junior where he has started all seven games.
Head coach Rich Rodriguez, during those first two seasons, always joked to reporters that McLee was a talented player but would often revert back to playing Uniontown High School's defense instead of the defense played by West Virginia.
"The first day he was dropping back on runs and coming up on passes," Rodriguez once said during the 2003 season. "He was a little backward. But Boo's a talented young man, and you can see him studying the playbook. Football is really important to him."
Then one day during training camp this year Rodriguez told reporters that McLee was playing better than any linebacker he's ever coached at WVU, and that includes consensus first-team All-American Grant Wiley.
"I think it's repetition and the fact that I moved to (weakside). I'm freed up a lot more. Last year, I had to stay back a lot because I had didn't have the 'bandit' with me. Now I'm just free to play and be an athlete."
Those are the words of McLee explaining to reporters his success this year, the success that produced a team-high 50 tackles.
"I have different responsibilities," McLee added. "Last year I was staying on the backside and taking on big tight ends and tackles. I just like this position because I got the 'bandit' and I can go make plays on the other side of the ball."
The "bandit" that McLee refers to is the extra safety on his side that often blitzes, played by senior Mike Lorello, the team's second-leading tackler with 47 stops.
"One word that describes Boo is he is a playmaker," Lorello said. "He just goes 100 percent all the time. I get to play on the same side as him so he and I kind of feed off of each other during the games and we get excited."
So does Lorello open up plays for McLee to make or does McLee open it up for Lorello?
"It works both ways," Lorello added. "A lot of the times it depends on the call of the defense. We work pretty well together, and I just love having him playing next to me."
Lost and Found
Most of the reporters had now dispersed to other players and McLee remained to talk for awhile about growing up in Uniontown.
McLee lived with his grandmother, Elaine Murray, a suffering diabetic who passed away at 72 in February of 2003 from a stomach aneurysm. She gave him his nickname "Boo" for his childhood affinity with the game of peek-a-boo, while he gave her insulin shots, twice daily before he left for school and when he came home after football practice.
She was also a reason why McLee stayed so close to home, for her to see him play football, but he often missed workouts when she was hospitalized and he became out of shape, physically and emotionally.
"Once she passed away I felt lost for awhile," McLee reflected. "That's the only thing I had in my life, man."
McLee's mother, estranged for his entire life, is also deceased. His father lives three time zones away in California. McLee moved some of his stuff into his aunt's house in Uniontown, but his life would never be the same.
His aunt, Adrian McLee, was a source of strength.
"What helped me out is she just said, 'Life is life and things like this are going to happen.' I took all my stuff down there and she said you have a home here. She came in and gave me a new home."
His girlfriend of five years, Nakala Booker, and even his girlfriend's grandmother, Mildred Harris, were among the people McLee says helped him get back on his feet.
McLee comes from a pedigree of football talent. He is the cousin of former Syracuse running back Ernie Davis, the 1961 Heisman Trophy winner who was the first African-American ever to win the award. He is the nephew of Billy and Reggie McLee, who starred at WVU in the late 1970s. His step-grandfather Charles Murray, who passed away in 1997, was a quarterback at Penn State.
His father, Kevin McLee Sr., was a standout running back at Georgia in the mid-1970s before playing in the NFL with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Just this past weekend, he was one of four people enshrined in the Florida-Georgia Hall of Fame in Jacksonville, Fla., honoring over 50 competitors in that rivalry over the years.
McLee and his father talk on the phone "every so often," and he watches him play when the Mountaineers are on national TV. Tonight's game vs. Connecticut is on ESPN2, but McLee's father won't be tuned in to see it –– he's actually attending the game.
"Yeah, I want to see him," McLee nodded. "I want to see my dad. I don't really get to see him at all."
The only other time McLee's father saw him play in person was last year's embarrassing 36-17 upset loss to Boston College.
McLee would like to make up for last year's game tonight.
Labor of Love
The game of football has truly been McLee's saving grace. Whether he was getting in trouble in high school or coping with the loss of a loved one, football was the sustaining drive in his heart.
"What turned me around was football and just growing up and understanding that I can't do those type of things to succeed in life," said McLee, who made the Dean's List last spring as an athletic coaching education major.
"Once I learned that, I turned my life around and tried to do everything positive."
In the future, McLee would like to go back to Uniontown and teach phys. ed., and "just try to help the kids from getting in trouble and going the wrong route."
"Boo's pretty quiet, but once you get to know him he's pretty funny," said Henry, one of McLee's closest friends on the team. "You can tell he genuinely cares about people. He's a tough kid and I'm glad he's one of my friends."
McLee's face glows, even with the bright light from the TV camera now turned off, when he talks about Uniontown and going to high school football games there.
"I love Uniontown," McLee said waxing a smile and leaning back in his chair. "That's where I'm from, man."
Home may be where the heart is, but for someone who doesn't have a house in his hometown, it's the heart that's where the home is.
And for Kevin "Boo" McLee that's an awfully big place where you are free to run around and love without containment or inhibition.
Just the way he likes it.