By Jeremy Balan
Peaks and valleys are facts of life, but in many ways, former St. Ignatius Prep quarterback Zac Lee’s football career has been defined by them.
He’s served in nearly every role possible at the position: under-recruited prep standout, community college phenom, injury-prone quarterback, Division I starter, third-string backup.
Lee hit his current peak in 2009 at Nebraska, where he threw for 2,143 yards, the fifth-highest passing total in a season in the team’s history.
Then, after tearing his flexor tendon at the end of the season, Lee missed spring practices to rehab the injury, and he dropped down to third string at the position heading into this season.
Sure, the injury played a part, as did missing spring practices, but there were other factors at work too. Lee was recruited out of City College of San Francisco by then-Nebraska coach Bill Callahan in 2005, under the assumption that he would thrive in Callahan’s pass-heavy system.
But when Callahan was fired, incoming coach Bo Pelini and his new staff had different plans for the offense. Then came the emergence of dynamic freshman Taylor Martinez this season, who ran Pelini’s option attack to near perfection, and Lee quickly became an afterthought.
While Lee doesn’t hide his disappointment and frustration, he exudes a level of grace in the adverse situation.
“There are some things you can’t control,” Lee said. “Not to say I don’t wish things were different. I didn’t think anything would be given to me, but one of the biggest mistakes you can make at any level is to worry about things too much. If you worry about all the little things, you’ll eat yourself up.”
But the current situation at Nebraska was not his first run in with disappointment.
At St. Ignatius he was a star, a starter as a sophomore and junior and the West Catholic Athletic League Player of the Year in his senior season in 2004. He was also an all-league player in baseball.
“When I started coaching him, it was quickly apparent he could do things you can’t coach,” said Joe Vollert, who was St. Ignatius’ head coach for Lee’s sophomore and junior seasons and moved to quarterbacks coach in his senior year. “He just had a knack for seeing the field.”
But it would be his versatility as a baseball player that would hurt him when it came to recruiting. Some Division I programs thought he would pursue baseball, and even though he was the best player in one of the most competitive high school leagues in the state, he flew under the radar.
“I didn’t really realize how the [recruiting] process worked,” Lee said. “I played a lot of baseball in the summers and most people thought that’s where my interest was.”
Even those in his inner circle were stunned at the lack of interest.
“It’s a mystery to me,” Vollert said. “I thought Cal would have been a great match for him, but they had no interest and I never really found out why. It bewildered me even more because for the last four or five years they haven’t been solid at the position.”
So Lee went a familiar route instead; the same route that his father Bob took, who went on to a pro career in the NFL with the Vikings, Falcons and Rams. He enrolled at City College, grayshirted (when you don’t enroll in a full course load, holding off the start of your eligibility clock), and received a scholarship offer from Nebraska before he even played a down for the Rams.
“He was a really good athlete, but what stood out most, which is hard to find at any level, is that he can plain throw the football … Dropping back, on the run, I don’t see where guys missed it,” said City College offensive coordinator Dan Hayes. “Coming here, we’ve had similar stories. For whatever reasons they were under the radar, but if there were some question marks at SI, they went away fast.”
In a span of a year, Lee went from an under-the-radar talent to the top junior college prospect in the nation.
With a scholarship offer in his pocket, Lee led City College to the state championship game and became the No. 1 single-season passing leader in school history.
In the title game against El Camino College, the Rams trailed 28-27 at the half, and Lee had over 300 yards passing. Then, in the third quarter, on a seemingly routine play, he tore ligaments in his knee.
“We ran a little bootleg, and it was just a shock,” Hayes said. “It’s your dream game, one of those games where you’re shooting for perfection, and we were firing on all cylinders, as good as you could possibly play. When he went down, it was like a sniper got us. When we lost him, we lost our ability to win the state championship.”
The knee injury forced Lee to redshirt in his first season at Nebraska in 2007, and he completed only one pass in two games as a backup in 2008 before taking the reins in 2009.
On Thursday he suited up for the final time for Nebraska in the Holiday Bowl in San Diego against Washington, and despite an injury to Martinez late in the game, Lee did not see any playing time. While the game signals the end of his college career, what may be most intriguing is how his talents can equate to a potential pro career.
“It will probably be an uphill battle again, but who knows what will happen?” Lee said. “You really have to just impress one person, just one person has to see something in you. Throughout this whole process, I’ve never given up confidence. It’s something you just gotta try.”
Both Vollert and Hayes made comparisons to another local product, Tom Brady, who came out of Serra High School in San Mateo. Brady never really had a ton of success at the University of Michigan and has gone on to a Hall of Fame career with the New England Patriots.
“I wouldn’t be surprised at all [if he made an NFL team],” Hayes said. “In the NFL, you need to have an analytical guy who can throw the ball and he’s got one of the biggest arms I’ve ever seen. There are some things that you can’t control, but does he have the tools? I believe he does.”
His father Bob, who has a rich understanding of the college and pro game, is a resource that Lee has leaned on, but he is also know how it feels to be in adverse situations.
“There’s a Y.A. Tittle quote, ‘You’re not a pro quarterback until you’ve been run out of town,’” Bob said. “If you survive that, you end up being a better player and a better person. He’s done a really good job of dealing with it. We think we know here, but if you’re the starting quarterback at Nebraska, there is nothing in the Bay Area where you’re in the spotlight like that. You’re the face of the franchise and you’re the only game in town.”
The NFL may be a long shot, but when talking to the 6-foot-2, 215 pound quarterback who is now taking graduate courses at Nebraska, the feeling is that he’s up for any challenge.
“Whatever it may be, I’m excited for it,” Lee said. “I’ve been through enough, where I can hit things head-on and not be intimidated.”