CHARLESTON — It has been 30 years since Lee graced Huntington with his presence.
Once upon a time when Carl Lee was starring for Marshall football as a defensive safety, Frank Giardina was at the same time serving as the “voice” of the Thundering Herd.
He called many of the outstanding plays turned in by the South Charleston native during his four-year run as a starter in the secondary.
These days, the two do a radio show together in Charleston each afternoon.
It has become a labor of love for Lee, who works fulltime at West Virginia State University as a Community Development Specialist. Back to his playing days, Lee was always a good interview and is a natural whether behind a radio microphone or in front of a television camera.
But where he was truly a natural was on the football field.
This season of 2012 marks 30 years since Lee played his final games of football for the Thundering Herd.
“I didn’t think of it as being 30 years,” said Lee, with his great laugh.
While there were some lean times during his playing days where wins and losses are concerned, Lee says it is simply a period that he has forever cherished.
Lee was indeed a bright spot during the Sonny Randle days. He played his entire career under the colorful and hard-working Coach of the Herd, from 1979-83.
Out of South Charleston High School, the speedy and slender Lee had very few offers. He came to Marshall and stepped right in as a starter and never looked back.
Not only did he want to become a star at the collegiate level, but realized his hope to one day play in the National Football League. As most know, Lee not only played but was among the very best secondary performers the NFL had to offer.
He earned three trips to the Pro Bowl during his time with the Minnesota Vikings, as Lee played 11 seasons in Minnesota and closed out his career with a final year with the New Orleans Saints. In all, he started 160 of 189 games during his career.
Being able to play for Randle, a great wide receiver in the NFL and multiple All-Pro player for four teams, Lee found out what it would take to play at the next level.
Randle pushed him to the limit from day one of summer camp until his final game in 1982.
“It was huge to play for him,” said Lee. “His discipline, his work ethic and what he demanded.”
Even as a young 18-year-old, Lee didn’t shy away from sharing with Randle his desire to play professionally. “He told me then (in 1979), ‘If you are good enough, I’ll make sure you get a shot.’ ”
Not only was Randle a driven coach, but a man who had an eye for outstanding coaching talent. He assembled an outstanding staff in Huntington.
“Not only did I get to play for Sonny but I got to play for Jim Grobe (current Wake Forest head coach), Bob Pruett (94-23 at Marshall, his alma mater), (former Young Thundering Herd QB) Reggie Oliver and Waverly Brooks.”
Lee says he simply broke down his playing career into individual plays, for both practices and games.
“I just felt I had to become the best possible player I could become,” he said. “Once I got beat on a cover route in a game (the last of his career) at East Tennessee and when I came off the field, Sonny looked at me and said, ‘You blew it.’”
It was just that type of push Randle sent Lee’s way to make him into an outstanding player.
“He would talk to me after games and say, ‘You did OK, but you’ve got to do better,’” Lee recalled “Every play if I messed up, I was petrified.”
It all worked out for Lee, who was honored by the Southern Conference three straight years. Lee is in the Marshall Athletic Hall of Fame and in 2000 was recognized by Marshall’s Black Legends.
Lee is not only highly thought of in the circles of Marshall, but with the Viking organization, and was named to Minnesota’s All-Time 40th anniversary team.
“Besides Sonny, I had a great high school coach in Homer Criddle (at South Charleston H.S.). His was also that tough taskmaster,” said Lee. “When I went to the NFL, I was ready for anything.”
Before his current work, Lee spent 10 seasons as the head coach of the football program for West Virginia State.
While losses outnumbered wins, Lee looks back with great pride on his years of leading young men in the Yellow Jacket program.
“It’s like when I talk to Sonny, he knows how much I appreciate all he did for me,” said Lee.
“I wish I could have won more games. But when I talk to some of my former players you get the feeling you made a difference.” Lee and his wife, Donna, a Greenbrier County native and Marshall graduate, reside in the Teays Valley area. Lee has one son.
He spends a lot of his spare time talking to young people, stressing to them that anything is possible in life. Carl Lee is living proof.
He’s one of Marshall’s best players ever, and one of its finest individuals.