For Baltimore native Khari Lee, his football journey has been exactly that — a journey.
The 28-year-old tight end spent time with four NFL teams from 2015-2018 and played in the XFL this spring. He signed with the Atlanta Falcons in March, and it’s an opportunity the 6-foot-4, 253-pound tight end looks to take advantage of.
“I think it means a lot, I had to really dig deep and it prove it to myself,” Lee said on Glenn Clark Radio May 29. “I mean, life on the ropes in the NFL it can get tough for a lot of guys. A lot of people don’t know that the NFL is commonly called the not-for-long league. The average is about three-and-a-half years.”
If there’s one word to describe Lee’s journey, it’s adversity. He was cut from Western Tech’s football team as a freshman and came back to eventually win the team MVP in 2010. Despite his success, he didn’t get many colleges interested in him while he played at Western Tech, a public magnet school just outside Baltimore. He decided to attend Division II Bowie State.
“Having my back against the wall, it really allows me to quiet my mind and I really dig into my thoughts and give my best foot forward,” Lee said.
While at Bowie State, Lee earned first-team All-CIAA honors three times as well as two Don Hansen Super Region 1 selections. After going undrafted, he spent time with the Houston Texans, Chicago Bears, Detroit Lions and Buffalo Bills but did not see much playing time. He caught two passes for 12 yards in 34 NFL games.
Like many times before, teams weren’t interested in him after that. That was until the XFL called, and Lee saw it as a great opportunity to continue his career.
“When you sit there and you really look at it, do I hang up my cleats or do I give it another run? You have to sit down and be very realistic with yourself,” Lee said. “Where your chances, what are your odds? And the XFL came about and they gave me an opportunity. I’m forever grateful.”
He was drafted in the fifth round of the XFL draft by the DC Defenders and caught eight passes for 91 yards and two scores in five games. DC was led by quarterback Cardale Jones, but ranked toward the bottom of the league offensively. They were in the bottom three in both points (16.4) and yards (264.0) per game. It was less about the stats for Lee and more about the opportunity to get noticed by NFL teams.
“For a guy like me, my career was kind of on the edge a little bit,” Lee said. “I got to go out there and play in a pro-style offense, so a lot of scouts could see me in systems they’re running in and see me perform well, so it was a great experience.”
Atlanta, which traded for former Ravens tight end Hayden Hurst earlier this offseason, currently has six tight ends on the roster. Lee, with four seasons under his belt, is the most experienced among them. All of the other tight ends each have played less than three years in the NFL.
Asked if playing in the Falcons’ offense will lead to a productive season, Lee said he’s not trying to focus on his numbers.
“As an athlete and someone who’s played this game for a while you definitely think about it, but my job is to go in there and do what the coaches ask of me,” Lee said. “So if that’s running down on kickoffs, blocking a punt, or settling in a blocking role that’s something I can do. The touchdowns will come if it’s meant to be.”
Now Lee is looking to earn a spot on Atlanta’s roster — the next step in what’s been a long journey. Lee said he’s learned how to adapt since graduating from Western Tech and has had to do so quickly.
“My ability to adapt, my ability to dive into an offense and learn it in a short amount of time and then go out to the practice field and game field and execute,” Lee said. “I’ve been on four, five, maybe six different teams and I’ve had to learn new offenses just about every year. Every time I’ve been counted out I’ve had to beat the odds. Having my back against the wall so many times now, it doesn’t come to me as anything farfetched.”
For more from Lee, listen to the full interview here:
Photo Credit: Courtesy of the Buffalo Bills