By MATTHEW STEVENS
Mississippi State's all-time leader in wins is excited to have a rooting interest in this year's Super Bowl.
Jackie Sherrill will do his best to proudly cheer on the Green Bay Packers tonight and one of his favorite players of all time – tight end Donald Lee.
"I'm going to watch that game with pride and cheer my hardest for Green Bay because I love Donald Lee," Sherrill said. "He was one my favorite players to coach."
Lee arrived on the Mississippi State campus 12 years ago from a town that doesn't get a lot of attention and a high school whose name no longer exists. Today he'll play in a football game that is the projected to be the most watched television broadcast ever.
"I tell coaches all the time some of the greatest football players in this game came from a very small town and it was our job to find them," Sherrill said.
Lee, who has three touchdown catches this season for the NFC Champion Packers, remembers fondly his recruiting process from Maben High School.
"The coaches came to Maben High School and that was a big deal because Maben is a small place," Lee said. "My friends saw the coaches come to Maben and they were excited and so was I."
Similarities can be drawn between Lee signing with State in 1999 and East Webster's Johnthan Banks signing two years ago as both came from small backgrounds in Oktibbeha County to produce on the big stage that is the Southeastern Conference.
"When you talk about how many stars a kid is today, Donald Lee may not have been a three-star player back then but what he had was the desire to move forward in his life," Sherrill said. "He's a winner as a player and as a person and you can't measure that in a single high school football camp."
Lee arrived on campus with as Sherrill put it, "all of his belongings in a single bag" and left the Starkville campus with not only a bachelor's degree but as a fifth-round selection in the 2002 NFL Draft.
"At that time, we had a distinct recruiting advantage with the kids in small towns in Mississippi," Sherrill said. "You have to ask yourself 'would a coach from Tennessee ever go into Maben, Miss. to recruit a kid?' No. We were going to get that kid."
Over his four-year career at State, Lee had 61 catches in his career for 611 yards and three touchdowns. The Bulldogs tight end was a part of back-to-back bowl qualifying teams.
"When I signed, I met coach Sherrill and I loved the guy from day one," Lee said. "He told me we were going to do great things (at MSU) and win games and he was excited about having me to come play for him and I learned a lot there under him."
Lee caught three total passes in those two bowl games including a 3-yard touchdown pass from Wayne Madkin in State's 43-41 overtime win over Texas A&M in the 2000 Independence Bowl.
"(Coach Sherrill) was on us all of the time to make sure we never quit, never give up and finish what we started. He was big in my life too," Lee said. "He was a great role model and we looked at him like a father figure and we would die for him because he was such a great coach."
Sherrill compared him in attitude to the late Keffer McGee, who was from nearby Crawford.
"Donald had great character and you could tell right away he wanted things to be better for him and his family," Sherrill said. "He had a vision that was beyond his years in how to accomplish his goals."
Former Mississippi State quarterback and now current local radio host Matt Wyatt said he fondly remembers the day he met Lee – on a softball team.
"I was playing for Emmanuel Baptist Church in a softball league and I guess Donald was playing for a church team in Maben that summer," Wyatt said. "He came over and introduced himself and then hit a couple home runs in that game and I thought 'wow, he's a heck of an athlete.'"
Still it was considered a longshot for Lee to make the National Football League, let alone have a multi-year career with a chance to be a member of a Super Bowl championship team.
"He didn't look like an NFL tight end but he looked more like an H-back without an ounce of fat on him and it's neat to see him grow into the 250-pound physical player that he is now," Wyatt said.
Wyatt, even being from the much-bigger community of Prattville, Ala., said he didn't notice the normal culture shock that being at Mississippi State University would usually happen for a true freshman.
"That didn't matter one bit to his teammates I can promise you that," Wyatt said. "He was always smiling and wanting to help the team. Let me tell you, that whole thing that a kid from the city can't communicate from a kid from the country is flat out myth."
Sherrill described Lee as a player young people in the local communities can model themselves after in Oktibbeha County with his work ethic and attitude on and off the football field.
"We have all these recruiting gurus now and not a one of them can measure what's inside the heart of a kid," Sherrill said. "You have to have high character to make it in life and Donald Lee had it and then some. What joy he was to coach."