Elijah Lee couldn't help but smile.
He was standing on the sidelines of the Edward Jones Dome in St. Louis and was having the game of his life.
His patented spin move was driving the Columbia Rock Bridge offensive line crazy, as he spent nearly more time in the backfield than the Bruins running backs.
“They don't know what to do with you,” a teammate said to Lee as he slapped his shoulder pads. “You're going wild out there.”
Lee finished the game with 3.5 sacks and three more tackles behind the line of scrimmage. It was the perfect exclamation point to one of the greatest defensive careers in Wildcats history. The senior star won the Buck Buchanan Award as the top lineman or linebacker in the Kansas City area for the second year in a row and The Examiner's Defensive Player of the Year for the second year in a row, and the Wildcats claimed their second-straight Class 6 state championship.
“State was fun,” Lee said, smiling from ear to ear, “because they hadn't really scouted me and I was pretty much on my own out there. Down here, I get put on the side with a tight end, or a fullback comes up to help block me, but down there it was one on one, and that was so much fun.”
More fun than he could ever imagine, as Lee and his family moved from St. Joseph, Mo., to Blue Springs before the start of what would be a remarkable junior year in which he made a name for himself with 18.5 sacks and a trophy case full of awards.
“I have to say, I never could have dreamed of two seasons like we had,” said Lee, who has made a verbal commitment to play football at Kansas State University. “It's the best high school experience you could ever dream about. And I'm not just talking about football – I'm talking about the school, the community, the friends I've made. It's been better than anything I could have dreamed about.”
Coach Kelly Donohoe certainly couldn't have dreamed about a transfer from unheralded St. Joseph Central High School making such a dramatic impact on his team.
“Shep (Darrius Shepherd) and some of the guys were talking about Elijah before practice started,” Donohoe said. “They were saying he played some football and was a decent basketball player.
“I think it took us one, maybe two practices to see what a special talent he brought to our program.”
He was unstoppable on the defensive line and added some depth to the offense as a big-play tight end. But like all good fairy tales, Lee knows the clock has struck midnight on his high school legacy.
“I guess the Cinderella story has comes to an end,” said Lee, who helped the Wildcats enjoy a 27-1 mark over the past two seasons, including a 14-0 record this year.
“Today, for the first time, it's really hit me that we're the two-time state champs. I was wondering when it would hit me, and it happened this morning. When my family moved to Blue Springs, I had no idea what to expect. I never thought about an honor like winning the Buchanan Award and never thought about back-to-back state championships.
“And I didn't even know about The Examiner, or how (the newspaper) covered our team. Now, I've won two Examiner awards, and those mean a great deal to me. Usually, those things don't happen to a kid who moves to a new school when he's a junior. But they did to me, and I am so thankful to be a part of Blue Springs High School and this football program.”
Lee finished this season with 83 tackles, including 37 for loss. He had 11.5 sacks and picked up a memorable fumble and returned it for a touchdown in a 42-35 win over Class 5 state champion Lee's Summit West. He also had an interception return for a score.
He was told by a Simone Award committee member that he had one of the highest vote totals ever for a Buchanan Award recipient, and it goes without saying that he was all-state for the second time in as many years.
“There were so many things that made this season so amazing,” Lee said. “We had Joey (Butler, the late pastor and spiritual leader of the Wildcats who has honored by the team wearing JB on their helmets), Dalvin (Warmack, please see Offensive Player of the Year story) had the great year and became the first player to win back-to-back Simone Awards and we were like a family out there.
“And you play harder for a family member than for just someone who happens to be a teammate. We were the band of brothers, every one of us – and made sure that this was a season to remember.”
He paused for a moment, and added, “Sometimes, I feel like I have to pinch myself, to make sure this is all real. Because sometimes, it still feels like a dream.”