Elijah Lee was taking in the celebration at the NFC Championship when he caught himself thinking about his time on the field for Blue Springs High School.
As his San Francisco 49ers – who won a combined 10 games the previous two seasons – celebrated amidst the red and gold confetti, the Blue Springs graduate harkened back to his time winning back-to-back Class 6 state titles in 2012 and 2013.
“It was a surreal moment because my last two years here, we weren’t the best. I think the first year, we won six games and last year we won four,” Lee, now a 49ers backup weakside linebacker and special teams player, said of what he was thinking after San Francisco defeated the Green Bay Packers 37-20. “So this year, it just takes me back to high school when we were the best in the area. We were the best in the NFC this year, and now we’re trying to prove that we’re the best in the league.”
To do that, the 49ers will have to beat the team he grew up watching from the Arrowhead Stadium stands, his hometown Kansas City Chiefs, in Super Bowl LIV Sunday in Miami.
After an up and down season that started with surgery on his thumb, Lee could finish on top of the football world Sunday.
It’s not something he really ever thought of when he was winning a pair of Buck Buchanan Awards as the top high school lineman or linebacker in the metro area.
“Super Bowl, no. But I always had hopes for the NFL. There were people that were always around me. We had a loaded team when I was there in high school, junior and senior years,” Lee said this week. “But at the time, it’s stuff you dream about, but you don’t think will actually happen because you think about how often players in the NFL get to make it to the Super Bowl. Some people go 15 years without going. Some people play four years, and then they’re out [of the NFL] and they don’t even have the opportunity.”
Lee is getting his opportunity in the NFL again after starting the season on the 49ers’ practice squad because he had to undergo thumb surgery in August after breaking it in a preseason game.
After playing in all 16 games and starting five and making 65 tackles with a sack and three tackles for loss last season, he started this season on the sideline and off the active roster.
“It was unfortunate for me that I got injured,” said Lee, originally a seventh-round draft pick of the Minnesota Vikings out of Kansas State. “Whenever you miss time during training camp, we all know realistically what’s going to happen. At the time, I got down [emotionally]. But it was just a lesson to remain humble and thrive whenever situations come like this.”
He persevered and when Pro Bowl linebacker Kwon Alexander suffered a torn pectoral muscle, Lee was promoted to the active roster on Nov. 5.
He played in the final eight games, mostly on special teams, while contributing five tackles, including one for loss.
“Once I got pulled up to active, I promised myself I’ll never go back to that [practice squad],” Lee said. “I was down about it. There were some dark times. But I kept my faith in God. And [center] Ben Garland, he just kept reiterating that, ‘You’re good enough that you should be on the active roster.’ That’s what a lot of people told me in the building.
“There were times where I was, like, ‘Man, I can’t wait for a team to come get me.’ But he kept telling me, ‘Just keep working hard. It’s going to come. It’s going to come.’ And when it finally did, he told me, ‘There’s nobody that deserves this more than you.’”
He said his versatility has paid off on special teams, allowing him to play a variety of positions. He’s also tried to be a mentor for younger players.
“My role has just been being a leader, be one of those guys the younger guys can come to and talk to, bring energy, have fun, just keep a smile on my face no matter the situation,” he said. “Because at the end of the day, I have to remember I started out on the practice squad, so I’m blessed each week to be up active and playing.”
Now he feels blessed to get a chance to go to the Super Bowl.
“That’s always what you hope for. You go into the season talking about your goals and stuff, and the season goes along and things play out differently,” Lee said. “But this year, everything’s played in our favor. “We’ve been through every situation. I mean, for us to win the NFC West, we had to beat Seattle on the 1-yard line. It’s crazy plays like that. It’s been a crazy year for us.”
When the 49ers got a big early lead on the Packers in the NFC Championship, Lee wouldn’t allow himself to think they had that berth sewed up.
“It didn’t hit me [that we were going to the Super Bowl] until the confetti started shooting into the air,” he said. “At first, you didn’t really feel like that.”
So he didn’t think about it during the second half?
“No, just because you’re playing against Aaron Rodgers, so you never know what can happen,” he replied.
Now he will face the team he grew up watching. He was born in Louisiana, spent much of his childhood in Topeka, Kansas, developing a love for Kansas State, where he would go on to play for legendary coach Bill Snyder. He moved to St. Joseph early in his high school years and then completed his prep career at Blue Springs, where he helped lead the Wildcats to back-to-back Class 6 state titles and earned Class 6 Missouri Defensive Player of the Year honors.
Though he was a Chicago Bears fan – Brian Urlacher, Lance Briggs and Devin Hester were his idols – he spent many a Sunday at Arrowhead Stadium watching the Chiefs. He got to play there on Sept. 23 last year when the 49ers lost 38-27 to Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs.
“[Playing at Arrowhead last year] was crazy, just because I was going to games, and as a young kid, you probably got tickets in the nosebleeds,” he said. “And to actually run out of one of the tunnels, being on that field, playing in front of your friends and family – I don’t know too many people that can say they did that. And just being one of those guys that stayed local, going to college [in Kansas], and also my high school was 15 minutes down the highway. So it’s crazy. You grow up saying ‘I want to play in that stadium.’ And then you have the opportunity, and you have to make sure you soak it in.”
He will face Mahomes again. In addition to last year’s game, he faced Mahomes and his Texas Tech team several times in his time at Kansas State. And he’s happy to get to face him again.
“When we played them, my junior year, one of my buddies, he’s actually on the [49ers], D.J. Reed, picked [Mahomes] off – a pick-six. And that’s how we started the game,” Lee said. “I had a huge goal-line stand going toward the end of the game. We all just got after him, not knowing we’d be playing him again in the NFL one day, and on this big stage. Texas Tech didn’t always have the best record, but at the end of the day, Patrick Mahomes is who he is, and he’s always been as good as everybody’s seeing now. So it’s no surprise.”
It might be a little tougher now trying to figure out what Mahomes will do, now that he has more weapons around him and a more balanced offensive attack. Mahomes with Texas Tech was a little more predictable than now.
“Our strategy in college? It was easy for us because I think they only averaged like 20 yards rushing a game,” Lee said. “So we knew going into the game that we had to defend the pass to beat this guy. So, however we have to do it. Get him out of the pocket. Blitz him. Play a lot of man. Do QB spies, and all kinds of things like that.”
Just getting to the Super Bowl is a big thing.
“It’s a big accomplishment. Where I come from in Kansas City, the Chiefs are everything that everybody talks about, so I’m hoping for the best for us,” he said. “At the same time, I’m going to be humble. I’ll be able to get into it and appreciate it more after the game.”
So he wouldn’t feel any guilt if his 49ers beat the Chiefs in the Super Bowl?
“No guilt. I just hope my friends and family would still stay friends and family,” he said, laughing. “There’s going to be a good amount of them [at the game Sunday], probably in Chiefs gear. I’ve had a lot of people say ‘I’m cheering for you personally, but not for your team. I’ve got to go with the Chiefs.’ So that’s kind of funny.”
– Steve Gorten of the Palm Beach (Fla.) Post and Bill Althaus of The Examiner contributed to this story.