JACKSONVILLE – This spring wasn't quite what Marqise Lee expected.
Not that he regrets it. No way.
But if you think the idea of NFL players returning to school in the offseason is easy, or anything close to a relaxing break …
Well, after the spring he had – is having, actually – Lee sees it differently.
"It's probably the toughest spring I've had," Lee said with a smile Thursday. "I thought it was going to be easier, to tell you the truth. But going to class, sitting there and really not wanting to sit there the whole time, but sitting through and getting it all done … it was tough."
There are various NFL offseason stories. Draft stories, free-agency stories, OTA stories. This story doesn't talk on-field hopes, or Lee's role in a young receiving corps, but this is good story, a cool story.
It's an uplifting one, too, and not because Lee – the Jaguars' second-year wide receiver – found returning to the University of Southern California to continue working toward his sociology degree more taxing than he expected.
It's a cool story because it's about promises kept.
"I'm big on keeping my promises," Lee said. "I have to keep to my word. When I set my mind to something, I like to actually get it done. Your word is everything."
One promise was to his mother, Toy Williams. The biggest was to his stepmother, Sheila Hester.
"Miss Sheila … before I even got into the process of thinking about the league she was like, 'I just want you to finish,'" Lee said. "When we sat down and started talking about me going to the league (after his junior year), was she excited for me? Yeah, but a piece of her wanted me to stay."
Lee paused and looked serious.
"I personally promised Miss Sheila," he said.
Another was to himself, because college is a foreign thing in Lee's family. But other promises were as important. Lee's background and upbringing is well-documented: Born in Los Angeles to deaf parents, having lost one brother to gang violence with another in prison, Lee depended on an extensive support system growing up and in high school. Foster parents, high school coaches, high school and college teammates, college coaches …
"There's a lot of people who came into my life who I feel like I owe what I do now – and how I carry myself," he said. "Coaches and all … them seeing me graduate, even me coming back, me letting them know I came back to school … you should have seen all their faces. They were like, 'You really came back; that's a good thing.'"
If Lee didn't exactly want to go to classes this spring after a year away, he knew, too, if a year away turned into two, then those two would quickly turn into not going back at all. So, needing nine classes to graduate, he not only took classes this spring, he took four: three in his major – a research class and two "300-level classes" – and a Spanish class (He plans to split the final five classes over the next two offseasons). His schedule: classes pretty much 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., then tutoring; or classes, tutoring, then classes. Whatever the schedule, it was a full day usually followed by an 8-10 p.m. workout session.
And yes, professors knew his situation. Yes, they would work with his schedule, but only to a point. A few of his finals are "take-home," but he arrived in Jacksonville later this week than he wanted because of a sociology presentation.
"There was no chance of missing that," he said.
He'll also return to Los Angeles for a few days in the coming weeks to take a Spanish final that couldn't be taken off-site.
"Right now, I'm missing class," Lee said Thursday. "I told them as far as the last two weeks (of the semester), I'd pretty much miss, but I knocked out everything I needed to as far as extra-credit work."
There were times in class he wondered what he was doing there. He's an NFL player, after all, and the contract he signed last spring wasn't insignificant.
"I'm not going to lie to you, there are times I'm looking at the teacher like, 'Oh, my gosh, I've got what I needed already,'" he said.
He was far from the only person thinking that.
"I'm on campus with a backpack," he said. "People are like, 'What do you have a backpack for? I know you're just working out.' I'm like, 'No, I've got classes I have to get to.'"
So, was motivation tough? He smiled.
No, it wasn't. Lee struggled with injuries at times as a rookie. That reinforced what he already knew, that football can be fleeting, but "if I have my degree I know I'll always have another opportunity." There was also something more. While Lee said costs are still covered by his scholarship, they're covered differently for former players returning …
"The way they're doing the system now is they make you pay for it first, then they reimburse you when you get your grades," he said, laughing. "As far as motivation, I didn't need motivation. My motivation was getting my money back."
But that's not the biggest reason, of course. The biggest reason was while this is something Lee wants to do, and more than that it's something he feels like he must do, for him and for others.
A promise is a promise, and this is one it appears Lee's going to keep. And no way will he regret that.
Take a look back at the best images from wide receiver Marqise Lee's rookie season.