Editor's note: Longtime Washington County assistant football coach Frank "Pop" Lee died Thursday. This is a profile Jonathan Heeter wrote on Lee on Nov. 12, 2010
SANDERSVILLE -- Joel Ingram had thoughts swirling around in his head and uncertainty billowing in his stomach before his first game as the Washington County head football coach.
Ingram, who never lacks confidence in his team but instead anticipates worst-case scenarios, was nervous before the Golden Hawks’ trip to Baldwin at the start of the 2006 season.
He needed a calming influence quickly that night. So Ingram looked for the one man he knew would settle him down. Ingram found assistant coach Frank “Pop” Lee and asked him to ride with him in the police car to and from the game.
In the five years of road games since that night, Ingram and Lee have made that trip together every time.
“He is like a spiritual advisor and a second father in one,” said Ingram, who will hop in that police cruiser Friday with Lee to make the trip to Americus-Sumter County for the first round of the GHSA Class AAA playoffs. “He’s the guy that I can just talk to about anything, and he’s the guy who will always calm me down when I’m nervous, upset, whatever. He means more to me and this community then you could ever imagine.”
Lee, 63, stands just less than 6-foot tall. He wears glasses and is usually found adorned in Washington County gear. Earlier this week, Lee sported a WACO hat and a pullover with some warm-up pants. He doesn't stand fully upright, slouched a little on one side largely because his right foot is a new prosthesis. He speaks slower than he used because of aging and a stroke he suffered a few years ago.
Lee, however, attends every practice and commands the respect of nearly every person in Washington County.
Ingram and former Golden Hawks head coach Rick Tomberlin call Lee the face of Golden Hawks football.
During his 40 years as a coach at Washington County, Lee has been through many highs and lows.
Lee was there for 1-9 and 2-8 seasons but also for three 15-0 state championship seasons. His tenure has spanned nine head coaches. He was the position coach for players like current San Francisco 49ers linebacker Takeo Spikes and state defensive player of the year Jessie Miller.
Although he has battled health problems, Lee has missed just one game in 40 years.
“I just love Washington County football,” Lee said. “I love the kids, the community, everything about this place.”
The value of Frank Lee
Tomberlin arrived in Sandersville in 1992, and one of the first people he connected with was Lee.
By that time, Lee had more than 20 years in the Washington County school system. A LaGrange native who went from Macon County to Washington County, Lee was an adopted son of Sandersville. He was connected with the community and was the football program’s liaison with the public.
Tomberlin was dismissed at Lowndes prior to landing the WACO job, and he didn’t really know the community of Sandersville. But Lee helped sell the new head coach to the community.
“He made me feel really welcome when I got there,” Tomberlin said. “He helped me implement some changes, and he helped me sell things to the community and to the kids. I’m sure he stuck up for me in the community. He carried the banner for me to the people of the community. He was the pillar I leaned on.”
Lee had a tremendous relationship with the community because he’d been with the team for so long. Players saw Lee as a father figure, and as time went on, they discovered that he coached their parents.
None of the first seven head coaches Lee worked with lasted more than five seasons. The turnover came on average every three years — it even happened once during a season. In the 21 years before Tomberlin arrived, WACO had 10 winning seasons and won more than seven games just four times.
Lee was the constant with every new coach.
“People like to talk about football here in the community,” Lee said. “I was the one they kept seeing. I think people trusted me.”
Tomberlin said Lee’s friendly disposition helped him win the community over.
“He’s just such a great guy, like a family member,” said Tomberlin, who named the team’s Golden Hawk Award for the player who most exemplifies Washington County football after Lee. “He’s such a positive guy. He’s level-headed.”
Lee served the same role for Ingram when Tomberlin left for Valdosta in 2006.
Some members of the community weren't sold on the young assistant coach, but Lee went out to the community and said that Ingram was the right man for the job.
“I’ll never forget what he did for me at the start,” Ingram said. “He fought for me.”
Fighting for his life
This season, however, has been the most challenging of the 40 years for Lee.
Lee, who has diabetes, was confined to a wheelchair earlier this year with an infection in his leg. He fought through the pain and attended every basketball game home and away — his son-in-law is WACO boys head coach Carlos Hope.
The leg never healed, however, and Lee took a turn for the worse. His doctors told him he needed an amputation below the knee on his right leg.
Ingram felt like the situation was grave. He visited Lee and thought he might never see “his conscience on the football field” back at practice.
“It was rough for awhile,” Ingram said. “I don’t know how you move on without him.”
But Lee has battled health problems the past few years. He suffered a stroke and passed out during a weightlifting meet. He received a kidney transplant in 2006. After receiving the transplant, Lee was back out at practice the next week. He walked with a surgical mask to avoid infection.
For the one game he missed all these years, he listened to the action over a walkie-talkie.
His most recent current hospital stay, however, was the toughest for him, his family and his friends. Because he usually bounces back so quickly, it was a shock to see Lee stuck in the hospital for more than a month.
After the successful surgery, no one heard Lee complain.
“He’s just a warrior,” Hope said.
Lee was doing five times as many repetitions during physical therapy as the average amputee, Ingram said.
Tomberlin sold the Bigger, Faster, Stronger program to the players and coaches when he was in Sandersville. Lee bought in then, and he used that mentality to get him through the therapy.
“I would never have made it without Washington County football,” Lee said. “It gave me a reason to fight back.”
Most of Lee’s hospital stay took place during the summer, so Lee ended up missing just one day of practice. When he got back on the field, Lee used crutches and a wheelchair to get around.
Ingram said he has told Lee to slow down, that he can miss some time if necessary.
“He doesn't listen to me,” Ingram said.
Lee’s doctors have told him throughout the various check-ups that he is healthy enough to be with the team every day. The daily rigors of attending practice provide good exercise, and just being out there is a motivation for Lee to maintain a healthy mind-set.
Lee eventually got fitted for his prosthesis in August, and he now has a motorized scooter that helps him get around the practice field.
When Lee gets out on the field, however, he sheds the scooter.
He moves between drills and barks out orders much the same way he has the past 40 years.
During a recent practice, Lee got out of the chair, bent over and ran a drill that required him to simulate the snap of the ball.
The players tend to gravitate toward Lee during practice and there doesn't seem to be much loafing during his drills. As the Golden Hawks were running drills earlier this week, Lee sat in his scooter and defensive end Jrametries Kirksay knelt next to him. Kirksay, who is one of the best players on the team, asked questions and sought advice. Others did the same during practice.
During a recent practice, Ingram said one of the team’s top players Chartavious Danzy suffered a stinger. Danzy sat out a few plays before Lee went over and talked to him.
“He told him he has one foot and one kidney, and he’s out there,” Ingram said. “Danzy got right up and got back in and was bouncing around. That’s the respect they have for him.”
The calm practice version of Lee changes a bit to a more animated coach during games. Other coaches and players have to remind Lee to stay off the field during a game. He now uses a cane during the games to walk up and down the sideline, shedding the scooter and wheelchair.
Lee said he plans to continue coaching as long as he can. Ingram believes they’ll have to pry Lee off the field if he ever became unable to coach.
“My mother said I’m still out there chasing that ball,” Lee said. “She’s right. I am. I’m blessed to be here and in this community. I’m the luckiest guy in the world to still be around and out here. This is my heart.”