BILL PLASCHKE

For USC's Marqise Lee, there's quite a story behind the smile

The world knows Marqise Lee as the nation's best receiver and a Heisman contender. But what he's had to contend with in his turbulent young life is astonishing, though it stays hidden by his ever-present smile.

  • Pin It

And for Christmas, Marqise Lee gives us his smile.

It’s a breathtaking smile, a constant glow both impish and welcoming, his mouth curling out and eyes lighting up into quite possibly the shiniest holiday ornament on the Los Angeles sports landscape.

The smile is his gift. It is also his sword.

“You know that guy in the movie ‘Platoon’ who keeps smiling and laughing even as they keep shooting him?” said Armando Flores, one of Lee’s former foster parents. “That’s Marqise.”

TIMELINE: College football 2012-13 bowl schedule

The smile has come to symbolize the jaw-dropping football feats of this USC sophomore, who was voted the nation’s best wide receiver while becoming a favorite for next year’s Heisman Trophy. Yet to those who know him best, the smile is less about stardom than self-defense.

“He smiles so much, you never know what is wrong with him,” said his younger sister Stacy Lee. “I guess he doesn’t want to show anybody his pain.”

You see the smile. What you don’t see are the seven tattoos, high on his arm and shoulders so they’ll be hidden by a shirt, the ink of his grief. There is a tattoo for the deaf mother who was ordered to relinquish custody when he was a child. There is a tombstone tattoo for the brother who was murdered by a rival gang who shot him five times in the back. There is a praying hands tattoo for, among other things, the brother who is serving time in a Mississippi jail for attempted murder.

“People say things happen for a reason; well, I’m not trying to hear all that,” Lee said. “I don’t care about any reasons, some things just shouldn’t happen.”

You see the smile. What you don’t see is Lee dropping to his knees in a crowded end zone before every game and making the sign of the cross seven times, once for each member of his family and support system. He prays long and hard for the group that inspired his unusually selfless Twitter handle, @TeamLee1.

“If you notice, I’m always one of the last guys to leave the end zone,” he said. “I’m praying for the safety of a lot of people.”

You see the smile. What you don’t see is Lee sleeping on the couch at his Inglewood home, or sleeping on the floor next to Robert Woods’ bed in his campus house, or sleeping almost anywhere but on his own bed in his own room. After being tossed between foster homes and cheap hotels while growing up in South Los Angeles, Lee can best rest when he’s literally surrounded by family and friends.

“He’s got a bed, but he doesn’t use the bed,” said Steve Hester, whose family informally adopted Lee during high school. “After all he’s been through, he likes to spend his time in the middle of people who love him.”

You see the smile, but you didn’t see him in the visitors’ locker room after this fall’s 39-36 loss in Arizona. Lee had just completed one of the greatest games for a wide receiver in NCAA history, with a Pac-12 Conference-record 345 yards receiving, 469 all-purpose yards and two touchdowns. But he couldn’t haul down a potential Hail Mary touchdown pass on the game’s final play. Even though the ball was batted away in the end zone, he considered it a personal failure.

He crumpled to the ground and wept. He continued weeping as he walked off the field. He staggered into the locker room and punched a mirror, cutting his arm. He disappeared into a back room where he continued to loudly weep and moan while Coach Lane Kiffin was attempting to give his postgame speech.

The coach finished talking, walked back to console Lee, and told him he wasn’t required to meet with the media.

“It’s OK, coach, I got this,” Lee said.

Just like that, Lee turned on a switch, walked confidently out of the locker room, took his place in front of a concrete stadium wall, and addressed a scrum of reporters with phrases like, “I don’t care about the stats. ... The main focus is actually winning the game.”

Kiffin remembered those words such that he scrawled them on a white board in the team’s locker room. I remembered only the stunningly quick return of Lee’s smile, and so I recently asked him about it.

“When I was little, I used to dream of living in one place,” Lee said. “Now I’ve got a home on a football field with more than 100 brothers. ... If that doesn’t make you smile, nothing will.”

——

When Marqise Lee says, “I’ll be home for Christmas,” he’s talking about a stocking full of addresses.

He will climb into his 1996 Impala on Christmas morning, leave his rented home near USC and drive through South Los Angeles streets whose cluttered and cracked narrative matches his own.

Lee will first pass the Inglewood home where the police removed him and his four siblings from his mother’s care when he was 6 years old. Toy Williams, like Lee’s absentee father Elton, is deaf. Relatives feared she couldn’t care for the large family, and she eventually agreed.

“My mom felt like there was too much working against her, and so she just gave up,” said Lee’s older sister Latoya Reid, 25.

He will pass King’s Motel on Imperial Highway, a worn building with barred windows on the first floors, a place where he and Stacy lived for two years with their grandparents.

“I felt like I was in a prison,” Lee said. “I cried a lot when I was alone.”

He will pass the home on 111th Place where he lived with his grandmother and great-grandfather. This is where he nearly joined the Bloods gang that eventually claimed the life of older brother Terreal Reid and led brother Donte Reid into jail.

“I really wanted to join the gang, those dudes were always real cool and doing everything for me,” Lee said. “But out of respect for my brothers, they wouldn’t let me.”

Lee will then stop and make a Christmas Day visit at the modest stucco home of Maria and Armando Flores, the young couple who became his foster parents for five years. He and Stacy came to their house to play with their two youngest children and never wanted to go home.

“He would be at my house and nobody would call about him, nobody would come for them,” Maria said. “He was just a little kid starved for affection.”

Lee will end his Christmas drive by pulling into the place he considers his permanent home, the Inglewood house of Steve Hester and Sheila Nero, who informally adopted him during his sophomore year at Gardena Serra High. Lee began hanging out with their son Steve, then Hester began giving him rides to school, then eventually Lee just wanted to stay at their house full time. Without ever signing a paper or asking for a dime, they took him in.

At the time, they had no idea he was capable of being a star athlete, or even finishing high school. At the time, they knew him only as a child who just kept showing up.

“He was such a good kid, he latched himself on to our house, he started bonding with us, and we couldn’t say no,” Hester said.

On a recent Sunday evening in this small, warm place, the couple known as “Big Steve” and “Miss Sheila” pointed to a large lump under a blanket on the family room floor. Marqise Lee was snoozing peacefully while several other young adults were laughing and joking and watching TV around him.

“We don’t need any credit for any of this,” Miss Sheila said. “That sweet little boy laying there is all the honor we need.”

——

So, about that smile.

Lee used to rarely show it because of anger issues. He would get so mad at himself or others while playing youth basketball, he would leave the court in the middle of the game and storm outside to cool off. After one particularly galling loss in AAU basketball, he challenged his entire team to a postgame fight, vowing to pound them one by one in a nearby hotel lobby. Lee would get so mad at his lack of control over his unsettled life that coaches and parents would have to physically calm him down.

“I was hot, I was really upset at life, I wanted to get revenge, I wanted to so bad,” Lee said. “You always have the dream of getting out and doing something with your life, but I would look at my situation and be like, it’s just not gonna happen.”

It has become a cliche to say that it takes a village to raise a child, but in the case of Marqise Lee, it is the truth. In the middle of all this anger and turbulence — he changed elementary schools five times — the village took over. The village gave him that smile.

“I am honestly surprised that he was not smoking weed and hanging out and following his brothers into those gangs,” Latoya said. “A lot of people have stepped in and help him live.”

People like Armando Flores, the first long-term foster father, a former gang member who taught Lee humility by once pulling up alongside him in the street and pointing a cellphone at his head.

“It was like, if you’re in a gang, this is a gun,” Flores said. “I taught him, you are not bigger than this.”

People like Big Steve and Miss Sheila, who taught him accountability by moving their bedroom next to the front door and leaving that door open in case he ever wanted to come in and talk.

“He knew there was always somebody there waiting for him,” Sheila said. “He knew there was somebody who would not go to sleep until he did.”

Then there were his sports coaches, the AAU guys and the high school mentors and countless people who helped mold a kid who had no idea that he could ever be special.

“I’ve always told Marqise, if you can’t change something, change the way you think about it,’ said Ron Scipio, one of Lee’s AAU coaches. “It was tough, because this was a kid who had already seen death, drug abuse and incarceration. I said, this is not about sports, it’s about life, you need to believe things are going to be better.”

For the longest time, Lee never believed playing sports was anything but a way to get out of the hotel for a few hours. He didn’t play football until he was in the seventh grade and had so little hope for his athletic future that he rarely watched televised sports until he was a senior in high school. The first USC football game he saw was the one being played during his recruiting visit. He is most often compared to former Trojans star Reggie Bush, yet he never saw Bush play in college, not even on television. Ask him to name his sports heroes and he flatly says, “None. I didn’t follow it enough to know anybody.”

Kiffin jokes that he signed Lee after winning a bet that the coach could beat him in Madden video football. Kiffin won the game, but little did he know that at the time, Lee was so apathetic about the NFL that he had watched exactly one Super Bowl.

“It was hard to be interested in something that seemed so far away,” Lee said. “College and pro sports were in a different world.”

Lee initially was only the third most famous USC recruit from his own high school, ranked behind Robert Woods and George Farmer. As a Trojans freshman last season, he was completely overshadowed by Woods, catching more than 100 yards’ worth of passes in only two of his first 10 games.

When he broke out with 187 yards and one touchdown in an upset win against No. 4 Oregon and 224 yards and two touchdowns against UCLA at the end of that season, eyebrows were raised. This fall, eyes were widened after he led the nation with 112 catches while ranking second with a 140-yard average and third with an average of 216 all-purpose yards. He won the Biletnikoff Award as the nation’s best wide receiver after not even being listed as a preseason contender. He finished fourth in Heisman Trophy voting even though his team lost five games. Many believed he would have won the award if USC’s defense had made a few more stops, and many believe a similar performance will earn him the award next year.

“When I know people still forget about me, my head can still go into a negative way, even now,” Lee said. “But I’ve learned to put all that negativity in a different place and make it work for me.”

His relationship with his parents comes from that place. He is still in frequent text contact with his mother, who did not answer a request to be interviewed for this story. He is also polite during the rare visits with his father, who has never seen him play in person. Because his parents are both deaf, he has become an expert at sign language, a skill he sometimes uses to amaze unaware teammates.

“We were in a restaurant once, and a deaf guy walked in, and I started talking to him in sign language, and my guys are like, ‘What are you doing?’” Lee said with a smile. “It’s just one of those adjustments you have to make.”

He also adjusts to the increased phone calls from Donte, who brags about his brother from prison, where he is scheduled to remain for several more years.

“When I first talked to him, I was sad,” Lee said. “But now I realize, it’s OK, it’s not like my other brother, because I know I’ll actually see him again.”

He is deferential to teammates, whom he credits for all of his amazing runs, citing blocks that never existed. He is admiring of his coaches, lauding them for having a confidence in him that comes easily.

More than all of that, he is smiling, now and always, and everyone notices, Marqise Lee’s gift that keeps on giving.

“This is a kid who loves to be loved,” Kiffin said of a kid who, in finding the answer to an eternal Christmas wish, finally knows what that’s like.

bill.plaschke@latimes.com

twitter.com/billplaschke

  • Pin It

Local & National Video