RIGHT PLACE, RIGHT TIME: Temple program has helped LB Lee overcome obstacles, grow as person, player
CONSTANT IMPROVEMENT: Temple senior weakside linebacker Faylin Lee has made eight tackles in each of his last two games – wins over Hutto and Bryan – and recovered a fumble last Friday in the Wildcats' district-opening 49-7 victory at Bryan, whose Vikings were shut out by Temple's defense. Lee and defending District 12-6A champion Temple (2-2, 1-0) host the surging Harker Heights Knights (4-0, 1-0) in a league showdown at 7:30 p.m. Friday at Wildcat Stadium. (Photo by Greg Wille, TempleBeltonSports.com)
By GREG WILLE
On the football field, Faylin Lee tends to be in the right place at the right time.
In 2020, Temple’s starting weakside linebacker made 42 tackles, recovered a fumble in the season-opening 40-13 win over Longview and returned an interception 16 yards in the 38-0 bi-district playoff victory against Waxahachie.
A senior this season, Lee recorded eight tackles in each of the Wildcats’ last two games – wins over Hutto and Bryan – among his 21 total stops and made a fumble recovery in last Friday’s 49-7 runaway victory at Bryan in the District 12-6A opener.
“Faylin looks like he understands what he’s seeing. You don’t catch him out of position,” Temple sixth-year head coach Scott Stewart said about the 5-foot-11, 200-pound Lee, who teams with junior standout Taurean York to give the Wildcats a dynamic tandem of linebackers. “He’s not always going to make that great play at the point of attack, but he’s always at the point of attack where he should be. He’s very common-sensical. He reads situations very well, to the point where it’s anticipatory."
Wildcats defensive coordinator Dexter Knox shared that assessment.
“That’s what Faylin gives you, is the cerebral part of the game. Faylin’s a very intelligent kid,” Knox said. “You never have to worry about him being in the wrong spot. He’s going to do what he’s supposed to and he always grades out pretty well.”
But for Lee, an aspiring rapper whose name in that arena is Nawfone2, the phrase “in the right place at the right time” extends to thriving in Temple’s program during an important period in his life.
Without discussing many specifics, he acknowledged that his upbringing on Temple’s north side – in his old family home on 12th Street – has been challenging and that the environment surrounding him from a young age has presented many obstacles. He lives with his aunt, two of his seven brothers (he also has two sisters) and his young cousin.
Lee grew up often lacking the steady presence of adult male leaders in his home setting, but his years in Temple’s football program with the guidance of men such as Stewart, Knox and linebackers coach Chris Pilot have been crucial in Lee’s development as a player and as a young man striving to improve his life.
“Football’s helped me. Maybe if it wasn’t for football, I probably wouldn’t be as well off as I am now. It’s taught me a lot,” Lee said Tuesday as Temple (2-2, 1-0) prepared for its 12-6A showdown against the surging Harker Heights Knights (4-0, 1-0) at 7:30 p.m. Friday at Wildcat Stadium. “Especially with Coach Pilot, he puts stuff in my head, like we’ve had this talk a hundred times about doing the right thing and staying on path.
“It’s been really great. At first I didn’t see it. I used to argue with Coach Pilot all the time, but it’s just me looking at it from their point of view and seeing the bigger picture.”
Said Knox: “Faylin’s more focused this year, honestly, just with everything that goes on. He is really trying and his heart is in it. He’s doing it for the right reasons. He has a really good relationship with Coach Pilot. I always tell Pilot that he’s the Faylin whisperer."
Added Stewart: "Faylin's matured and just grown up. There’s not near as much of the childish stuff. He’s very playful and he’s got a great personality. There’s way less off-the-field issues, and I don’t mean anything major. It’s just that sophomores get distracted. That’s part of the maturation process whether you’ve got issues or you don’t have issues.
"I’m still hard on him and we’ve still got a job to do. The accountability doesn’t change. If he breaks a rule, he gets the same consequence as anybody else. This life is still about choices. Where he came from obviously affects it." Considering the difficulties that Lee has experienced and had to overcome, Stewart considers the sure-tackling linebacker to be an unquestioned success story.
“Faylin’s got every reason to be a turd and he chooses not to be. Do we have to deal with stuff? Sure. But the fact that he has every reason in the world to be a turd and chooses not to speaks volumes about his character,” Stewart said. “He’s still developing, and sometimes that process takes a little longer because of all the obstacles, but that fact that he’s still choosing to grind on it, man, I’ve got the utmost respect for that kid."
Added Knox about Lee’s situation and growth: “You know, there’s no way he should still be playing, just from his outside factors. It’s a testament to him that he is still in our program. The guys that he’s mostly around outside of here are not kids who are playing ball. Every day he has to make a conscious decision that, ‘I’m going to try to do what’s right.’”
The influence of Temple ISD on Lee’s life predates his joining the Wildcats’ football program as a seventh-grade student in 2016. As a fifth-grader in 2014, Lee was assigned to then-Temple assistant superintendent Dr. Bobby Ott as part of the Wildcat Mentors program.
Lee said that the time he and Dr. Ott – whom Temple ISD promoted to superintendent in 2018 – spent together and the lessons Lee learned from Ott immediately made a positive impact on him and changed his outlook.
“I got more engaged with football my fifth-grade year when Dr. Ott started being my mentor and taking me to a lot of games and stuff,” Lee said at lunchtime Tuesday, mentioning that Ott had just visited his third-period class that day. “There was a lot of people in the mentor program and somehow I got picked by him.
“He’s a great guy. If I want somebody to look up to, that would be him right there. I saw him do everything right, and he’s a stand-up guy. He never gave me a bad influence. He used to teach me a lot when I was younger about shaking hands and how to talk with people and keep eye contact.”
It didn’t surprise Stewart to hear Lee’s comments about Ott, who previously had mentored Jayven Taylor, Temple’s standout defensive tackle from the 2019 and ’20 seasons.
“It’s not only for Faylin but how many others? There’s a lot of people who get on Twitter and tell you how great their superintendent is and how involved he is, and then there’s Bobby Ott. That dude’s on a different level,” Stewart said. “I’ve said this about our offseason program and how we work: I want our ceiling to be so high with what we’re willing to do that other teenagers don’t even realize what that looks like. Dr. Ott is the personification of that at the superintendent level.
“Dr. Ott brought him over here as a fifth-grader and said, ‘I’ve gotta go. Can you take him back?’” Stewart added. “So I took him back over to Jefferson Elementary School and talked to him. He’s had to make some (difficult) decisions.”
Although Lee doesn’t live with either of his parents, he enjoys the fact that his father, Fabian Lee Sr., who lives in Huntsville, comes to visit him regularly and always is there to watch him play.
“My pops, he’ll be around. He drives trucks and every time he comes through Temple he’ll definitely stop by,” Faylin said. “He comes to all the games and he’s off every Friday for that.”
Lee’s older brother Fabian Lee Jr. is a rapper named TME Trigga. Faylin enjoys his own involvement in rapping, even though it’s currently on the back burner because of school and football. His rap name of Nawfone2 refers to being from 12th Street – between Downs and French – on Temple’s north side, which was his reason for switching from jersey No. 9 last year to No. 12 for his season season.
“Three or four generations have lived in that house. My great-grandfather had bought that house with his wife. That’s why I wear 12 this year – it’s my heritage,” Lee said. “The only reason I wasn’t No. 12 last year was because (then-senior receiver) Luke Allen was on the team and his brother (Zach Allen) wore that, so he wanted it.
“My dad used to rap and my brother, he’s kind of famous a little bit. He’s got a million (YouTube) views on a song. I could still be rapping how I want to,” he added. “I’ve got a plan for that, but I don’t want to do it yet if it’s going to interfere with (college) offers and stuff, so I’m not on it right now. I’ve got a couple songs. We actually have like three (football) highlights with my songs on there.”
BALL HAWK: Temple linebacker Faylin Lee (with ball) comes up with a fumble recovery as fellow senior defenders Eric Shorter (13), Tommy Torres (90) and Kaleb Hill (15) celebrate during the visiting Wildcats' 49-7 victory over the Vikings in last Friday's District 12-6A opener at Merrill Green Stadium. Lee made a team-leading eight tackles. He said the guidance of coaches such as Scott Stewart, Dexter Knox and Chris Pilot and also Temple ISD superintendent Dr. Bobby Ott has helped him overcome a difficult upbringing to become a better all-around person and player. (Photo by Mike Lefner, Temple ISD/Special to TempleBeltonSports.com)
After playing for back-to-back district championship football teams at Lamar Junior High, Lee broke onto the varsity scene at Temple early in his sophomore season in 2019.
“At first they had me as like a bubble player. I played one JV (non-district) game and I didn’t really like the feel of it, so I was like, ‘I’m going to go bust my butt to go get on every special team and I’m going to be that person,’” Lee said. “I think about our Belton game, in practice that week I had a chance to start and that’s what I did and just attacked it. I wasn’t there all the way mentally, because I was young, but I worked it out well.”
Lee earned more playing time as that season progressed, as did fellow sophomore defenders such as O’Tarian Peoples, Tommy Torres and Devan Williams, joining then-freshmen York and safety Mikal Harrison-Pilot on defense.
“Faylin played late against (Waco) Midway, Copperas Cove and Longview,” Knox said. “We made a switch from a senior who wasn’t doing the right things and said, ‘We’ll play for the future.’ He’s definitely continued to grow. I’m not saying he’s fully there, but he’s grown so much throughout his four years.”
Lee and his inexperienced teammates took their lumps against Midway – which Temple tied for the 12-6A championship – and in their 41-10 bi-district playoff loss at unbeaten, reigning Class 6A Division II state champion Longview.
“Longview was so weird because their student section was on our side and they were talking to us. They were howling and it was the loudest thing I ever heard,” Lee recalled. “It was just a different intensity. I got used to blocking the distractions.”
After growing from approximately 170 pounds as a sophomore to 190 as a junior, Lee provided a steady hand for Temple’s 10-2 team that went 7-0 in 12-6A games. He made 42 tackles (33 solo), had two sacks and made two interceptions – one in the Wildcats’ 38-36 comeback win at Harker Heights and the other in their playoff shutout of Waxahachie. He also forced two fumbles and recovered two.
“With the fumbles, it’s just striking with intensity and trying to hit them as hard as you can. With the interceptions, I’m just trying to get in the right place,” Lee said about his strategy for producing takeaways. “I’m looking for that quarterback’s eyes. I want a pick all the time, so that’s what I’m looking for. I haven’t got one this season yet, but I’m going to get one. Now I’m trying to see things before they happen and finish with a lot of intensity.”
That sounds a lot like his three-season teammate and close friend York, the reigning 12-6A Defensive MVP who paces Temple with 46 tackles. With York patrolling the middle and Lee shaded to the weak side of the formation, the Wildcats can make a claim to having the best duo of linebackers in the district.
“We work off each other, so if he’s bringing that intensity, I’m bringing that intensity. If I’m bringing that intensity, it’s going to be the same way,” Lee said. “That’s my little big brother. He’s younger than me, but he’s huge and his mental game is crazy. He understands the game so well and that’s helped me a lot since my sophomore year. He’s young, but we’re both learning together.”
Said Stewart: “There’s some football IQ in those two guys right there."
Knox knows he can trust York and Lee to set the tone for Temple’s defense, which didn’t allow Bryan's offense to score a week ago.
“Taurean is kind of like the quarterback of the defense. He has a laundry list of notes to get everybody right. Both he and Faylin are cerebral guys. They’ve grown to have a really good relationship and they’re always together,” Knox said, adding that opposing offenses generally prefer to go after the weak side that Lee occupies.
“We’ve got our overhang (safety) over to the field (side), so in a 4-2-5 system, a lot of people like to attack the weak side and you get a little more action. I think Bryan had the plan of, ‘We’re going to get people in Taurean’s face.’”
One thing that Knox has come to appreciate about Lee’s approach is that his mental game complements physical attributes that are more solid than spectacular.
“What we always talk about with our guys is that this game of defense on the varsity level is more than just being out there and, ‘See ball, go get ball,’” Knox said. “You’ve got to know different coverages and different calls that we have. You’ve got to be able to adjust to different formations and motions, and that’s what Faylin gives you.”
Lee takes pride in the cohesiveness of a Temple defense that overcame some struggles in non-district play to shut down Bryan and will be challenged by an explosive Harker Heights attack Friday night.
“I was ecstatic. It felt good, because everybody was locked in real well despite some of the injuries we have,” Lee said about the performance at Bryan. “We’re real tight and real cool with each other. We’re basically a family already and some of us have already been on the team for years, so we’ve already got that veteran leadership. It’s a great environment to be around. I’d say we need to keep that same intensity and focus all the time.”
His plans as a rapper notwithstanding, Lee said he’s been interested in a career as a physical therapist ever since a Mary Hardin-Baylor student who was majoring in that field visited his Temple elementary school. One of Lee’s current classes is a pharmacy technician practicum.
Lee isn’t sure that he will play college football, but he is hungry to earn an opportunity to compete at the next level. At his current size and with 4.7-second speed in the 40-yard dash, a move to strong safety seems likely if he does join a college program.
“I really want Texas Southern to look at me. My friend (and former Temple wide receiver) AJ McDuffy is there and he loves it,” Lee said. “I would love it, too. I’m just trying to play my hardest and see if I can get that. I just want to be seen. I’m trying to make the most plays I can and be real intense.”
Stewart said the circumstances Lee has dealt with as a child and young man have shaped the kind of person he is as an 18-year-old, including sometimes keeping people he doesn’t know well at arm’s length.
“One of Faylin’s redeeming qualities is that he will open up to you if he trusts that you should be here. When Faylin meets a stranger, he’s not saying a whole lot. He’s breaking you down to the nth degree,” Stewart said. “He’s very intelligent, but that’s learned behavior. He’s had to figure out since he was a little boy who he could trust and who he couldn’t. As unfortunate as that is, that gives you a skill set down the road.
“He can discern and dissect people pretty quickly, but that’s a pretty good defense mechanism to have. He can see through bull corn a mile away.”
Stewart said Lee’s story reminds him of that of Quintin Smith, a speedy linebacker who starred for the Wildcats from 2014-15 as they reached a state championship game and the fourth round of the playoffs one year later.
“I’ve worked at places where I felt like the kids didn’t really need me, and while it was fun, it just wasn’t as fulfilling,” said Stewart, who believes the impact he’s had within Temple's program is similar to what he experienced during his stint with Spring Westfield's powerful program in greater Houston. “When I went to Westfield, those are kids that need you. Again, you don’t save them all, and those are the heartbreaks. But the ones you do save, man, they’ll fight on a different level if you can ever get them to that level.
“Quintin Smith is running his own business now, he has kids and he’s driving an F-250. When you do see the Quintin Smiths of the world make it when everybody told you that he was going to be dead or in jail . . . we’re never going to take credit for it, but there’s a real fulfillment in the fact that at least you know you were a part of that process. I mean, their decision is going to be the only thing that gets them out of this stuff. You can try as hard as you want to, but the credit needs to go to them for making that decision and making it stick.”
Knox is paid to put Temple’s best possible defense on the field, but he’s also fully aware that coaches such as Stewart, Pilot and himself have a greater overall calling to motivate young men and serve as role models, especially for players who've had to encounter adversity.
“That’s kind of why we got into this business, is to make a difference with kids. Kids come from different backgrounds, and a lot of our kids don’t come from good backgrounds, so you do the best you can to be a great example for them,” Knox said. “You model what it looks like to be a great father and a great husband, and you just pray that they get something out of that.”
For Lee, the wisdom and direction of the aforementioned coaches and also his superintendent Ott have done wonders to boost his all-around growth.
“I’m more of a leader by example. I’m not giving any speeches, but I’m going to say, ‘We know what’s going on and we know how to fix it, so let’s go do that,’” Lee said. “Really, some of it isn’t even on the field. It’s just me maturing more. Coach Pilot, Coach Knox and Taurean, too, helped me mature and have a better attitude toward football.”
It’s an attitude that’s created only positive things for Lee and the Wildcats.