With the score tied and time running out, UCLA placekicker John Lee retreats to the bench and closes his eyes. Has the Korean-born Lee mastered some metaphysical Eastern discipline? Zen and the Art of Toe Jam Football, perhaps? His teammates call him Bruce, as in Bruce Lee. Does this Lee use a martial art to help him focus energy in his right foot?
Lee claims no Oriental edge. His routine is as Main Street as Mean Street, the song that plays in his head before pressure kicks. "In tight situations I pretend I'm right on stage with Eddie Van Halen," Lee says, "and he's playing Mean Street. I've never gotten sick of that song. It just makes me feel good and keeps my mind off the pressure." There it is: great kicks to great licks by that mad Dutch guitarist, Edward (That's What It Says on the Dust Jacket) Van Halen.
Lee was a second-team All-America last year, when he made 32 of 36 field goal attempts, including 18 of 18 from inside 40 yards. He also provided the margin of victory in six of the Bruins' nine wins, the finale of which was a 39-37 upset of Miami in the Fiesta Bowl.
Lee grew up in South Korea and played on its national Little League team. When he was 12 his family moved to Downey, Calif., where he learned football. In high school he converted 23 of 28 field goal tries his last two years, but stirred little interest among college recruiters because his longest kick was 41 yards. It was a harsh introduction to the Cadillac complex, the American belief that size is what counts.
Lee honed his kicking under Bootin' Ben Agajanian, who runs kicking clinics in Southern California. "Ben's philosophy is that excellent form makes consistency, and consistency makes a great kicker," Lee says. Eager to shore up his kicking game, UCLA coach Terry Donahue had his recruiting coordinator call Agajanian after spring practice in 1982. Agajanian recommended Lee, who got the Bruins' final scholarship.
Lee has more than earned it. "I hope he doesn't have as many chances as a year ago," says Donahue, who would prefer to see Lee kicking more extra points and fewer field goals. "But I hope his accuracy is as good." It's already the best. Lee has made 58 of 68 three-point attempts over three regular seasons. That's an 85.3% conversion rate, the best in collegiate history among kickers with at least 60 attempts.
Lee attributes much of his success to his snapper, Terry Theodore, and his holder, David Clinton, both of whom return. The rest of the team, though, lacks experience. Donahue has only four starters returning on offense and five on defense.
On offense, sophomore tailback Gaston Green is just that, green. But he blossomed at the end of last season, running for 134 yards against USC and 144 against Miami. Wide receiver Mike Sherrard, a second-team All-America two years ago, is coming off what Donahue describes as a "disappointing junior year." Disappointing? He averaged 17 yards on 43 receptions. At quarterback, junior Matt Stevens is battling senior David Norrie for the job.
The defense is led by All-Pac-10 linebacker Tommy Taylor, a senior from Chattanooga who had 112 tackles last season. Taylor has been called Freight Train since he was nine, taking the name from a character in a cartoon called Where's Huddles. The cartoon character ran over people. Taylor stops them dead in their railroad tracks.
Taylor may be the Bruins' Chattanooga Choo Choo, but Lee is their Seoul Train and his song is No. 1 on the Bruin charts. For UCLA, Mean Street should again be the road to success.
"Mean Street" helps to make Lee a mean kicker in pressure situations.