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October 8, 2013

Still Standing

By: Jimmy Robertson

Back living and working in his hometown of Franklin, Va., Ashley Lee vividly remembers the NCAA record he broke 30 years ago – one that still stands today

Ashley Lee’s 182 interception return yards against Vanderbilt in 1983 still stands as an NCAA record.

Former Tech player Ashley Lee doesn’t own just his own business these days. He still owns an NCAA record.

And he’s owned it for 30 years.

Actually, the 30-year anniversary of Lee’s accomplishment is approaching. In a Nov. 12, 1983 game against Vanderbilt at Lane Stadium, Lee intercepted two passes and returned both of them for touchdowns. His first return went for 88 yards and the second went for 94 yards, enabling him to break the NCAA Division I mark for interception return yardage in a single game. His 182 return yards snapped the record held by Southern California’s Charles Phillips, who recorded 181 yards on two interceptions in a game against Iowa in 1974.

“I do. I still get asked about it,” Lee said via phone from his hometown of Franklin, Va., where he owns a home improvement business. “People ask, and I tell them that I attribute my success in that game to knowing what your opponent is going to do. That week, I watched enough film. I knew, on third-and-short, they ran a certain play. Every time in third-and-short, they ran the exact same play. So when it got to be third-and-short, I knew what was coming.”

Lee remembers the plays vividly. His first interception was a bit of a fluke. Tech and Vanderbilt were involved in a scoreless tie in the third quarter, but the Commodores drove to the Tech 12.

Vanderbilt quarterback Kurt Page then attempted a shovel pass, but the running back bobbled the ball. It bounced into the air and into the hands of Lee.

“He never got control of it,” Lee said. “So when he came through the line bobbling it, it came directly to me, and I intercepted it and ran it the length of the field.”

According to various articles about the game, Lee dodged eight would-be tacklers en route to the end zone on the play. His second interception came about a little more traditionally.

The Hokies led 14-3 in the fourth quarter, but again Vanderbilt drove deep into Tech territory and faced a third down. Page dropped back to pass and threw the ball, but Lee stepped in front of the intended receiver at the 6 and raced 94 yards to the end zone – and into the record books.

“They ran the play I had been anticipating,” Lee said.

Those were just two of many great plays made by Lee during a Hall of Fame worthy career, though he is not in the Virginia Tech Sports Hall of Fame. He arrived on campus in the fall of 1980 after winning two state championships at Southampton High School in Franklin, Va., a remote town not far from Suffolk, Va. He turned down an offer from Ohio State and decided to follow in the footsteps of a couple of other Tech players from Southampton – Cass Camp and Cyrus Lawrence, who went on to become the school’s all-time leading rusher (and still is).

“Virginia Tech was one of the top teams recruiting me, and when I went there for my official visit, I liked the school,” Lee said. “It was between Virginia Tech and Ohio State. I just liked the school, and the setting and the environment. That’s where I ended up.”

Lee jumped into the starting lineup right away. Though only around 185 pounds, he found himself at linebacker in then-head coach Bill Dooley’s system. His speed and instincts made up for his lack of size, and he recorded 95 tackles (54 solo) as a freshman, including eight for a loss. He earned freshman All-America honors by Football News.

The next season, he played even better, finishing with 146 tackles (75 solo), including five for a loss. He led the team in tackles both seasons on a defense that featured guys like Robert Brown, Bruce Smith, Jesse Penn and Mike Johnson.

On the first play of his junior season, though, he tore the ACL and MCL in his knee. The injury forced him to miss the season, and when he returned, he found himself at another position. Dooley and his staff decided to move Lee to free safety.

“It was a different position,” Lee said. “When you’re a linebacker, you’re taught to attack. As a defensive back, you have to watch and let things develop. It took me a while to get there. My second year, I played the position like I knew it. I studied film tremendously. I knew what the opponents were going to do.

“I loved the position. I probably should have been in the defensive backfield from day 1. But I did some things in high school that they [the coaches] saw, and they just believed that I could play the position [linebacker].”

Lee played well as a junior, recording 77 tackles and breaking up 10 passes. As a senior, though, he played better, intercepting seven passes and finishing with 105 tackles.

Lee led the team in interceptions his senior season and led the team in tackles his sophomore and senior seasons. He finished his career with 423 tackles and 11 interceptions – a number that ranks tied for 10th on Tech’s all-time list. Perhaps more impressively, Tech’s defense ranked as one of the best nationally during his career, allowing just 11 touchdowns the entire season in 1980 and 1983 (11 games each year).

‘”We had a lot of guys that wanted to win,” Lee said. “If we could have mustered out a little more offense, we could have been a 10-1 or 11-0 team. I really believe that. We always said that if our offense could score 21 points every game, we’d win every game. But it didn’t happen.”

The Hokies, though, enjoyed winning seasons in the four years that Lee played. They went 9-2 his junior year in 1983 and 8-4 his senior season. Lee played in the 1980 Peach Bowl and the 1984 Independence Bowl.

His best memory of his days at Tech, though, comes from his freshman season. The Hokies lost to Florida State 31-7 in Tallahassee, Fla., but Lee said he was the Chevrolet Most Valuable Player of the Game.

“I was a freshman, and it [the game] was on regional TV,” he said. “My parents had a chance to watch me play. Once the game got started, I got lost in it. I didn’t know I had won it [the honor]. Winning that was gratifying. I think Florida State was No. 2 in the country. So that was gratifying.”

In 1985, the Atlanta Falcons selected Lee in the eighth round of the NFL Draft. He lasted in the Falcons’ preseason camp until the last cut before the Falcons’ staff released him. He tried to land a job in the United States Football League, but that league folded shortly thereafter.

Lee got his degree in sociology from Tech in 1986. He spent some time in Maryland before deciding to go back home to live in Franklin, Va., to be near his mother. Some of his friends got him involved in building additions to homes and remodeling homes, and after learning from them, he later decided to strike out on his own, forming Tomorrow Enterprise – the name of his home remodeling business.

Lee and his wife, Dora, have two children – Ashley Jr., a 22-year-old son who is in the U.S. Army reserves and is currently deployed in Afghanistan, and a 17-year-old daughter named Asya, who is a freshman at Tidewater Community College.

“I’m proud of them,” Lee said. “You have kids and you raise them to be young men or young women. It’s a great accomplishment.”

Lee and some of his old teammates, guys like Smith and Johnson and Tony Paige, get together for a reunion once a year, rotating it among places like Hampton, Richmond and Virginia Beach. Occasionally, they come to Blacksburg for a game.

This past spring, a group of them got together and came to Blacksburg for the lettermen’s reunion and to watch the spring game. For Lee, the memories came flooding back.

“Initially I did miss the game [of football],” he said. “I missed it tremendously. As time goes on, you tend to grow up and grow out of it and do other things. I got married and had two kids. Once they came along, my whole attitude changed. It was about raising them and preparing them for life. But I still love the game.”

Then he added, laughing, “I was at the spring game this past year, and me and Coach Beamer had a short talk. I said, ‘Coach, let me suit up just one more time. I want to hear the roar [of the crowd] one more time.’”

On a November day 30 years ago, he was the one creating the roar. He still owns the record and the memories, and like many others, he’d like to own a Hall of Fame plaque. But if he doesn’t get the call, he doesn’t need to worry. His name and exploits will never be forgotten.