When the clock struck triple zeroes at Empower Field at Mile High the evening of Dec. 7, a limping Carson Lee approached his father, Shane Lee, and his grandfather, Greg Lee.
Carson, who was a starting lineman for Grand Junction High School as a freshman, had just finished his 50th start at the prep level, never missing a game in his four years.
He had also helped Cherry Creek High School capture the Class 5A state football championship with a 35-10 victory over Columbine. In the process, he continued the family’s legacy of gridiron greatness.
“There was a moment after the game where it really hit home what had happened,” Carson said a few days later. “I saw my grandpa and my dad both crying and saying congratulations. Both of them said thank you for continuing on the tradition, and all that. Just being able to be a part of that and seeing how much it affected them was pretty amazing.”
Cherry Creek finished the season 14-0, making Carson the third Lee to play for an unbeaten state champion.
Shane was a member of Grand Junction’s state championship team in 1988 that defeated Durango 23-13 to finish the season 14-0. Greg’s title came in Wyoming, where he helped Laramie go 11-0 and whip Worland 48-0 for the 1968 title.
All three made their impact on the line of scrimmage. Greg set the tone by playing offensive and defensive line, and the position seemed to stick with the Lees.
“I think Shane and Carson both graduated from the Greg Lee School of Running, which is to say that we aren’t very fast,” Greg joked.
Greg has noticed how much the game has changed from his playing days.
“We had some pretty good speed back then. Our running backs were awful fast,” Greg said. “The size of the players has changed enormously. At the time, I was a defensive tackle, and I was 6 feet, 1 inch, 195 pounds. I was the fourth-largest guy on the team. Now, the quarterbacks are 200-230 pounds. The hits are totally different. Going after the quarterback or laying somebody out, there’s more penalties now than then, but the size and speed have totally changed.”
Carson brings a little more bulk to the modern landscape of the sport. At 6-4, 300 pounds, he was a dominant presence in his 10 games with Grand Junction and his 40 with the Bruins.
In an era where head injuries and general health in football are being scrutinized more than ever before, he managed to avoid major injuries throughout his prep career. His injury near the end of the state title game will leave him in a walking boot for the next few weeks, but that’s as bad as it’s been for the durable soon-to-be graduate.
“There’s obviously bumps and bruises you have to work through, but I was very fortunate to never have to endure any really tough injuries,” Carson said. “I hyperextended my knees a couple of times, broke a couple of fingers, but honestly, nothing too bad has happened.”
Before he began his prep career with Grand Junction, he would often work on his techniques outside of practice with his father, who has coaching experience.
“I give all the credit in the world to my dad for what I know about football,” Carson said. “He’s always been so supportive and right by my side through everything. He was my coach in baseball and coached me a little bit in basketball. He was a huge influence on the football player I am and the man I am today.”
Shane was not only well-versed in the sport, but he also knew what it was like for the Tigers to rule the prep landscape.
“I think the 1986 class kind of set the tempo for us,” Shane said. “We were all freshmen at the time. They went to the state championship and lost. We saw what it took to get there and the emotions of not winning. From that point forward, I think all of us had the same goal to get to the state championship and win one.”
The Tigers achieved that goal, and his oldest son started out at Shane’s alma mater, but flourished on the other side of the Rocky Mountains.
“(The state title game) was nerve-wracking as a father,” Shane said. “I shed a lot of tears with my dad in the stands. It was pretty emotional for us. It was pretty exciting, especially considering the time Carson has put into this and the love he has for the game and that he has for his teammates.
“One thing about Cherry Creek High School is, it’s very reminiscent of the way it was at Grand Junction when I was there. Anything less than winning was unacceptable.”
After his high school career wrapped up, Shane headed to his father’s old stomping grounds, Laramie, to play for the University of Wyoming. After one year as a Cowboy, he returned to the Western Slope to play his final three seasons at Mesa State College, now Colorado Mesa University.
Not only is Carson a third-generation undefeated state champion, he’s going to be a second-generation college football player.
Despite drawing interest from programs such as Michigan, Texas A&M, Oklahoma State, Nebraska, Purdue and Duke, Carson is graduating early to enroll at the University of Colorado and join Mel Tucker’s program.
He’ll roll into Boulder on Jan. 10, start classes Jan. 13 and begin his workouts as a Buffalo on Jan. 20.
“I don’t really get a break, but that’s how I’ve always been wired,” Carson said. “Once the season’s over, I’m already in the gym working out and everything.
“It’s not really anything new. It’s just taking that next step and going up against bigger and better guys. I’m looking forward to the challenge of going against everybody up at the University of Colorado and being the best football player I can be.”
Colorado’s starting center, Tim Lynott, was a senior this past season, giving Carson another reason to get to Boulder early. Tucker and offensive line coach Chris Kapilovic, both instrumental in securing his signature, have told Lee he will have the chance to compete for the starting role.
Arriving in January instead of August gives him an extra seven months with the program.
“The reason I chose Colorado, especially so early in my recruitment, was the way that Coach Tucker was able to make me feel. He made me feel immediately like I was a part of the family,” Carson said.
“It’s tough to turn down big program names like Michigan, but I think it’s just as important for me to be able to represent my home and make everybody in the state of Colorado proud.”
He has a chance to make his home state proud, but he’s already lived up to the Lee legacy.
“The records speak for themselves,” Greg said. “To pull off what we did, all three generations, is pretty remarkable.”