By Scott Sudikoff
For Harvard senior safety Tanner Lee, sometimes all you need is a little help from a friend. If not for that friend, Lee's career at Harvard probably would have never happened.
As the son of an Army West Point football player, Tanner was born in North Carolina and then lived in Arizona and Hawaii before the age of five. Eventually his family settled in the football hotbed of Alabama where he had his first exposure to the game when he was six years old. One of his first coaches of course, was his father, Tyson.
"He was a lot tougher on me than the other kids," explained Lee. "I left my shoulder pads somewhere once, and I had to run around the field all practice. I never forgot my stuff again."
Tanner's first few years of playing organized football were spent competing with kids who were older than him.
"I was six in a 7-8 year-old league and it was an eye-opening experience," said Lee. "I didn't play that much because I was so young, but the next year I played quarterback and we made it to the championship game. That got me hooked to [football]."
Did I mention that Alabama is a football hotbed? For Tanner, he had the benefit of playing for one of the best high school programs in the state at Daphne High. A program that has produced players like former West Virginia quarterback Pat White, current Jacksonville Jaguar running back T.J. Yeldon and current Baltimore Raven defensive tackle Michael Pierce.
"I played on arguably the best team in state history [as a freshman], but I didn't really play except for a few kick-offs," said Lee. "I played against T.J. Yeldon in practice, and a total of five guys from that team went to the NFL."
Lee got his first extended time on the field as a sophomore when he played the entire season as part of the special teams group. Eventually after getting his time to shine on the field at Daphne, you would think that Tanner would be sifting through offers from colleges to come play at the next level, but that wasn't the case.
"I had no offers until after my senior football season ended," explained Lee. "I didn't really go to any camps and I was really trying hard with my grades."
Trying so hard with his grades that he was ready to sign on the dotted line to attend the University of Alabama on an academic scholarship.
"I was already figuring out where I was going to live [at Alabama] and football came out of nowhere in November of my senior year."
This is the part of the story where a little help from a friend comes into play. Lee says that this friend, his Daphne High teammate Khael Sanford, was bored in class and decided to send out his film to different schools. Sanford remembers it a bit differently.
"Tanner and myself got into a bit of a verbal disagreement about him playing college football," Sanford explained. "After a phenomenal senior season, I just knew he could play at a high level!"
"So one day I went to him and said if I get you one scholarship would you go play?"
And the rest was history, except there was interest from more than one school. After a few days interest was coming from schools such as Holy Cross, San Diego, Jacksonville State and even Tanner's father's alma mater, Army West Point.
"I was working at a Christmas tree farm when I got a call from Harvard," said Lee. "All that attention came from Khael sending film out."
"He's a really good friend of mine," said Lee about Sanford. "He knows my stats better than I do."
"Tanner is the ultimate guy you want to be around," said Sanford. "Tanner is what most parents in our community use as an example of a model child because he's just that. Overall, a great person."
Harvard Head Coach Tim Murphy has similar feelings about Lee and his time at Harvard.
"Nobody on our team has gotten more out of his ability, or been a better role model for his teammates than Tanner Lee," stated Murphy. "He is an exceptional person and a tenacious competitor respected by all."
As it is for most new college athletes, the transition wasn't always a smooth one coming from high school.
"It was pretty stressful, it was so much football and not what I was used to," said Lee. "When school started I got discouraged at times."
Lee would have a couple of people to look towards for guidance in his first few years at Harvard, Norman Hayes and Ricky Zorn.
"Norman played my position and was the best in the league," Lee explained. "He was who I looked up to in the social scene, while Ricky was who I looked up to spiritually."
For any younger Crimson player that may look up to Tanner as a role model, what advice does he have to share?
"Being a Harvard guy, it's both a blessing and a curse," said Lee. "It's something you're blessed to be a part of, but you have to live up to it. You have to be the most prepared person in the room and on the field."
In the end, Tanner's experience at Harvard all comes back to his friend Khael, who kick-started his college football career.
"If I had gone to Alabama, I never would have been exposed to the people that I've been exposed to through the football program and school itself," commented Lee. "A lot of them are just like me, from similar hometowns, but we came here and we accomplished something maybe we didn't believe we could accomplish from day one."
Lee and Harvard hope they're the most prepared in the Ivy League as they start their journey towards trying to win an 18th Ivy League championship.