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In time, Lelie's shine was brilliant


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POSTED: Saturday, July 18, 2009

The diamonds you see in fine jewelry stores don't start out beautiful, sparkling like the sun's reflection off the Kaiwi Channel at sunrise.

They need refinement. The right cut.

Give them that—and put them in a proper setting—and you have something.

Something valuable. Something you want to hold on to. For the rest of your life.

Coming out of Radford High School, Ashley Lelie was that diamond in the rough. Relatively unnoticed.

No one could blame college recruiters if they passed on Lelie. Air Force, Cal, Rice, Brigham Young and Columbia expressed interest, but when the Rams went 0-8 his senior season, Lelie said, “;Everybody started dying off.”;

Not only was Radford winless, it also ran the ball most of the time.

“;I had like nine catches for a hundred yards and a touchdown,”; he said.

“;I don't think people (recruiters) really understood what he could do,”; said Ron Lee, who at the time was offensive coordinator at Saint Louis School. “;They used him at quarterback. They used him at defensive back. They used him at receiver. That was one of the reasons why he didn't really stand out.”;

Lelie said he had no scholarship offers.

“;After my senior year, I didn't know if I was going to play football again. I applied to the University of Hawaii and got accepted into the engineering department.

“;That's what I thought I was going to do, be a mechanical engineer.”;

A funny thing happened on the way to the dorm, however. Lelie attended a passing camp at UH and caught the eye of Guy Benjamin, who was an assistant under Fred von Appen. Benjamin asked Lelie to walk on.

And so he did.

He redshirted that first year. The team went 0-12. Rough. Twenty straight losses, including his last season in high school. But conditions in Manoa were about to change. The diamond was about to be cut the right way and placed in the proper setting.

               

     

 

Definition of a Journeyman

        After being drafted in the first round of the 2002 NFL Draft, Ashley Lelie had a smidgen of success with the Denver Broncos before kicking around the league the past few years with three more teams. Here's a look at the pro career of the highest-drafted player in UH history:
       

       

Denver Broncos

       

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
YearRec.Yds.TDs
               
2002-03355252
2003-04376282
2004-05541,0847
2005-06427701

        Highlight: Led NFL in yards per catch in third season (20.1).
       

Atlanta Falcons

       

                                                                                                                                                                                                                   
YearRec.Yds.TDs
               
2006-07284301

       

San Francisco 49ers

       

                                                                                                                                                                                                                   
YearRec.Yds.TDs
               
2007-08101150

       

Oakland Raiders

       

                                                                                                                                                                                                                   
YearRec.Yds.TDs
               
2008-09111972

        Highlight: Caught four passes for 92 yards and a touchdown in a win over the Broncos. Also set up another TD with a spectacular 51-yard catch.

       

JUNE JONES TOOK over for von Appen after that disastrous season and things began to change for Lelie. Slowly, at first.

“;He was a laid-back kind of guy,”; said Lee, whom Jones had hired as his receivers coach. “;He didn't try to impress the coaches. Being there just for spring ball, we didn't know all the guys, and we had so many receivers, he just didn't stand out.”;

At least not until the week leading up to the final spring scrimmage.

“;When he started to run right by the DBs late in that spring workout we started to pay closer attention to him,”; Lee said. “;Then it was just kind of a gradual process where he moved up the depth chart.

“;When we came back in the summer, he started to show us.”;

That was a turning point, said Lelie, who thought about playing basketball for the Rainbows. He said he even went so far as to talk to then-assistant Bob Nash about trying out.

He also told Jones about his idea. Jones, to say the least, opened Lelie's eyes and his mind.

“;Once I went to June and talked to June, he said, 'You have one of the best shots of anybody on the team of making a lot of money playing football in the NFL.'”;

The diamond began to take shape, and sparkle, if only modestly.

Lelie caught 40 passes that redshirt freshman season, good for 561 yards and a couple of touchdowns.

The wins piled up, too, for once. The Rainbow Warriors won nine games, lost four, tied for the Western Athletic Conference title and won the Oahu Bowl by defeating Oregon State.

LELIE ARRIVED BIG-TIME the following season. Seventy-four catches for 1,110 yards and 11 touchdowns. That was good enough to be chosen second-team All-WAC.

But the team finished 3-9. And there were whispers that despite the obvious speed and the soft hands, he was a “;system receiver.”;

“;I didn't feel like I did enough to help my team,”; Lelie said. “;I told myself, next year, I'll have to have 2,000 yards for us to win six or seven games.

“;Going into my next year, my whole mentality was to prove I'm not a system guy. I gotta make those plays for our team to win and play at the next level. We had to move the ball, move the chains and have enough firepower.”;

BY THE TIME Lelie's junior season opened, he was the crown jewel in a studded set of skill players. Channon Harris, Justin Colbert, Craig Stutzmann and young Chad Owens were part of the surrounding gems. And then there was Rolo. Quarterback Nick Rolovich, who took over a struggling 1-2 team and guided it to eight wins in nine games to finish the season.

No Hawaii fan will ever forget Lelie's spectacular, leaping, last-second touchdown grab that gave the Warriors a 38-34 victory over Fresno State. That single catch rocked Aloha Stadium. It was, perhaps, the biggest single catch in Warrior history. On national TV. Against the No. 18 team in the land. Capping a nine-catch, 122-yard effort that only got in gear after a crushing hit by Fresno State safety Cameron Worrell.

“;That hit woke me up,”; Lelie said.

Indeed.

A couple of series later, Lelie first caught a 45-yard pass to put the Warriors in scoring position. He followed it with an 11-yard touchdown catch to put Hawaii ahead 31-27.

Fresno would rally, however, going ahead 34-31 on David Carr's 35-yard scoring pass to Rodney Wright.

Hawaii had to punt on its next possession, but UH safety Nate Jackson soon blindsided Carr. La'anui Correia recovered the fumble and the Warriors were back in business.

“;That whole sequence of events, that stuck with me even through my career in the NFL,”; Lelie said. “;That whole game is still like a dream to me. It's like an out-of-body experience. The stadium was so loud. I still get goose bumps thinking about it. That was my most fun game ever. My whole career. NFL. Ever.”;

If that was his most fun game ever, his final three games as a Warrior might have been the greatest trifecta ever put together by a receiver and quarterback at the Division I level. Ever.

In a 52-51 victory over Ben Roethlisberger and the Miami (Ohio) Redhawks, Lelie caught six passes for 211 yards and three of Rolovich's seven touchdowns.

The two followed that with an even better outing in a 52-30 rout of Air Force. Lelie caught nine passes for 285 yards and three long TDs where he simply outran the smaller, slower Falcon defensive backs.

Topping it off, the Warriors put a 72-45 shellacking on undefeated BYU in the season finale. Lelie caught eight passes for 262 yards and two touchdowns.

If you're scoring at home, that's 23 catches for 758 yards and eight touchdowns.

“;We knew each other so well,”; said Rolovich, who is now the UH quarterbacks coach.

The familiarity came from hours spent on the practice field. Rolovich said Jones had them do a drill where Lelie would run “;choice routes,”; either a post or an out, depending on the defensive back's hip position or cushion off the line. Jones told Lelie not to tell Rolovich which route he would chose. They had to read each other and the defender.

Rolovich said it got to the point where he knew which route Lelie would pick simply by looking at Lelie's body language or his footwork or his lean.

“;If I had Ashley, I could throw it in an 8-foot circle and he could get it,”; Rolovich said. “;He had unbelievable body control to go with soft hands and, of course, 4.3 speed. That's a nice target to have.”;

It was such a nice target, the Denver Broncos made Lelie the 19th pick in the 2002 draft. Lelie left Hawaii after his junior season. He has spent the past seven seasons playing for the Broncos, the Atlanta Falcons, the San Francisco 49ers and the Oakland Raiders.

Lelie said that, financially, he doesn't regret leaving UH early. He was able to take care of his parents and himself.

But, emotionally, he wishes he had stayed for his senior season.

“;In the NFL, once money gets involved—money and politics—it takes the childhoodness out of it,”; Lelie said. “;If I'd known what I know now about the NFL, I would have waited. The college atmosphere, it's so close-knit. I wish I would have taken the extra year to be in college and have the most fun in the world doing it.

“;You're kind of doing it for your classmates. Your family. Your high school.

“;Even if I would have gotten hurt, I think I would put up that risk just because of how fun it was.”;

Now that's priceless.

 


Joe Edwards was sports editor of the Star-Bulletin in the 1990s. Tomorrow we unveil No. 12. See starbulletin.com for more on “;The Centurions.”;