By DAVE O’SULLIVAN
Holy Spirit senior Lee Dawson is perhaps the most versatile athlete in the West Jersey Football League. He’s a cornerback, a wide receiver, a running back and a kick returner. It’s a wonder he doesn’t sing the national anthem before the game and work the snack stand at halftime. At a fundraising car wash, he’d probably be the guy who did the washing, drying, detailing AND vacuuming. He can do it all, and he’s quietly become perhaps the most valuable player on a team that is hoping to make a return trip to the Non-Public Group 2 state championship game.
Spartans fans shouldn’t be too surprised at what Dawson has blossomed into during his four-year varsity career. He’s basically a carbon copy of older brother A.J., who starred at Holy Spirit before graduating in 2014 and moving on to play at Maine University. A.J. is 5-foot-8, 170 pounds, while Lee is 5-9, 165 — and they have pretty much the exact same skill set.
But, looking just like one of the Spartans’ top players in the past decade comes with its drawbacks. As soon as Lee entered Holy Spirit, everyone expected him to be just like A.J. That might have been asking a little too much from a 14-year-old freshman.
“It’s unique, because we are four years apart. It was tough, a little bit. Everybody thought I was going to be the next A.J., but I’m my own person and there are different things that he did. As the years went on, people started recognizing me for what I was. We play the same positions, so my mom and dad would always say I was like a little twin of him. Growing up, people would say how similar we were, how we resemble each other with the way we move and the way we talk. I always thought it was a good thing because I was learning from the best, so I took it as a compliment,” Lee said. “During my junior year, I felt like people should know who I am now instead of just A.J.’s little brother. As the years have gone by, I’m glad that people recognize me as Lee now. People expected me to be as good as my brother, so that always pushed me.”
Lee Dawson started as a cornerback for Holy Spirit his freshman year, and despite a sub-.500 record, the Spartans found themselves in the Non-Public B state championship game matched up against DePaul. That’s when Dawson realized there was another level to varsity football. The kind of level that featured Division I talent all over the field. It was an eye-opening experience for a kid his age. DePaul torched the Spirit secondary for 244 passing yards and two touchdowns in a 42-0 blowout victory.
“Freshman year, I was scared. I never really lifted because I always just thought I was naturally strong. But then when I went up against Division I receivers like DePaul had, it made me realize that I needed to get bigger and stronger or I wouldn’t be able to compete with these guys. When I was a freshman, I got run over by Kendall Elliott of Oakcrest. I thought I had him low and he ran me completely over. I was like, OK, I have to re-evaluate my eating habits. It was bad. You could even see how bad it was on film, trying to tackle somebody that big and getting completely run over. My freshman year, I used to get bullied a lot, but now as a senior, it’s me bullying the receivers,” Dawson said. “I never lost confidence, though, because I always had people supporting me. My mom, my dad, A.J., they would tell me that starting varsity as a freshman, you’re going to get run over, you’re going to get out-jumped, but just keep doing what you’re doing. You’re going to get stronger and you’re going to get faster. That was motivation for me, and I’m here now.”
The Spartans finished that season 5-7, and slipped to 4-6 when Dawson was a sophomore, the first year under current head coach A.J. Russo. Spirit lost to St. Joseph in the opening round of states that year.
“We went to states my first year, and I thought it was going to be easy and that we’d keep going to the state championship every year. But my sophomore year, we lost in the playoffs, so I got a reality check and I realized we weren’t going to win every year,” Dawson said. “It was a rebuilding process under the new coaching staff and some kids were in positions they had never played before. But we came out last year as a new team. It’s great to know that we’ve been through so much and we’re 6-1 now. We’re just going to keep pushing.”
Russo said he knew Dawson would be a key to the rebuilding process, not only because of his physical talents, but because of the leadership ability he began to show as he got more comfortable at the varsity level. Now, as a senior, Dawson is one of the guys the Spartans lean on — not only to make plays in big games, but also to provide leadership in the locker room. Quarterback Josh Zamot, who transferred in to Holy Spirit this year after spending the first three years of his career at St. Augustine, said he immediately saw that Dawson was going to be an impact player this season.
“When I first arrived here, he wasn’t really getting any plays on offense, but we started throwing him into the rotation at receiver and he showed he had good hands, so (offensive coordinator Charlie) Roman started giving him more and more reps. He just kept proving himself over and over again in practice that he could play receiver. He can really play anywhere. He can play cornerback, kick returner, running back, receiver — he really does everything for us. He’s a great athlete and he really shows that every Friday night,” Zamot said. “He goes unnoticed and underrated, but he does a lot of things for us and is a great asset. I think teams overlook him, and that hurts them in the long run. He can do a lot of things with the football in his hands, and when he’s on defense he’s going to strap up the other team’s best receiver the entire game. Lee is out there on an island by himself, but he can cover anybody they put out there against him.”
Dawson spent the majority of his career as a defensive back and kick returner, but this season has become a huge part of the offense, both as a wide receiver and a running back. During an overtime win over Delsea Regional earlier this season, he caught a pass on 4th-and-17 to keep the game-tying drive alive, then came up with several big runs later in the drive to set up the tying score.
“He’s definitely somebody I rely on and count on. Whenever the game is on the line, I feel 100 percent confident in putting the ball in his hands, just throwing it out there and letting him make a play, because I know he will,” Zamot said. “He shows a lot of leadership and passion for the game. He’s a great leader and the kind of guy you want to have in your locker room. When somebody makes a mistake, he’s going to be one of the first guys to come over and say to keep your head up.”
“Everything feels so natural now. It’s almost like having another brain. I will see a play, and I already have everything in my head and everything becomes so much clearer. My freshman year, everything seemed so much different than in youth league. But now, senior year, it feels like I was meant to play football. You might see a kid who you know is going to be good because of the way they played when they were little, and that’s how I feel right now. I see myself back when I was a little kid,” Dawson said. “It feels great knowing that (the coaches) can call my number and tell me to make a play. That feels great knowing they have that confidence in me.”
Guys such as Zamot and sophomore running back E’lijah Gray get most of the attention in Holy Spirit’s explosive offense, and rightfully so. They pile up yards and touchdowns each week. But Dawson is just as dependable, even if he doesn’t put up the gaudy numbers every game. He’s content with just winning games, and perhaps getting the occasional post-game interview from a local reporter.
“When it’s my turn, I know I just need to ball out and do my thing,” he said. “I really don’t care about being in the paper and things like that.”
If the Spartans continue to win and are able to make a return trip to the state championship game — which they lost in last year, to Mater Dei, on a Seraphs touchdown in the final seconds — Dawson certainly will be a name that gets into the South Jersey papers. Lee Dawson is making his own name for himself, and as much as he loves his older brothers and want to emulate their success, he said it’s nice to finally be recognized for who he is.
“I finally feel like I’m Lee Dawson,” he said. “Now, when my mom and dad come to the game they hear about me from people in the stands. I feel like I’ve finally separated from being A.J.’s little brother to being Lee Dawson.”
With all he’s accomplished during his high school career — and what may still be left to achieve — it’s a pretty good thing right now to be Lee Dawson.
Contact Dave O’Sullivan: firstname.lastname@example.org; on Twitter @GDsullysays