Lee's retirement after all these years reminds us what Coast Guard football is about
Christian Lee, who would one day become the college's all-time leading receiver, walked through the gates of the Coast Guard Academy as a freshman in 1993.
He finished with the Bears' all-time receiving record with 2,356 yards, led Coast Guard to its first NCAA tournament bid in program history and the story goes that once, upon being complimented by Thad Allen — the future admiral and commandant of the Coast Guard — Lee looked at him and replied, "Thanks, dude."
"I remember it vividly," Lee said, asked if that exchange should happen to be true. "The Mass Maritime game. He came to a game. I knew that he was friends with coach (Bill) Schmitz. He said, 'great game' and started talking to me. He was captain then ... but he could have been God for all you know.
"That's kind of the story of my career. I didn't have all the political acumen maybe I should. But it's worked out pretty well."
It worked out perfectly for Lee, a member of the Coast Guard Academy Athletic Hall of Fame, who retired on July 9, nearly 27 years to the day of his arrival in New London. Lee, 44, leaves the Coast Guard as a captain, having commanded three ships during his tenure and having spent more than a decade on Capitol Hill, much of that time in appropriations where he relied on — what else? — his political acumen.
A native of Belle Harbor, N.Y., on the Rockaway Peninsula in Queens, Lee, very much a Mets fan and a New Yorker at heart, leaves with the same sense of humor he's always had.
He credits that to Schmitz, the Coast Guard football coach throughout Lee's stay at the academy.
"He was the first person who taught me to be myself, not to change who you are as a professional because you fit some mold," Lee said in a telephone interview earlier this week of Schmitz, who died in 2013. "As long as you worked hard and performed well, if you work hard and perform well for somebody, they're going to let you get away with all kinds of stuff.
"It was a lesson I learned early I kind of carried with me. They'll help protect you from mistakes, give you more leash to work with. They want to take care of you. They want to help you succeed. ... (Schmitz) was funny. He wasn't a stick in the mud. He was a pain in the ass. I was a pain in his ass. It just worked."
Lee's retirement was live streamed via video conference on Zoom. Most notably it took place at Coast Guard headquarters in Washington, D.C., presided over by Coast Guard commandant Adm. Karl Schultz.
It was heartfelt. Schultz, a former office mate of Lee's in Washington, spoke of how Lee has always delivered, whether it be on the football field or on The Hill, where the former wide receiver was responsible for securing more than $10 billion per year in funding for the Coast Guard. Because of Lee, Schultz said, "We are a better Coast Guard, we are a better nation."
The two men traded jabs over who had the worst car at the time. Said Schultz, with a laugh: "Quiet, unassuming, reserved ... oh wait, that's not Christian."
The ceremony I watched, having covered Lee for The Day sports department from his first game at Coast Guard on, came at just the perfect time, too, a tie between the history of the football program and the present.
The Coast Guard football season, in peril at the time of Lee's retirement due to the COVID-19 crisis, was canceled soon thereafter. Had the season been held, Lee's record for all-time receiving yards would have, in all likelihood, fallen, on the verge of being broken by senior Justin Moffatt.
Lee met Moffatt earlier this year in Washington and texted him when the academy announced last week that it was canceling its fall sports season.
"I was sick to my stomach when I read it," Lee said. "I reached out to Justin Moffatt. I told him, 'My heart breaks for you. I can't even imagine going through that, your final year in front of you.' I told him a lot of people are going to say, 'Well, you know you have to meet adversity. But at some point you just have to be pissed. This sucks and I feel for you.'
"He should have the right to do that (break the record). It's awful."
This year also marks a change at Coast Guard, with head football coach Bill George retiring after 21 seasons. He was replaced by former assistant C.C. Grant, who was set to coach his first season this fall.
George had his own retirement ceremony on Thursday. He opened and closed his remarks by speaking of his family, relaying the words his late parents, Casper and Anna, would say repeatedly to Bill and his brother Dan, "I love you; God bless you."
George is yet another example of a man maintaining his sense of self, all while representing Coast Guard football.
Christian Lee has done that for 27 years now.
Lee, who lives in Silver Springs, Md., with his wife Heather, daughters Kinsey (16) and Sophie (10) and son Brendan (15), is headed for the private sector in government relations — "turns out I have some experience," he said.
Lee has commanded the Coast Guard Cutter Nunivak out of Key West, Fla., the Chandeleur in Miami and the Richard Etheridge in Miami, becoming the first to command the Richard Etheridge after the new Sentinel-class cutter was commissioned in 2012.
He was still an ensign aboard the cutter Harriet Lane when he was allowed to steer the ship as it was tied up in midtown Manhattan — they knew what New York City meant to him — with his grandfather, a World War II Navy veteran, looking on.
Tuned in to Lee's Zoom retirement were coach Bill Schmitz's family — wife Lynn, son Matt and daughter Allison — fellow record-setting Coast Guard wide receiver Al Thompson, former quarterback Dan Warren ... and there was Thad Allen, as well.
Everyone along for Lee's reminiscing. Along for the salve we need as we miss the 2020 Coast Guard football season. Along with the guy who left the Coast Guard Academy football field for the last time in 1996, but never fails to bring us back there.
Thanks, dude. Thank you for that.
This is the opinion of Day sportswriter Vickie Fulkerson.