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New Haven mourns loss of one who 'meant everything'

  • Dwight Lee
  • Dwight Lee acknowledges fans during a reunion of 1965 and '66 Michigan State football teams.
  • Dwight Lee carries the football for Michigan State against Notre Dame in 1965.

Dwight Lee went from Rocket stardom to great MSU teams of the 1960s

Michigan State and Notre Dame played a historically significant college football game in 1966.

New Haven residents have long felt a sense of pride that one of their own competed in that 10-10 tie.

Dwight Lee, who starred for the Rockets and then went to MSU, was in the Spartan lineup that Nov. 19, alongside fellow running back Clint Jones and a teammate of defensive greats Bubba Smith and George Webster, as the Nos. 1- and 2-ranked teams in the country battled at Spartan Stadium.

“Somebody we actually knew was in that game,” Chris Dilbert said. “I don’t think you could measure what he meant to the village of New Haven.

“The name Dwight Lee goes hand in hand with the village.”

Dilbert, a cousin of Lee, a former New Haven High School athlete and now president of the village where he has spent his entire life, is, like many of his neighbors, feeling today the Lee-inspired pride along with a sense of loss.

Dwight Lionel Lee died Dec. 29, 2016, of liver cancer in Oregon. He was 71. A memorial service was to be held Saturday in Eugene, Ore.

“Dwight Lee was one of the best athletes in the history of our community,” Antie Hardy, a New Haven native, former Rocket and former NHHS athletic director, said.

“He meant everything in our town.”

Hardy trains athletes from high school to professional, and Lee still ranks with top-tier talents from Macomb County, he said.

“This county has not seen an athlete like that since,” Hardy said. “He was the elite of the elites.”

Lee won 16 varsity letters at New Haven, according to his obituary.

Some of those letters were achieved in basketball and track & field, but it was through football that his name and fame spread.

He led Ward Young-coached Rockets teams to three consecutive Southern Thumb Association championships, including an outright crown in Lee’s senior season of 1963 when New Haven went 7-0 in the league and 8-0 overall.

“It has often been said that, prior to him coming out of New Haven, New Haven was not on the map,” Dilbert said.

At Michigan State, in an era when college freshmen were not eligible to play varsity sports, Lee moved into the Spartans’ lineup as a sophomore in 1965.

Primarily a blocking back who opened running lanes for Jones, the 6-foot-2, 190-pound Lee helped the Spartans to a 10-0 regular-season record, Big Ten championship and No. 1 national ranking before MSU lost to UCLA 14-12 in the Rose Bowl game played Jan. 1, 1966.

Alabama wound up the national champion in the final poll by The Associated Press, but the Spartans finished No. 1 in the final United Press International poll.

Coach Duffy Daugherty’s 1966 MSU team was another strong one. Lee and Co. went 9-0 before taking on undefeated and top-ranked Notre Dame in one of the more anticipated games of that or any season.

The 10-10 tie essentially preserved the national championship for Notre Dame. Conference champion MSU finished 9-0-1 at a time when the Big Ten rule was that a school could not represent the conference in consecutive Rose Bowls.

As a senior in 1967, Lee led Michigan State in rushing with 497 yards.

Dilbert got to meet some of the Spartans’ greats when he was 8 and on a visit to MSU.

“I thought I was standing among the trees,” Dilbert said.

Dilbert pointed to the MSU logo on the chest of the green fleece he wore as he spoke.

“Because of Dwight and going up to games at Michigan State, I consider myself a Spartan,” Dilbert said. “While I did not go to the school, I consider myself a Spartan.”

Lee was one of 10 children born to Walter and Lenora Lee.

His athletic prowess was recognized at New Haven long after his graduation in 1964.

“As a kid, you always heard that name,” said Tedaro France, a former Rocket football and basketball standout who played football at Central Michigan and now coaches the New Haven basketball team.

“We always wanted to be like him. It’s a big loss for the community.”

Former Chippewa Valley athlete Dave Burns, who played basketball against Lee, remains in awe of the former New Haven standout.

“He was probably the most athletic player I ever went against,” Burns said. “He was strong and quick and could jump out of the building.

“The one thing I tell people when Dwight’s name comes up is, ‘My lasting image of Dwight Lee is seeing the bottoms of his shoes when he went up for a rebound.’ He was just a special player.”

Lee was taken in the fifth round of the 1968 NFL draft by San Francisco, and he was traded to the Atlanta Falcons after playing two games with the 49ers. He played 13 games as a rookie, including 11 with Atlanta.

In later years, Lee attempted to make rosters in the Canadian and World football leagues, and he tried a career comeback with the Macomb County Lions semi-pro team.

But drug and alcohol abuse had gotten a grip on Lee.

“I was a chief addict and alcoholic from my years in sports,” Lee said in October at a function for Serenity Lane, an Oregon drug and alcohol treatment facility where he had worked since 2000 as a counselor. “Sports opened up a lot of doors for me, but it also opened up some dark, shadowy doors. All the addicts and dealers of the world followed us around to our games and to our parties and just gave us this stuff.”

Lee got sober in 1993, according to his obituary, but not before troubled years of his life included jail time for robbery.

Hardy remembers when Lee spoke to inductees at a New Haven athletic hall of fame ceremony.

“He said, ‘If I ever failed you, I’m sorry,’” Hardy said. “That was huge. That was the biggest apology ever to a community.

“He knew he meant everything to the community.”

Lee’s survivors include daughter Kelly Lee of Portland, Ore.; daughter and son-in-law Jennifer and Daniel Garrett of Raleigh, N.C.; daughter Nichelle Lee Anthony of Louisville, Ky.; daughter Kimberly Lee of Portage, Mich.; brother Roy Lee, of Madison Heights; sisters Amelia Middleton of San Jose, Calif., Wanda Clark of Chesterfield Township, Dawn Haverkate of Roseville, Lisa Lee of Richmond, and Ella Awa of Ithaca, N.Y.

He was predeceased by his parents, his wife, Della, and brothers Walter, Leslye and Gordon.

Last Updated: 1/8/2017 6:07:29 PM EST