July 25, 2012 9:35:38 AM
Sarah Fowler - [email protected]
It's not surprising that veteran NFL player Donald Lee is passionate about football. What may come as a surprise to some, however, is that Lee is equally passionate about the town that set him on the path to play in the National Football League.
The Maben native and former standout tight end at Mississippi State University is a 10-year NFL veteran. A fifth-round pick in the 2003 NFL Draft, Lee currently plays for the Cincinnati Bengals, his third team. He also has a Super Bowl ring after helping the Green Bay Packers to the title in 2011.
Two days before reporting to training camp with the Bengals, Lee reclines in ease in one of the overstuffed chairs at the Bookmart in Starkville. Although he is nonchalant about his status as an NFL player, when he speaks of his love for the game and the college that gave him his start, a glint appears in his eye and a smile flashes across his face. He leans forward in his chair and excitedly reflects on his time spent at MSU and his dedication to the town that supported him. Now, Lee says he wants to give back to the community that has given so much to him.
Lee and his childhood best friend Lamar Ware are partnering to bring national restaurant chain Beef 'O' Brady's to Starkville. The restaurant will be located on the now vacant lot in front off the Malco Cinema off of Hwy. 12.
Ware, who will act as the general manager for the eatery, says he and Lee want the new franchise to be "a restaurant for the community, not just a restaurant in the community."
Lee and Ware met as teens years when Ware's mother, Gwendolyn Ware, was Lee's teacher at Maben High School. The two became fast friends and kept touch throughout the years as Lee headed to Mississippi State and Ware went to Moore College in Birmingham. When Lee headed to Florida to begin his NFL career, Ware moved to Texas to pursue a career in the medical field. However, both men say that Mississippi will always be home. That sense of community is why the two decided to open up a restaurant in Starkville.
"We're about family," said Ware. "We're about community. We feel that's what Beef O' Brady's is about, too."
While Lee's presence in town will be limited as he is bound for the Bengals' training camp followed by a 16-game NFL season -- followed by the playoffs, hopefully. Ware will remain in Starkville and manage the project from the ground up. Ware, a Starkville resident, says he plans to get involved with local youth. He said that once the restaurant is up and running, he and Lee would like to sponsor various youth sports teams as well as host music venues in the area. Ware and Lee both repeatedly stated their desire to show local youths "hand work and dedication pays off."
Both Lee and Ware credit their determination and belief in hard work to their experience on the football field.
Lee said football can teach you a lot about life and reflected back on a speech his high school football coach gave during one of his first days on the field. Lee said the coach told him and his fellow teammates that everything is a habit, adding that while football is hard, those who stuck it out and worked hard to succeed on the field would inevitably work hard and succeed off the field. Those who chose to quit football because it required hard work would either end up dead or in jail.
He applied that lesson early on in life and he says it has carried him for the past 15 years. Lee, 31, said he has accomplished everything he set out to achieve all those years ago on his high school football field.
"I always said I wanted to play 10 years in the NFL. I've done that and it's a dream come true," Lee said.
Lee frequently returns home to Starkville to spend time with his two children and he says misses home while he is away playing football. Opening a restaurant close to his alma mater is just another reason for the football icon to return home.
Both Lee and Ware are looking forward to the restaurant's opening, which, according to a press release from Beef 'O' Brady's, will be sometime in November.
The Starkville location will be the launch of the "new Beef's 2.0 prototype" which is set to include large screen TV's, small televisions throughout the restaurant and video games for both children and adults to enjoy. Lee and Ware attribute the chain's "kid-friendly" atmosphere as the main reason the two choose to join the expanding franchise.
The restaurant's location at 1205 Stark Road, should attract movie-goers from the nearby Malco Cinema.
"You can take your family to dinner then a movie,'' Lee said. "It's the American Dream."
Sarah Fowler covered crime, education and community related events for The Dispatch.