Austin Lee: The Blue Sheep
On September 9, 2017, Austin Lee stormed the field at LaVell Edwards Stadium, donning blue and white for the first time. Lined up against the University of Utah, Lee wanted nothing more than to get a win. Yet just one year prior, these Salt Lake City rivals were his teammates.
A native of Draper, Utah, Lee grew up in a family of Utes. His grandfather, Gordon Lee, played and then coached at Utah in the 1950s and 60s; his father, Douglas Lee, played baseball as a Ute.
Lee carried on the family’s competitive and athletic genes, starting as early as an infant and honing his skills with his like-minded siblings.
“My parents would always enter me into crawling races,” Lee said. “I once raced in the Dallas Cowboys’ stadium and I won about $2,000. Then when I got older things were always competitive at our house. I always wanted to be better than my older brother and always picked on my little brother.”
Dabbling in basketball and baseball growing up, Lee eventually settled on football as his true passion. Prior to playing college football, Lee competed at running back, linebacker and quarterback. However, playing safety is where his heart is.
“My favorite place is the defensive side of the ball for sure,” Lee said. “It’s a lot more fun and I think it’s more of a physical spot than being on offense.”
Lee prepped at Alta High School, honing his skills and helping the team earn a pair of state titles. After receiving offers from schools such as Colorado, Oregon State and Stanford, the two-time first-team All-State selection graduate opted to sign with Utah after graduating in 2012.
After returning home from a mission in Oklahoma, Lee followed family tradition and jumped into the 2015 football season playing on special teams. He played in seven games and totaled four tackles before his playing time was cut short due to injury.
So how did Lee end up as a Cougar in 2017?
“Two BYU coaches, Coach Sitake and Coach Tuiaki, were at Utah before my mission and they made it feel like home over there,” Lee said “But when I came back from my mission, those coaches left and it was a very different feel.”
Lee’s family situation and needs also changed. Right before he started his freshman year, he met his current wife, Kortnie. The two married on September 12, 2015. Before the end of their first year of marriage, the couple had a baby boy named Ledger.
“Getting used to marriage is one thing and then throwing a baby on top of it is another thing,” Kortnie said. “We had to grow up pretty fast after that and had to think more about others and less about ourselves.”
Wanting to be closer to Kortnie’s family in Utah County and feeling like he needed a change, Lee withdrew in 2016, then undertook a year at Salt Lake Community College in order to earn his associate degree, a requirement for him to join the Cougars.
“It was easier for us financially and my wife’s family are big BYU fans,” Lee said. “My parents are very supportive, too. Just because my dad played baseball at Utah doesn’t mean they can’t cheer for the Y. It was an easy transition for me to leave, but it was a long process.”
Since transferring to BYU, Lee sees obvious changes in himself as an athlete and in other areas of his life.
“After coming to BYU, not only has my knowledge grown, but it’s been at a faster speed,” Lee said. “My football IQ has grown, but I am also a better student, father and have grown in all of my roles.”
During his sophomore season in 2017, Lee made his BYU debut by playing in eight games, including a start against Hawai’i. Lee totaled 15 tackles, recording three or more tackles in four games, in addition to recovering a fumble against San Jose State.
The best games of his first year came against two ranked opponents while playing on national television. He posted three tackles playing against No. 23 Utah and a season-high four tackles versus No. 10 Wisconsin.
The following season, Lee took a major step forward as he became a mainstay on the Cougar defense, starting in 12 contests. He finished the season with 41 tackles, including a career-high seven tackles and a forced fumble against No. 10 Washington.
The safety pulled in his first career interception in a win against Hawai’i in 2018. After picking off the overthrown pass, Lee raced 36 yards down the field evading tacklers all the way down to the Warriors’ 13-yard line. The Cougars capitalized on the interception and return with a touchdown the very next play.
Lee capped off his junior season with his second interception in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl against Western Michigan. After stepping in front of a wide receiver to snag the ball, Lee returned it 26 yards to set up another touchdown for BYU.
His performance as a junior earned him the praise of BYU safeties coach Preston Hadley.
“Austin emerged as an important part of our defense,” Hadley said. “Not with what he does on the field, but off the field, too. He is a good leader and a good example to all the players and he has worked hard to get where he is. He has deserved it.”
Even with his progress on the field and in life through his experiences, Lee knows there is much more to gain as he prepares for his senior season.
“I want to process the game faster,” Lee said. “I want to further my understanding of zone coverages and understanding what the defense as a whole is doing and see how I can take more chances. I’m really excited to do what I can to have an impact on the game.”
In addition to being a leader and contributor on the field, Lee faces another change: a second child and first daughter, Romee. Being the father of now two children, his mindset shifts throughout the day.
Not only is Lee looking to improve on the field, he’s also trying to become a great father. He believes his intuitive competitiveness works in his favor when it comes to fatherhood.
“I want to win as a father,” Lee said. “I want to win as a husband and make time for them. Being busy with football has really taught me to be truly in the moment when I’m with my family.”
During the transition of adding another child to the mix, Kortnie points out that the couple gained humility in the process.
“We learned to accept help when we need it,” Kortnie said. “We aren’t too strict on schedules yet and I know that’s not good sometimes, but my family makes Austin’s schedule possible.”
With the end of his college football career on the horizon, Lee admits he simply wants to continue playing the sport, however that might be able to happen.
“The more you grow up, the more you realize that anything thrown your way is a blessing,” Lee said. “I’ll take any opportunity to play the game.”
More importantly, Lee continues to look to his family’s future.
“We want to get a house and get settled down and I want to see my kids play sports,” Lee said. “But, right now, we’re taking it one day at a time.”