Before he continues describing one of the worst moments of his life, Marqise Lee has to pause for a moment so he can check his tattoo.
How old was he, Lee wonders as he rolls up his left sleeve, on the day his brother was killed? His sister was with him — he knows that — so it couldn't have been during the years they spent in separate foster homes. He knows his mother wasn't there, so that eliminates the time he spent with her. He also knows he was sleeping on a living room couch, not a motel floor.
He's thinking it was middle school, maybe even early high school, when his sister ran into the living room and yelled for him to wake up. Terreal, their brother, had been shot. Terreal was a Queen Street Blood who'd been talking lately of leaving the gang. He'd taken a job with a veterinarian's office. He'd started making new friends. Now bullets had pierced his chest, right arm, and upper back. He was dead.
Lee remembers all of that. "But how old was I?" he says. "Man, I have to think."
This is how it goes when Lee discusses anything from his first 15 years. Nothing is linear. Each moment comes devoid of the context that places it within the timeline of his life. The memories tell no stories. There is no beginning or middle. There are only flashes that hint at chaos, and then there is the ending.
That part — the end — is why Lee is willing to talk through details of the days he'd rather not remember. "I have to talk about it," he'll say later, "so people understand what got me here." Here is a patio outside the McKay Center on campus at USC, where Lee is the best player on a talented team coming off a disastrous season. Here is his place as a Heisman candidate, All-American, and the best receiver in college football. Here is about 10 miles from the foster homes Lee bounced around as a kid, about 3,000 miles from where he's likely to be announced as a first-round draft pick next May. And best of all for Lee — here, he says, is a place where he almost never feels alone.
It's also a place where, to jog his memory, he needs to check his left shoulder. "2006," he says. It's inked on a banner that wraps around a cross, one of seven tattoos that help give structure to Lee's fractured memories. "So I was 14."
"Yeah," he says. "That's about what I was thinking."
Place: "The house we lived in before we lived in the house on Regent Street."
Time: "Elementary. Early elementary. Kindergarten, I think."
The first time the police came, Lee was at the grocery store. This, he says, is his earliest memory — the first flicker of chaos he can summon to mind. They heard the news from neighbors: The cops were looking for his family. Lee thought little of it. He was old enough to know police were often lurking around Inglewood. But 15 minutes later, they returned.
They grabbed him and each of his siblings and took them outside. Before they left the house, he'd like to think, someone explained to his mother exactly what was going on. It would have had to be one of the kids, however; it's doubtful any of the cops knew sign language. He took his place in the backseat of the police car. The doors clicked shut and the car pulled away and after that, Lee says, his mind goes blank.
Place: "The house on Regent Street."
Time: "Elementary, definitely."
The Christmas tree stood just inside the front door, and the presents stretched so far you nearly tripped when you walked in the house. He was living with his grandmother at the time. His mom had lost custody — that's why the police had taken him — and to this day, he doesn't really understand why. "I don't get it," he says. "I guess you could look at it — single mom? Deaf? Five kids? I guess people could have their ideas." He doesn't remember life under his mom's custody, but, he says, "I think she was probably doing pretty good."1
Stacy, Lee's younger sister by a little more than a year, woke at 6 a.m. and jumped on her grandmother's bed. Lee remembers her screams: "It's Christmas! It's Christmas!" He doesn't remember any of the presents he opened, only that he got them. This was before the Christmases stopped — before, he says, "everything got out of whack."
Place: "One of the courthouses, somewhere around here."
Time: "Like every couple months, it seemed like. All the time."
They had family reunions in court.
This was after Lee and his siblings were taken from their grandmother's custody, after they were sent to separate foster homes around town. "Going to court was OK," says Stacy, "because that was pretty much the only time we got to see each other." Lee and his brothers bounced around a few different homes. "Some light-skinned lady," he says. "I can't remember her name. Some other people too. That whole time period is just blank." Meanwhile, his two sisters were on a foster tour of their own. But they got to see each other every now and again at custody hearings. The courthouse had teddy bears. Each kid would reach into a bag and pick one out to hold. Then they'd sit and watch a judge discuss their futures and an interpreter sign the translation for their mom. Then they'd leave, never quite understanding what had just been decreed. They'd say good-byes. It wouldn't be long until the next hearing. Then, Lee always knew, he'd get to see his little sister again.
Place: "I can't say the exact block or anything, but I'm gonna say somewhere around Slauson and Van Ness."
Time: "No idea, really. Just during that time when we was on our own."
"I know I'm a bad kid."
That's how Lee started the conversation. By this point, he had no choice but to admit it. There had been the fights at school — he was no bully, but if you said the wrong thing to him, he wouldn't think twice about throwing a punch — and there were the failing grades and the teacher conferences about his misbehavior in school.
But now he was asking for all of that to be forgotten. He was sitting with a woman named Jan, one of the only foster parents whose name he can remember. She seemed like a nice lady, Lee thought — forgiving of his misbehavior, more attentive than other foster parents had been. So even though he was a "bad kid," Lee thought there was a chance she'd help him out.
"I need my brothers and sisters," he said. "I can't be here by myself."
"OK," Jan said. Lee remembers little about what came next — only that after a while, his brothers ended up at the house. Instead of watching TV alone, suddenly he was playing outside with them. Soon after that, Jan got custody of his sisters too.
"She went out of her way to do that for me," Lee remembers. "She didn't care how I acted before. She just did it. She got all of us together, and it was pretty good for a minute."
Eventually, Lee would move on. In the years to follow, he'd never speak to Jan again.
Place: "On Queen Street, right in between these two houses."
Time: "Middle school. Wait a minute. Nooooooo. This had to be elementary school, 'cause I never lived over there in middle school. I had to be like 9, 10. Damn. I can't believe I was that young."
If you want to join a gang in Inglewood, the protocol varies. The only constant: You're going to get your ass kicked. Sometimes you fight two or three people at once. Other times you'll face a rotation of gang members, tapping each other in as you take blow after blow.
For Lee, at the time, joining the Bloods seemed like a reasonable life decision. Both of his big brothers, Terreal and Donte, were already running with the gang, and their fellow gangbangers all liked to hang out in the street and driveway just outside Lee's front door. There was no fence around the house, so when the cops pulled up, they could bolt through the backyard to get away. Lee would spend his afternoons outside, riding a scooter or playing basketball, and the gang members kept an eye on him in between their sips and drags.
Though they were in the gang, Lee's brothers had warned him to stay away from that life. "But to me," he says, "it didn't seem bad at all. They're chillin' at the crib all day, not going to school. They always had money. I'm looking at it like, 'How's that supposed to be bad! I'm going to school and y'all are doing this? This seems like a pretty good life to me.'"
One day Lee was sitting outside when an older kid asked him, "You trying to join?" Lee looked at his brother, who, for the moment at least, said nothing. He looked back at the other kid. "Yeah," he said. "Let me try."
A group formed. Since Lee was so young, the older Bloods explained, they would take it easy on him. He had to fight only one person. Sure, the other guy was in high school and Lee had yet to finish elementary, but given the alternatives, Lee thought, this wouldn't be so bad.
Seconds into the fight, Lee got a busted lip. There were other bumps and scrapes, but Lee, already one of the strongest and toughest kids in the neighborhood, held his own as the pushes and blows slowly drifted toward the side of one of the houses. Up against the wall, Lee took his chance: He grabbed the other kid's head and pounded it against the wooden siding. Then he busted his lip. Then he bruised his eye. Soon enough, the fight was called.
Lee had done it, he thought. All he needed now was a red bandanna. Still a few years from puberty, Lee was already a Queen Street Blood.
But it didn't last. Lee's brothers put out the word: It was fine to let Marqise hang around, but no one could include him in gang activities. Soon enough, it wouldn't matter. Lee was gone again, moving back across town and away from Queen Street. It's tough to claim a neighborhood's colors when you can't even answer where you're from.
Place: Youth football fields across Los Angeles
Time: Late elementary school
We should probably mention here that Lee learned something about himself in elementary school. He was good at football. Really good at football. So good he took his first-ever punt return and ran 66 yards for a touchdown. So good he scored three touchdowns against one of the best youth league teams in Southern California, even though he still hadn't learned to run a proper route. So good that the next time his Inglewood Jets played that team, they triple-teamed him on every down.
Future pros DeSean Jackson and Titus Young had both come up through the Jets program, but the coaches had never seen anyone quite like Marqise. His footsteps were violent. "He was the Jerry Rice of Inglewood," says DeShon Mosley, one of the coaches. "Just get it in his hands, and then he's gone."
Place: King's Motel, West Imperial Highway, Inglewood
Time: "Like late elementary, early middle school; in there somewhere."
"You live here?" Darrie Naylor, a coach with the Inglewood Jets, asked as he dropped Lee off one night after practice.
The King's is an Inglewood institution. It sits right on Imperial Highway, the city's unspoken border. Blood red on one side, Crip blue on the other. The motel serves as a sort of trading post. Tricks are turned, addictions fed. This, Naylor remembers thinking, is not the kind of place a child should ever have to be.
But for Lee it was home. He walked in each night past the prostitutes and johns, the dealers and fiends, and he found his room upstairs. Smoke hung in the air. Paint peeled from the walls. Sometimes, when there was enough money for two rooms, he got to sleep in a bed. Other nights he found a spot on the floor, just a few feet away from his sister and his grandma, who had custody again, along with whoever else happened to stay over for the night.
He wanted out. "There was nowhere to go, nothing to do," Lee says. "You could either sit in the room doing nothing, or you could get into the drug dealing or whatever. And I'm at that age where I start feeling like I just want to provide for myself. But you can't. Unless you go the illegal way."
Instead he played football and basketball. Lee clung to his coaches. During football season he would ride around town with Naylor and DeShon Mosley, the man Lee now calls his "god dad," and then he'd stay as late as he could at the gym with Will Hailey when it came time for AAU basketball. In the afternoons after practice, he and Stacy played with friends from their old neighborhood. It was still Inglewood, but at least it wasn't the King's. "In this neighborhood, you at least have to go looking for gangs," says Armando Flores, who hosted the kids in the afternoons. At the motel, it seemed, there were more dealers and addicts than there were residents and guests.
One day, Lee's grandmother dropped him and Stacy off with Flores and his wife, Maria. She needed to find a new place to stay, she said. Could the kids stay with them until she found something?
Weeks passed before the Floreses realized she was never coming back. Soon the social worker showed up, and Armando and Maria decided to make it official. They took over custody. Lee had a new home.
Place: West 111th Place, South Inglewood
Time: "2006," according to Lee's tattoo
We've been over this one. Lee was asleep on the couch. Stacy woke him up. She'd gotten a call from a relative. Their brother Terreal had been shot. He was dead.
Ask around today, and the adults in Lee's life will tell you he took it in stride. "I never saw it affect him," says Hailey. "He could bottle up the emotion," says Mosley. Adds Armando Flores: "Marqise is tough, man. I've never seen him sad."
No one else remembers, because no one else saw. Marqise sat on the couch sad and angry and he cried.
Place: Junipero Serra High School
Time: Summer 2008
Right around now, the memories start to organize themselves. Now there are people besides Lee who can corroborate and embellish and provide context, who can take the flashes in his mind and help him place them in the narrative of his life.
People like Dwan Hurt. He was the dean and basketball coach at Serra, a Catholic high school in nearby Gardena, known for the strictness of its rules and the success of its athletic program. He remembers the voice mails waiting for him almost every day when he arrived at the office: Lee calling and begging Hurt to let him into the school. He'd spent his freshman year at Morningside High, a gang-heavy public school that sits right next to the Bottoms, one of the lowest-income neighborhoods in the Los Angeles area and home to the Crenshaw Mafia gang.
Through AAU basketball, Lee had learned that not everyone had a life like his. Some kids went to schools where there were no gangs and played for teams that attracted college recruiters. These kids spent their nights in homes with their parents and talked about the future as if it were guaranteed. These kids, for the most part, did not go to Morningside. Some of them, however, went to Serra. So Lee wanted to go to Serra too.
So day after day, he called Hurt. Finally, Hurt called back. "Please," Lee told him, and Hurt heard pauses where he assumed there were tears. "Let me into your school. Please let me be in that kind of environment."
Says Hailey, a Serra alumnus and coach of Lee's Inglewood Gym Ratz AAU team: "Marqise likes to talk about all these adults who were guiding him or showing him the way. But really, it wasn't people showing him the way. It was him deciding, 'This is what I need in my life, and I'm going to go to the right adults and beg them to help me do it.' He's 14 years old, and he's the one guiding his own future. He just needed people to help him figure out the logistics."
Hurt gave in. He invited him to campus and gave him an application. The next week, Lee showed up for the first day.
Place: West 116th Street, Inglewood
Time: October 2008
At Serra, Lee had a friend named Steve Hester. Steve had a high-pitched voice, a consistent jump shot, and a home with two parents. Lee liked Steve and his parents and his home, and he often stayed over there so late that he might as well spend the night, and then one day in the car he decided to just ask.
"Can I live with you guys?"
Sure, Steve thought. That would be great. But first he had to ask his mom, Sheila, and his dad, Steve Sr. That night they gathered on the couch in the living room and they talked it over. Sheila and Steve laid down the terms for their son. Everything he had would be cut in half. Clothes, attention, time in front of the television, all of it. If Marqise was going to move in, they were going to treat him like their son. Steve said that sounded great. Lee moved in the next night.
Place: Serra High School boys' basketball locker room
Time: January 21, 2009
The screaming could take you by surprise.
His teachers thought Lee was quiet, but his coaches knew better. Classmates considered him nice, but teammates disagreed. On the football field and the basketball court, Lee was a foul-mouthed, snarling sophomore hit man, and he demanded that your anger and effort match his.
On this night, that wasn't the case. With their coach, Hurt, away at the hospital for his child's birth, the Cavaliers' basketball team had lost. So now Lee ushered his teammates into the locker room. His tears fell hot and livid. He screamed. "Nobody say anything! I'm the only person allowed to talk!"
Oh, damn, Steve Hester Jr. remembers thinking. This is serious.
Lee went on to catalogue every failure, to explain that the team had let its coach down, to stomp around the locker room, damn near tearing the place apart. It was difficult, even then, for Lee to understand why his teammates weren't as good as him. Maybe he was more athletic than them, but compared to most, he wasn't as big. The way Lee saw it, no way should he have been the best player on the team.
He never understood more privileged teammates. "This should be easy for them!" Hurt remembers Lee telling him. "If I can play this hard, then they should be able to play even harder."
There were other incidents. The AAU game where Lee asked the coaches to cede the locker room to his control, then proceeded to get in the faces of teammates who were nearly a foot taller, furious because their effort didn't match their size. The football game where Lee had to sit out the first two quarters because he'd missed a practice for a doctor appointment, where he began to stomp off the field, fuming, until he locked eyes with his new "stepmom," Sheila Nero, in the stands. Even at USC, Lee can sometimes be found near tears on the sideline at practice, screaming because the Trojans' defense is getting the better of the offense.
Some of this can be traced to a conversation Lee had with Mosley, his Pop Warner coach and "god dad," when he was a child. "Whatever you have in you," Mosley told him during a game, moments after Lee had dropped a sure touchdown pass, "you can let that out here. Let sports be your outlet." So now he allowed himself to ball his fists up and scream, to put opponents on the ground and stand over them and watch, to delight in the pain he inflicted.
All of this landed Lee in anger-management classes. Once a week, Sheila drove him to El Camino College to meet a counselor. "Are you angry right now?" the counselor asked at one session. "Yeah, I'm angry," Lee replied. "I'm angry 'cause you keep asking me stupid questions."
Today, when Lee feels his anger rising, he goes to the gym. "It's the perfect system," he says. "I think about whatever it is — football, school, a problem with my girlfriend, something from my past — and I just focus on that the whole time. Then at the end, I'm not mad anymore, and I got a good workout in."
Asked if the anger-management counseling helped him develop this strategy, Lee almost scoffs. "No, no, that wasn't it. That didn't do any good."
When told of this answer, Sheila smiles. "He said that? Well, that's OK for him to say. But it worked."
Place: Arizona Stadium, Tucson
Time: October 27, 2012, late evening
This, perhaps, was the game that comes closest to summing up Lee's college career so far. There he was in the first half: turning a go route into a 57-yard gain, then a slant route into a 49-yard touchdown; taking screen passes as an excuse to dance before throwing his shoulders into defensive backs' sternums; then furious on the sideline as his teammates failed to match his play.
By halftime he had 255 yards. In the locker room, trainers stuck an IV in his arm, presumably because it's safe to assume that anyone who gains 255 receiving yards in two quarters of football surely needs some intravenous fluids. "I wasn't tired," he would later say. The IV, he would explain, was "just for the heck of it."
He gained 90 more in the second half to finish with 345 — the most by any player in 2012, the most in the history of the Pac-10/12, and just 60 shy of a national record. Yet afterward he talked mostly about the final play, a Hail Mary that grazed his fingertips before falling to the grass.
It was a brutal USC loss in a season full of brutal USC losses, and after the game, coach Lane Kiffin told reporters, Lee acted like they had just "lost the Super Bowl." It was high school basketball all over again — Lee brilliant, his teammates less so, the locker room combusting.
"They haven't been through what I've been through," Lee used to tell high school coaches of his teammates, as if that explained why no one else matched his level of play. So it was at Serra, and for the most part, so it is at USC. "They haven't seen the things that I've seen."
Place: The Atlantic Dance Hall, Disney's Boardwalk, Lake Buena Vista, Florida
Time: December 6, 2012
At the moment he was announced as the Biletnikoff Award winner and best receiver in college football, Lee looked toward the ground and smiled.
He wore a charcoal suit with a lavender shirt and silver tie. He sat next to Stacy — both wearing their Sunday best and looking straight ahead — much like they once sat in court. On the other side of Stacy, there were Steve and Sheila. The ESPN graphic labeled them Lee's "stepparents," but when they talk about him, they call him their "son."
By now, his older sister had moved 90 minutes south of Inglewood, to Temecula. His brother Donte had never left the gang life, and now he was in prison, serving time for assault with a deadly weapon. Marqise never heard anything about what happened to Terreal's killer. "I didn't know how to keep up with it," he says now. "Still don't know what happened to him." (According to court records, James Burton Williams, a member of the Inglewood Family Bloods who went by the street name "Jimbo," was convicted for Terreal's murder and sentenced to life in prison.)
Lee still sees his mom. He's still fluent in sign language. He still doesn't completely understand why she's not the one who raised him. If you ask why he plays football, he skips over any talk of competition or camaraderie. "It's my mom and my sister," he says. "That's always been the reason. So someday they won't have to struggle no more."
Nine months from now, Lee will be eligible for the NFL draft. He'll also have the choice to return for his senior year. As much as Lee loves being a Trojan, he gives no lip service to the possibility of staying for a fourth year. As long as he's healthy, Lee thinks, come April the struggle will end.
Place: Sony Pictures Studios
Time: Friday, July 26, 2013, 2:18 p.m.
No one pays much attention when Lee takes off his shirt. It's only a moment — just long enough to change out of his scarlet Nike USC polo and into his scarlet Nike USC jersey — and the reporters and photographers in the room are either in midconversation or midlunch.
It is Pac-12 media day. Already, Lee has watched spittle fly from the mouth of a radio interviewer. He has smiled and posed for Instagram photos. He has tried unsuccessfully to dodge a question about the hottest coeds in the Pac-12, and he has perfected a rotation of evasive non-answers to questions regarding who will replace Matt Barkley as the Trojans' starting quarterback.
This is his life now. There will be no forgetting what he did on this day or what he'll do in the coming weeks. In the years since he moved in with Steve and Sheila, his story has had fewer gaps. They've been filled by memories from the network of people who saw and experienced the same things. Teammates and roommates, a "god dad" and "stepparents," coaches and mentors and, of course, his sister and mom. And then there's one of the nice things about being famous: Reporters and photographers make a record of your life's biggest moments. Everything is catalogued and organized. If you forget certain dates, there's always Wikipedia.
And so: Lee is shirtless. He's changing for a photo shoot. But in that moment just between when he takes off the polo and puts on the jersey, you can see Lee's history laid bare. There's the cross on his left shoulder, announcing the years his brother and grandmother died. Just below that, there's his sister's name, "Stacy," on his bicep, and on the other bicep his mom's name, "Toy."
On his lower back, Lee is getting outlines tattooed of fallen skyscrapers. "Something chaotic," he'd said earlier in the week. "Something that shows what I went through, where if you look at it you might not be able to tell exactly what it is, but you know something's wrong." Above is a darkened morass that Lee describes as a "black hole," and above that, two hands with palms up, as if in prayer.
This is a progression, Lee likes to explain, from the chaos of the buildings to the darkness to the prayer, leading upward to the words "Chosen One." Only he has a problem. "I don't like that 'One,'" he'd said. "It's like I'm the only one chosen, and I'm not."
Place: South Los Angeles
Time: Present day
Sometimes Lee goes for a drive. He'll ride south from USC, down Vermont until he hits Slauson. To his left a few blocks, there's Figueroa; to his right, Van Ness. Somewhere in between, Lee thinks, he'll find what he's looking for.
He weaves around the side streets, passing Western Avenue Elementary and Chesterfield Square Park. Shuffling in between are children with lives just like the one he lived. "I look at them and think, That's me," he says.
Rather than stop, he keeps driving, because he's looking for Jan, the foster mom who went out of her way to put all of his siblings in the same home. Of all the adults who've helped him along the way — his mom and grandmom, his "stepparents" and "god dad," his coaches and teachers — she's the only one with whom he's lost touch.
It gnaws at him. "That's my mistake," he says, explaining why he never saw her after he moved out, but he offers no more details. So he takes these roads, riding slow in his Camry, eye out for a familiar face.
Someday, he hopes, he'll see her walking a dog, watering the lawn, or maybe running errands. He'll stop. He'll reintroduce himself. And then, finally, he'll say thanks.