By Marty Farmer
Whether it's between the lines of a football field or in the headlines of Wednesday Journal's sports section, OPRF High School defensive linemen Andre Lee and Allen Stallings have developed a good-natured, albeit competitive, rivalry for attention.
The precocious sophomore, Stallings, was voted this week's Wednesday Journal Player of the Week, but Lee is the well-deserved subject of this feature story. On the gridiron, Lee and Stallings are essentially speed pass rushers, engaged in an entertaining race to see who can sack the quarterback first.
"It's really competitive; sometimes I want to make a play so bad," said Lee with a laugh. "With Allen and me, there have been times where I'm about to make a tackle or sack, and he gets there a split second before me.
"I've taken Allen under my wing as my little brother. I was in his position [as a sophomore] on the varsity, so I understand how he feels. He's athletic, fast and only going to get better. And we got another great player in Emonte Logan on the D-line so it's really competitive among us — in a good way."
The Stallings scouting report — athleticism, speed and huge upside — could just as easily apply to the 5-foot-11, 200-pound Lee, but in multiple sports. A Maywood native and son of William Lee and his mom, Adalene, he moved to Oak Park in fifth grade. Since his arrival, Lee has evolved into a prolific wrestler (drawing college recruiting interest) and a defensive end wrecking ball on the OPRF football team. Last year, Lee went 32-9 and earned a regional championship and was sectional runner-up while wrestling at 195 pounds for the Huskies last season.
Like his older brother, Armando (a former OPRF water polo star), Lee is very comfortable in the water. The Lee brothers used to swim for the Fenwick-based Windy City water polo program.
"I loved water polo and swimming, and I was actually pretty good. It was really fun, but I had to make a decision when high school came around," Lee said. "I chose football and wrestling."
With his athletic ability and work ethic, any sport seems reasonable game for the versatile senior. He even enjoys dirt bike riding in his spare time.
But for now, Lee is flourishing defensively with the OPRF football team, which currently claims a 7-1 record and has the look of a contender in the Class 8A playoffs. Lee has 48 tackles, including nine for a loss, 4½ sacks, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery this fall. He is also one of the team's unquestioned leaders.
The Huskies' outlook wasn't nearly as bright when head coach John Hoerster took over the program two years ago with players like Lee, Jamal Baggett, and Logan taking their share of lumps on a varsity squad that finished 3-6 in 2011.
"Andre was one of several football players who moved up to the varsity as sophomores during my first season at OPRF," Hoerster said. "Because of this, they have become de-facto ambassadors for the 'Hoerster era.' I knew this was the group that would have to buy in to move the program forward; Andre and his class are the backbone to the success we have seen the last two years. Because he is a natural leader, others followed, and now we are seeing the fruits of this labor."
During that time of transition, Lee sensed the tide turning favorably toward the blue and orange. Over the last two seasons, the Huskies have won 14 of 19 games. Even in defeat, OPRF has looked impressive, as evidenced by a 20-14 down-to-the-wire loss against the defending Class 7A state champs, Glenbard West, this season.
"When Coach Hoerster came here, the first season was hard," Lee recalled. "We had a new offense, new defense, basically a new everything. He's a great coach and we've gotten better every day since he took over the program. I appreciate the success more because of the hard times we went through initially; I think everybody does. I'm happy that next year's group of seniors can keep enjoying this run after guys like me, Jamal and Emonte are gone."
As a fellow captain, Baggett appreciates the value of his close friend.
"Andre is a great guy and a definite leader on our football team," Baggett said. "He really gets after it defensively and he's played a huge role in our success. I think he's an inspiration to his teammates. We've been playing together since youth football [in the OPRFYF program] so it's cool we're enjoying this run together."
The maturation of Lee has been even more impressive in the classroom. After struggling a bit academically, the soft-spoken senior hit the books with the same zeal he directs toward West Suburban Conference quarterbacks.
"I have improved my academics; this year, I have earned all A's and B's," Lee said. "It really became about just realizing that there's options out there for me. You always hear about kids who are really good in sports; however, like parents and coaches say, school has to be the first priority or you're going nowhere."
Lee has also skillfully juggled the responsibilities of football and wrestling, particularly during the offseason — obviously a relative term considering the committed year-round nature of high school sports.
"During the summers, there's a lot of back and forth with football and wrestling, but I made a commitment to football this past summer," Lee said. "I know guys on our football team look up to me as a captain, so I had to make sure I stepped up and prioritized all the football days.
"I just went on my first visit to the University of Illinois for wrestling. At this point, I'm undecided whether I'd like to pursue football or wrestling or maybe both in college. I'm just keeping my options open."
With the playoffs just a few weeks away, the Huskies are hungry to finish off their spectacular season in style. Lee believes OPRF has the players and mindset to win a state championship.
"When we lost to Glenbard West, everybody around school was patting us on the back and congratulating us for a great effort," Lee said. "We were mad because we felt like we should have won the game. We always talk about every player contributing his 1/11th on the football field. I'm aware that no game is ever going to go perfectly, but if everybody does their job, their 1/11th, I think we're a team that can't be stopped."