Khari Lee banged on NFL doors for years. The former Bowie State standout from Baltimore was signed as an undrafted free agent tight end by the Houston Texans in 2015. For the next three years, he banged on the door in Chicago, Detroit and Buffalo in hopes of finding an NFL career waiting inside.
He thought he was in at nearly every stop. He made the cuts, even made rosters for a season at a time. In 2015, he made it to the field for 16 games with the Bears — seven as a starter — catching one pass for seven yards. He wouldn’t catch another until 2018 in Buffalo — one reception for five yards.
When the Bills waived him in 2018, thinking his football days were done, he decided to try a new door — the one for a real estate office in Pikesville, Maryland, where the NFL journeyman started a new career in real estate.
But when wrestling icon Vince McMahon announced the high-profile return of the XFL, his long-shuttered football league, Lee knew he’d be knocking on one more door.
The 28-year-old wanted another shot at football, and he’ll get that it, starting this Saturday, in McMahon’s second-chance league.
Lee plans on making the most of the opportunity.
“I had my real estate license and was selling,” he said. “I liked selling real estate. But it’s a different life when you have a regular day-to-day job. I don’t think you can ever fully be prepared for life without football until you know you are done. And I wasn’t done. I’ve been playing football since I was seven years old.”
The XFL kicks off this weekend with four games featuring their league’s eight franchises Saturday and Sunday. At Audi Field on Saturday, the Washington franchise, the DC Defenders, will face the Seattle Dragons, coached by former Washington Redskins coach Jim Zorn.
When the league had its draft in October, Lee was not a highly-coveted pick. He wasn’t selected by the Defenders until the fifth round. But he has played his way into a starting job at tight end and has become a strong presence on the Defenders squad.
“Khari is one of the leaders of our football team,” said Defenders head coach Pep Hamilton, the former assistant coach at Michigan whose career includes stints in the NFL with the New York Jets, Cleveland Browns and San Francisco 49ers. “Guys respect his approach to preparing and competing for a job on our team … His teammates look up to him for that.”
Lee’s coach at Bowie State, Damon Wilson, said he knew Lee was a pro prospect during the player’s junior year at the Division II powerhouse. “He developed each year, got stronger in the weight room, and got a higher football IQ. He spent a lot of time watching film sharpening up his skills and his craft.”
Wilson said he and his coaching staff will be going to Saturday’s Defenders opener to support Khari. “I am excited about it,” Wilson said. “He is with a good coaching staff there in the XFL with coach Hamilton. I’m looking forward to seeing him be one of the premier players in the league, and it may open some doors again for him in the NFL.”
Hamilton loves tight ends, and with former Ohio State quarterback Cardale Jones throwing the ball, Lee will get his chance to show what he can do.
“I have a great appreciation for how the tight end position can create matchup issues and conflicts for the defense,” Hamilton said. “When I was coach at Stanford, I had five tight ends that went on to play in the NFL. That includes Zach Ertz, Coby Fleener and I recruited Austin Hooper to Stanford. These are guys who went on to have successful careers in the NFL.
“We have an eye for good tight ends, and Khari is just that,” Hamilton said. “He can play without the ball, first and foremost. He can block and enjoys the physical nature of the game and blocking in the run game specifically. I am excited to see what he will do for our team.”
And Lee said he thinks fans will be excited by Hamilton’s offense. “Our coach and offensive coordinator has come up with something that is going to give a lot of people trouble in this league,” he said. “I think it’s going to be fun league for the fans, with some changes to the game that I think they will like.”
Those changes include replacing the extra point with a scrimmage play, worth various points depending on how far out from the goal line the team chooses to start, and the double-forward pass, where teams will be able to attempt two forward passes on the same play, as long as the ball never crosses the line of scrimmage before the second pass.
Who knows how successful McMahon’s league will be the second time around? For now, it has opened another football door for Lee. The real estate sales will have to wait.
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