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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, April 14, 2002

Destiny draws Lelie to NFL

By Stephen Tsai
Advertiser Staff Writer

Before his University of Hawai'i football coach predicted his greatness three years ago, before his name appeared in every computer nerd's mock draft, before he wrote diaries for ESPN the Magazine and appeared in EA Sports television commercials, wide receiver Ashley Lelie vowed he would play in the National Football League.

"He was as dominating a football player as there was in America this past season"

Mel Kiper Jr.
NFL draft analyst, on former University of Hawai'i wide receiver Ashley Lelie

Advertiser library photo

With the perspective and security of time, Lelie's pledge does not seem so bold. He is the appropriately stirred cocktail of speed, size and discipline.

"He just looks like an athlete," UH coach June Jones said.

In describing Lelie, Mel Kiper Jr., who is analyzing the April 20-21 NFL Draft for ESPN, used words such as "dynamic," "acrobatic," "polished" and "physically gifted."

Surely, Lelie was destined for The Show, a birthright as unavoidable as The Rock's pull toward entertainment.

The thing is, Lelie believed he had a pro future even before he donned shoulder pads and a helmet for the first time, in 1995. Even his parents believed he was better suited for basketball, track or teaching history.

"Ashley always had expensive taste," said Rene Lelie, a reference to his son's appetite for daring to dream. "He was always a good kid, so I never told him different. I let him dream. If that's what he wants, by all means, strive for it."

Where was the harm, especially for such a good son? He was a Boy Scout, always washed the dishes and cleaned the house after school, and looked out for his younger brother. He waited until he was 21 before getting an earring.

He had survived the childhood taunts of having a name taken from a female character — "Ashley Abbott" — on the soap opera "The Young & the Restless."

"I liked the name," said his mother, Annetta Lelie. "Whether the baby was a boy or a girl, I decided the name would be Ashley."

But if pro football officials were going to find Lelie, they would need an atlas. Rene Lelie, a retired Marine who now works for the U.S. Postal Service, showed his family the world in three-year stints.

"Every place we went, I made sure I took him to a library," Rene Lelie said, noting his son could count to 100 and write the alphabet when he was 3, and that Ashley often read up to 10 books every two weeks as a teen.

At each new place, Lelie signed up to play sports.

"He used to win so many track meets, one of the coaches told him, 'You might as well go directly to the podium,' " his mother recalled.

In 1998, when Lelie was a senior at Radford High, his family began preparations for a final move. Rene Lelie had planned to retire from the military in 1999, and he wanted the family to return to his father's hometown of Beaufort, S.C.

With only three years of football experience and no Division I offers, Lelie decided to join the UH football team as a non-scholarship player. After UH went 0-12 in 1998, Fred vonAppen was fired as head coach.

Soon after being hired in December 1999, Jones recalled: "I asked some of the players who they thought were the best players. They all said Ashley was the best receiver who never got to play. I remember thinking I was going to take a closer look."

During the 1999 season, the heralded UH wide receiver was Attrice Brooks. While Lelie started ahead of the flighty Brooks, he often dropped wide-open passes. But Jones remained supportive, backed by watching Lelie run 100 routes every day in practice.

"I saw his speed, his burst, his catching ability," Jones said. "He just lacked confidence."

Against Fresno State that year, Lelie sneaked under the defensive coverage, secured a pass and raced past a posse of cornerbacks and safeties.

"I knew then the light came on," Jones said. "

In an interview with Kiper later, Jones said, "In a few years, I'll have a great one for you."

Kiper recalled the conversation in his draft publication. "Jones, a proven offensive guru, told me a few years ago about a young prospect that would do great things in the NFL," Kiper wrote. "This was when Adrian Klemm and Kaulana Noa were OL prospects. But Jones couldn't stop talking about Lelie and how good he'd be down the road."

The end of the road was last season, after which the 6-foot-3, 197-pound Lelie decided to forgo his senior season and apply for the NFL Draft.

In his latest report, Kiper wrote: "He was as dominating a football player as there was in America this past season."

But pro football is a fickle commodities market sensitive to changes and rumors. Last year, Lelie ran 40 yards in 4.27 seconds, making him one of the fastest prospects. But while working out in Atlanta, where his agents are stationed, Lelie suffered a pulled left hamstring.

Lelie said the injury was caused by Atlanta's unusually cold winter, and not, as rumored, the result of trying to gain weight.

"I went from a warm climate to a super cold climate, and I didn't adjust," he said.

He attended the NFL Combine in Indianapolis, but was among several prospects who declined to run in the 40.

"I wanted to let my hamstring heal for the private workouts," he said.

Last month, before more than 40 scouts at Santa Monica College, Lelie went through several drills before competing in the 40. During the sprint, he aggravated the hamstring, limping the final yards. One scout timed him at 4.27 seconds; another at 4.35. While some publications listed his time at 4.4, Lelie, in fact, was credited with an official time of 4.31 seconds.

Kiper then ranked Lelie as the No. 1 prospect at wide receiver.

Lelie said he became disenchanted with the published discrepancies in his Santa Monica workout.

"A lot of people were going off estimates and hearsay," he said.

Lelie said he used to surf the Internet, checking out his daily stock. "Not anymore," he said. "I got tired of it. There are so many different things. Some had me in the top five, some had me at No. 7 in the second round. They don't know."

Lelie devised his own value system. The scouts wanted Lelie to work out last Friday. He said he would be at his parents' home in Beaufort, a 4-hour drive from Atlanta.

"It's small here, nice and quiet," Annetta Lelie said. "It's laid-back and real slow. Sometimes at night, all I hear are the mosquitoes."

Friday, Ashley Lelie proved his worth. Sixteen NFL scouts showed up.

"All I know," Lelie said, "is they came down to Beaufort."

Lelie is in Hawai'i to pack and say goodbye to friends and former teammates. He will spend Saturday in Beaufort, with the hope his name will be called in the first round. No UH player has ever been a first-round pick.

"If I go then, it will feel good," he said. "I know if I go in the first round, I won't be the last (from UH). Next year, somebody from Hawai'i will go, too, and if not then, in the next two years. This is just the beginning. There's a lot of talent in Hawai'i."

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