Most people have never heard of Jack “Jacky” Lee. I know I hadn’t when I first met him 20 years ago. He was my first client on a guided trip and I was told he had high expectations and was hard on guides.
As it turns out, Jack had been a professional football quarterback. As the backup to the late Len Dawson, he was on the Kansas City Chiefs team that won Super Bowl IV in 1970.
Jack was drafted in the sixth round by the St. Louis Cardinals in 1960 and also wound up playing for the Houston Oilers, Denver Broncos and Chiefs. According to a 2016 obituary story in the Cincinnati Enquirer, the Minnesota native was one of only 20 men who played in each of the 10 seasons of the former American Football League.
In 1964, Jack became the first and only player to be “lend-leased” to another team. He was loaned to Denver, then returned to the Oilers two years later. He was then traded to the Chiefs in 1967.
According to Pro Football Reference, Lee set an AFL record in 1960 by throwing for 457 yards in a game against the then-Boston Patriots. Lee also set an AFL record with a 98-yard touchdown pass in 1962.
Jack retired in 1970 as the result of a shoulder injury. He died in Houston in 2016, at the age of 76, of complications from Alzheimer’s disease.
I don’t remember much about that first day on the water with Jack, but I do remember he gave me a hard time for bringing my fly rods. He was a kind yet tough individual and we caught more than 40 smallmouths that day on the Penobscot River.
Jack’s love for smallmouth fishing brought us together several times after that. One time when Jack was casting, his hook sank into my hat and, with his forward motion with the fishing pole, my hat was launched into the river.
And if that wasn’t enough, a short time later he somehow got a treble hook embedded into the palm of his hand. He never complained about the pain or even asked how to get it out. He simply asked if I had a knife, disassembled the lure, leaving only the treble hook, cut his hand down to the hook and removed it.
There was no pulling it out with pliers or the “string method” or anything. He then turned and asked if I had a Band-aid and disinfectant. The man was tough!
I often think about those trips with Jack and laugh at the crazy times. There is one trip in particular though that stands out most. It was a crappie trip that took a turn down memory lane for both Jack and a fellow guide.
My friend Ray Stout, who has since passed, had called to inform me the crappie were in the shallows and that he crushed it that day. You could catch them by the bucketful, he said.
I told Jack, in hopes he’d want to set out on a crappie adventure. Unfortunately, his schedule wouldn’t allow it. The best he could do was the following weekend.
A week later, we searched and searched for the crappies, but couldn’t find them. In order to salvage what was left of the day, we switched to bass. Jack was able to get a couple largemouths and decided to keep them. He asked if I could filet them out for him.
I had no idea how to do it, but I knew Ray did. I called Ray to see if he could filet the fish and also to find out if he had any frozen crappie I could give to Jack. He generously said yes to both.
Ray was showing me how to filet the fish when the two of them started talking. I soon realized something special was happening. What the Cincinnati Enquirer story doesn’t tell you is, Jack was in the Marines. Clearly, that is where his toughness came from. Ray, too, was a former Marine.
As we were cleaning the fish, Ray told us he used to watch Jack Lee play football at a base where he was stationed in Texas. Jack said he was stationed there and played football for the Marines.
It was amazing watching two strangers become friends instantly. Ray said that they would all go to watch Jack play and that he was an amazing player. I stood back and watched them talk about people they both knew and about their time on that base.
I felt blessed to be part of the reunion. Two Marines, separated by time and thousands of miles, brought back together by fishing. It was in that moment I realized that fishing is not about the fish, but the people you meet and the connections and memories you make. They last a lifetime.