New Carolina Panthers punter Andy Lee had only watched NFL games from the sidelines before January.
A South Carolina native and Charlotte resident for the past three-plus years, he was more into college football and the Atlanta Braves growing up than he was the NFL. And he’s played in every game he’s seen, having been on an NFL roster for 12 years.
So last year, with the Cleveland Browns’ season done by January, Lee took his oldest son, Ryan, to Carolina’s playoff game against the Seattle Seahawks, watching an NFL game from the stands for the first time.
Ryan, who wears a Greg Olsen jersey to school, loved it. Now his dad gets to live it.
“Why are you so into the Panthers?” Lee said he asked his son. “It’s the atmosphere around here. They got the bug last year so now we can all have the bug.”
The Panthers traded the Browns for Lee on Monday, ending a long punter battle that saw the Panthers try four different options before getting Lee.
In Lee, Carolina gets a three-time All-Pro punter who’s in the top-ten all-time in major punting categories. He’s 34 years old, but he brings the consistency of a veteran along with a skill for directional punting.
In Carolina, Lee returns to a winner after 11 seasons in San Francisco that included two NFC title games and one Super Bowl appearance. He also gets to be with his family full-time less than two years after tragedy struck with the death of his 8-day old daughter.
The Panthers sent punter Kasey Redfern and a fourth-round pick in next year’s draft to Cleveland on Monday for Lee and a future seventh-round selection.
That the Panthers parted with such a high draft pick for Lee shows not only their faith in Lee, but also how desperate they were for a quality, consistent punter.
“Obviously I was surprised at what was traded for me, just because I’m a punter,” Lee said. “That’s awesome. That makes me feel so grateful and so wanted.”
Panthers general manager Dave Gettleman defended the trade Tuesday, saying getting a Pro Bowl punter checks off a huge box.
Carolina will also take on his $2.38 million cap hit this season, and Lee is under contract with larger cap hits in 2017 and 2018.
“You’ve got to give up something to get something,” Gettleman said. “The litmus test for me on deals, contracts, whatever, is No. 1, are you upset before the ink is dry? No. 2, is it fair? It was a very fair deal.”
The trade for Lee comes nearly a year after the Browns traded a seventh-round pick to the 49ers for him. Lee set Browns records with net punting average and gross punting average in 2015.
“Really any player – or especially punter – to be traded twice in one year is definitely not normal,” Lee said. “But I’m happy with my situation here and I’m ready to get to work.”
The story of No. 8
It’s clear that Lee has told and retold the story of why he wears No. 8 now, and it can’t be easy to deliver.
He starts with the date: January 27, 2015. He and his wife, Rachel, were welcoming Madelyn Elizabeth to their family of four. Born at 37 weeks, Madelyn was taken to the neonatal intensive care unit at Presbyterian after she swallowed fluid during delivery.
Things were looking up for a few days, and then she got an infection that ultimately took her life on Feb. 4.
“She passed away after 8 days,” Lee said. “That’s why I wear the No. 8 now. I used to be 4. I thought it would be a good tribute for her and honor her.”
Lee and his wife also started Madelyn’s Fund. They hope to provide financial support for families with children in the NICU or whose children passed away.
Whether it’s time off work, travel expenses, medical bills or funeral costs, Lee hopes the fund will be able to defray some, or all, of the cost for families who can’t afford it.
“We’re financially stable, so we never thought about money at that point,” Lee said. “But if you lose a kid and you’re worried about money, that’s the wrong thing you need to be worried about. We’re going to try to help families out and get that ball rolling.”
It’s been a year and a half and the Lees are still coping with the loss. But it helps that he’s not on a team on the West Coast, or even a short plane trip to Cleveland away.
From Bank of America Stadium, Lee can take Morehead to Queens to Providence and be home for dinner every night.
“Honestly being here is the biggest blessing from God I’ve ever had,” Lee said. “I’m with my family and I’m with my wife and kids. We’re just starting the fund. We’re still grieving, and it’s just awesome to be with them and not have to be apart from them.”