Running back Jamall Lee knows he will be playing professional football somewhere this fall; he just does not know if it will be in the National Football League or the Canadian Football League.
Lee, who is from Canada, is currently a member of the Carolina Panthers after being signed as an undrafted rookie free agent following the NFL draft. While practicing with the Panthers last Saturday during minicamp, he was selected by the British Columbia Lions in the first round of the CFL draft.
While Lee is keeping his options open, his preference is to play in the NFL.
"I'd love to make it here. The CFL is a great league and I'm very proud of the guys up there," he said. "But right now this is where I want to be. There is where the quote-unquote best players are."
Lee will have his work cut out for him to make the Panthers' final roster. Running backs DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart return from last year, in addition to Decori Birmingham - who spent the 2008 season on the practice squad, and the team chose Mike Goodson from Texas A&M in the third round of the NFL draft.
However, the long odds are not deterring Lee. He knows what it takes to play professional football since it runs in his family. His father, Orville, was the first overall pick in the 1988 CFL draft by the Ottawa Rough Riders and played five seasons in the league. As a rookie, he became only the second Canadian-born player to ever lead the league in rushing with 1,075 yards.
Lee also possesses a tireless work ethic and the physical tools. Hard work has helped him get to this point. Growing up in Port Coquitlam, British Columbia, Lee enjoyed playing basketball more than football. It wasn't until his final two years of high school that he began to take football more seriously when his head coach said he could be a good college player. So Lee pushed himself harder.
He wasn't recruited by any colleges in the United States, but Oregon State suggested that he attend a junior college and possibly transfer there later. Lee declined and instead enrolled at Bishop's University in Sherbrooke, Quebec, because he wanted to play at a university right away. The Gaiters struggled to 1-7 records his first two years, but his coaches told him that he had the potential to play in the CFL. Both situations made Lee work harder.
Lee went on to be a two-time Canadian Interuniversity Football rushing leader with 1,202 yards and 10 touchdowns on 182 carries as a senior in 2008 and 1,464 yards and 12 touchdowns on 181 carries as a junior in 2007. He finished his career with Quebec University Football League records of 4,296 rushing yards and 35 rushing touchdowns.
Following Lee's collegiate career, the hard work continued. He worked out, running and lifting weights six days a week for two months in California, to prepare for the CFL combine.
"I was training with guys who were going to the NFL combine, so I knew what I had to do to try to keep up with them," Lee said.
Then Lee had an outstanding performance at the CFL combine in Toronto in March. The explosive 6-1, 225-pound running back ran the 40-yard dash in 4.39 seconds and produced a vertical leap of 44 inches.
The hard work paid off for Lee on successive weekends in April and May. Within five minutes after the NFL Draft ended, the Panthers called and offered him a free agent contract. Then a week later, the Lions traded the sixth and 13th overall picks to move up to the third overall choice to draft Lee.
"It was a good feeling (to be drafted) and lets me know that they're really interested in me and they are willing to even wait to see if things work out here," Lee said. It's a great feeling because I've worked really hard for it."
Panthers head coach John Fox liked what he saw of Lee at minicamp.
"He's learning our system; he's got physical tools, obviously. We'll see how he progresses," he said.
Lee knows he'll have to continue to rely on his athleticism and work ethic once again in summer school and training camp and play well during the preseason to impress the Panthers between now and September 5 when final cuts are made.
"I want to push myself as far as I can go and see what happens," Lee said. "If it doesn't work out, I'm happy I took my shot and I'll go back home."