Bills tight end Khari Lee (88) warms up before a game against the Tampa Bay Bucs on Oct. 22, 2017. (Associated Press/Photo by Rich Barnes)

On Khari Lee’s journey from Bowie State to the Falcons

Khari Lee wanted to prove that he could still play in the NFL.

When the XFL’s D.C. Defenders called him last spring to offer a tryout, he saw it as a path back to the NFL. He jumped at the opportunity.

“The Defenders asked me to come out for a workout in (Virginia),” said Lee, who signed a one-year contract with the Falcons last week. “They had kind of like this combine-pro day type day. We had one-on-one (drills), seven-on-seven (drills) and combine testing.”

Lee, who is listed at 6-foot-4 and 253 pounds, was drafted by the Defenders after talking with Gerald Dixon, a former Bills pro scout. 

“He gave me a shout and (asked) me if I wanted to still play, and I said, yeah,” Lee said.

Lee, 28, played for coach Pep Hamilton and tight ends coach Jimmie Johnson. He thrived over five games. He caught eight passes for 91 yards and two touchdowns before the league suspended operations because of the coronavirus pandemic.  

“I think XFL was great for the guys who had their foot in the league already, and they wanted to kind of rejuvenate their career and get some quality recent tape,” Lee said. “I think it was good for young guys who really didn’t play professionally yet to get their foot in the door. I think it was good overall.”

Lee starred at Bowie (Md.) State, a Division II school that plays in the Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association (CIAA) after starting out as a walk-on. He went on to become a two-time Division II All-American and a three-time All-CIAA pick.

He was on the NFL’s radar, and 24 teams showed up for his Pro Day in 2015.

Lee wasn’t drafted, though, but signed with Houston and spent a year on the practice squad.

He played for the Bears in 2015 and was traded to Detroit in 2016. He played two seasons for the Bills in 2017 and 2018. 

Overall, he’s played in 34 NFL games and has made seven starts.

But he no team signed him in 2019, and he was out of football. Being out of the game humbled Lee, he said. 

“(Not) being on an NFL team was a shock to me,” Lee said. “For the greater part of four years I had been playing football, even dating back to college. I had played football for the last 20-something years. It was a different feeling.

Lee had his real estate license and wanted to get into financial planning. 

“I had a little bit of down time being out of the league in 2019,” Lee said. “But I was licensed two years before that. It was cool. I just think from the sales side, it’s a different animal. Real estate as a whole is something that I still want to be involved in. I don’t know if it’s from the sales side, probably more so from the investing side.”

So, when the Defenders called, Lee was open to the concept of playing minor league spring football.

“It was kind of just a thing where I wanted to prove that I could still compete and make plays,” Lee said. “I think I did that.’’

But it ended.

“We were one of the last leagues to shut down,” Lee said. “I know the NBA, MLS, baseball and soccer leagues even across the world had shut it down before us. We didn’t get the call until the Friday that we were supposed to play. It was kind of sudden for us.”

Lee’s mission was accomplished. 

“I would say that it made me feel good to know that I could still go out there and compete at a high level,” Lee said.

He did enough to impress the Falcons, who moved on from their top two tight ends in Austin Hooper and Luke Stocker this offseason.  

“When the Falcons called, I was excited and overjoyed for the opportunity, definitely,” Lee said. 

Johnson, who played at Josey High in Augusta before playing football and basketball at Howard, believes Lee still has NFL talent.

Johnson played 10 years in the NFL (1989-98) and was the tight ends coach for the Vikings (2006-13) and Jets (2015-18).

“He bounced around with a few teams,” Johnson said of Lee. “He did a good for me for the time that I was working with him. He’s real intelligent. He’s sharp.”

In the NFL, Lee had only seven targets and two catches.

“He does a good job of catching the ball,” Johnson said. “He does a great job of making defenders miss when he has the ball in his hands.”

Lee also is a solid blocker. 

“I was real surprised when we asked him to pass-protect,” Johnson said. “We asked the tight end to pass-protect, and he did a great job of that.

“Yeah, I think his glass is half-full. His arrow is still going up. I think this is year four or five for him. I think he’s like 28, so he still has something left in the tank.”

Lee has played 321 offensive snaps and 216 special-teams snaps in NFL. The Falcons haven’t discussed his role. 

“I’m just coming in trying to compete and trying to do whatever the team needs me to do,” Lee said. “With this virus and stuff going around, we haven’t really gotten into the specifics, but I’m just trying to help the team in any way I can.” 

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