Just last night, some of Trinidad and Tobago's top local footballers would have run out in the local Pro League to play on the artificial playing surface at the Marvin Lee Stadium, some oblivious of the person in whose honour the venue was named.
The stadium was named after Marvin Lee, captain of the T&T 2001 Under-20 football team, a standout defender at the time, who sustained head and neck injuries in a collision with US striker Landon Donovan, four minutes into the CONCACAF Under-20 world championship qualifier—a US 5-1 victory—at the Dr Joao Havelange Centre of Excellence in Macoya on March 20, 2001.
The T&T team that day consisted of captain Lee, goalie Kevin Graham, Kerry Baptiste, Scott Sealy, Collin Samuel, Michael-Lee Celestine, Jace Peters, Damien Westfield, Sean Cooper, Shelton Williams and Devon Mitchell. Nigel Daniel, Junior Spencer and Junior Joseph were on the bench for the John Granville-coached T&T team. Among the USA players were Donovan, DaMarcus Beasley, Conor Casey, Bobby Convey, Oguchi Onyewu and Edson Buddle.
Lee was left paralysed from the neck down after the incident and succumbed to illness as a result of his weakened state. Lee, who grew up in Mon Repos Road, Morvant, was later recognised by government for his service to the nation and is remembered as a strong-willed individual who refused to let his injuries get the better of him.
The anniversary of Lee's passing also brings back memories of the death of another rugged T&T defender of tremendous potential, Richard "Bomber" Theodore, a very solid player for the national senior team and Defence Force, who also succumbed in early March. Thedore's playing career was curtailed at age 26, following a freak accident after he fell off a tree in 1998 during St Peter's Day celebrations and injured his head. The soldier, who insisted he would one day play football again, died at age 32 on March 6, 2004.
Theodore was part of T&T's Caribbean Cup championship-winning team which beat Martinique 7-2 in the 1994 final. He also represented T&T in World Cup qualifiers against the USA, Costa Rica and Guatemala, and also played at the 1996 CONCACAF Gold Cup. Theodore was also a member of T&T's first Under-20 World Cup squad in 1991, along with Dwight Yorke, Jerren Nixon, Angus Eve, Dean Pacheco and goalies Clayton Ince and Michael McComie.
Today marks ten years to the day of the passing of Marvin Lee, who died on March 9, 2003, at the age of 21. He was buried at Tunapuna Cemetery, adjacent to the field on which he was injured, now renamed the Marvin Lee Stadium.
Like Theodore, Lee prayed for recovery. A religious man, Lee showed a fighting spirit to the end, never blaming anyone but leaving his faith in God's hands. Before his injury, Lee was just a defender that stood out at a time when T&T youth football was on the upgrade after suffering a spell in the dumps. But after his tragic injury, Lee stood out like a great man, refusing to let adversity get the better of him. He was an inspiration to all who met him.
"Marvin Lee should be recognised every hour, every day, every year in Trinidad and Tobago," says Kerry Baptiste, former San Juan Jabloteh and Joe Public strikers, who currently plays midfielder for North-East Stars in the local Pro League. The right defender back then on the 2001 youth team, Baptiste remembers not thinking the incident was serious at first.
"When I went to him, I though Marvin was just winded," Baptiste said.
"Marvin was a very inspirational, motivational player. He was a very humbled person and never talked much, except when it come to the football matters," Baptiste said.
"He was full of joy and always wanted there to be unity in the camp. But when he went on the football field, boy, the man was rugged. He was ah good one, yuh know...one of the best. If he was still here, I don't think he would be playing domestic football. He would be on the international scene" said former USA-based player Baptiste.
Goalkeeper Kevin "Barthez" Graham would have been one of the players who just last night played for Pro League leaders Defence Force at the Macoya stadium named after the departed Lee. Graham would have also been the closest player to Lee when he went down after the clash with Donovan. Like us in the media box that day, Graham thought it was just a minor collision.
"I did not think it was serious, even when he went off," Graham said. "It was only after I saw the replay of the incident, I said,'Wow'."
Because Lee was otherwise very quiet, Graham did not know Lee much, apart from their brief time with the national Under-20 team, having won the number one shirt in goal from the likes of Central FC's Cleon John. But Lee left an impression on everyone, including Graham.
"Back then, he was a strong player, mentally and physically," Graham said of Lee. "He would do what was necessary for the team and was not afraid to go into a tackle...any tackle."
Four years after the incident, Donovan, who went on become the USA's best-ever player and also had a stint with Bayer Leverkusen in the German Bundesliga, spoke of the faithful incident to Michael Lewis of BigAppleSoccer.com. Donovan, then 19, was never considered at fault.
"It's an injury in a soccer game that ended up killing someone. I try not to think about it. Obviously, when I go there and when I hear about Trinidad, it comes to my mind. It's just sad."
"There was a ball bouncing across the middle of the field. All I remember is running onto it and taking it with my chest to run past someone. As I ran by, someone came. It was almost perpendicular, but my body was facing him at the time. He stuck his head to try to head the ball. "
" I'm assuming he was trying to head the ball and I just got there first. He just nailed me. We both went down immediately. I didn't know what happened," he said. "I continued to play and he obviously couldn't. As (time) went on, I heard more and more, and it was just horrible."
Donovan wound up with a few cracked ribs, Lee, in a wheelchair, before eventually succumbing in his weakened state two years later. It all shows how fickle life is.
By Ian Prescott