Kevin Gorman: Pitt's Conor Lee still gets kicks from beating Notre Dame
Conor Lee still can see the ball splitting the uprights to end the longest game in the storied histories of the Pitt and Notre Dame football programs, one of his memories that remains vivid as ever.
Lee can hardly believe it has been a decade since his 22-yard field goal provided the Panthers a 36-33 four-overtime victory or that Nov. 1, 2008 marked the last time Pitt beat the Fighting Irish in South Bend, Ind. As the Panthers return to Notre Dame on Saturday, Lee seemed like the perfect person to share his story of awakening the echoes.
“Notre Dame is such an iconic school, right?” said Lee, now 33 and a vice president of a real estate financial firm in Columbus, Ohio, who has four children with his wife, Kate, sister of former Pitt punter Adam Graessle. “I’m reluctant to admit that, but it’s the truth. You go there, go into Notre Dame Stadium and beat them. That’s tough to forget.”
Lee hasn’t forgotten any of it, laughing while reminiscing about what he calls the “biggest moment, hands down” of his college football career. He made four of his school-record five field goals in overtime, also a school record for most points (12) in OT.
What Lee remembers most are the things that led to his monumental moment, starting with a phone call. E.J. Borghetti, Pitt’s media relations wiz, called to break the news the Thursday night before the game that Lee wasn’t a finalist for the Lou Groza Award, presented to the nation’s top kicker. They spoke about it in person the next day.
“I told E.J., ‘I’m not going to let this bother me. Let’s just go prove them wrong,’ ” Lee said. “I got over it pretty quickly.”
This might be a good time to remind you that Lee is the older brother of Dallas Cowboys linebacker Sean Lee. At 5-foot-11, 200 pounds, Conor has spent a lifetime hearing about how he got shortchanged in the size department. But he was a three-sport star at Upper St. Clair who always believed he could kick at a major-college program.
Lee spent a postgraduate season at Fork Union Military Academy to prove his point. Every two weeks, he would call Pitt assistant Bob Junko from a pay phone to beg for a shot. The day before Lee was to return to Fork Union from winter break, the Panthers offered him a chance to walk on. But Lee’s opportunities were limited, as Pitt had Josh Cummings and David Abdul on scholarship and offered one to a left-footed kicker from Findlay, Ohio, when Lee was a redshirt.
Lee saw that as writing on the wall. But Abdul would require open-heart surgery to repair a valve in August 2006. As for that lefty kicker, Brandon Walker accepted an offer from Notre Dame.
“My career was weird, right?” Lee said, with a laugh. “Two years later, guess who’s going toe to toe?”
The game was memorable first for the fourth-quarter running of LeSean McCoy, then for the fourth-down touchdown pass from Pat Bostick to Jonathan Baldwin on a third consecutive corner fade late in the fourth quarter.
Lee tied the game at 24-24 with an extra point that almost went awry, if not for what Lee calls an “incredible hold” by Andrew Janocko on a snap that forced him to lean over the spot to catch the ball. That was as close a call as the Panthers would have on kicks that day.
In the first overtime, Lee converted from 22 yards, and Walker matched him. In the second overtime, Walker hit a 26-yarder, and Lee answered from 32 yards. In the third overtime, Lee hit a 26-yard field goal, and Walker blasted a 48-yarder. Finally, in the fourth overtime, Walker went wide left from 38 yards to set up Lee’s heroics.
“I remember it going through, and it takes your breath away,” Lee said of his first winning field goal. “It’s like slo-mo. It’s so routine. You’re just in it, then you’re like, ‘Oh my gosh! It’s over.’ ”
Lee celebrated by pointing to the Pitt sideline. It was important to him to honor his teammates who had fought through four quarters and four overtimes for a victory that clinched their first bowl berth in four years.
“I went out and kicked a bunch of short field goals,” Lee said. “Those guys played their butts off.”
Lee’s reward was far greater than being named a Groza Award finalist.
“That was one game I was pretty proud of because I didn’t get something I wanted but didn’t let it bother me. It was one of those life lessons: You’re next opportunity could be on the horizon, but if you’re too worried about something that really doesn’t matter, you could miss it.”
But Conor Lee didn’t miss his next opportunity. His kick always splits the uprights to win the game. A decade later, it remains an ironic kick against an iconic program that stole everyone’s breath in South Bend.
Kevin Gorman is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Kevin at email@example.com or via Twitter @KGorman_Trib.