LOS ANGELES -- There have been two turning points in Marqise Lee's life.
The first for the talented USC sophomore receiver was in 2004, when he tried to become a member of a gang as a 12-year-old in Inglewood, Calif.
Dating almost as far back as he can remember, Lee watched his two older brothers live the gang lifestyle with the small, tight-knit gang set and wanted in himself. But when the time came, his brothers wouldn't let him enlist.
"Where would I be if I would have joined?" Lee asks himself now. "I think about it all the time.
Where would I be if I would have joined? I think about it all the time. I probably wouldn't be in school. Actually, I definitely wouldn't be in school at all.
”-- Marqise Lee
"I probably wouldn't be in school. Actually, I definitely wouldn't be in school at all."
The second came four years later, according to Lee, when he switched from a public high school in Inglewood -- Morningside -- to a private one four miles south -- Gardena Serra -- and moved from a foster home to a home with the family of one of his best friends.
"Before we got to him, there were a lot of distractions in his life," says Steven Hester Sr., or "Big Steve," the man who, along with his wife Sheila Nero, welcomed Lee into his home on a few days' notice in September 2008. "What we did is we got him stable first and then started working with him.
"Where would he have been if we didn't? I don't know, but I know which way he was headed, and it was a rough path."
That path more resembles a U-turn today.
Lee, now a charming 20-year-old, is already on the cusp of complete stardom after only eight months on a college campus.
After grabbing 73 balls for 1,143 yards and 11 touchdowns for the Trojans in 2011, Lee was named a Freshman All-American and the Pac-12 Co-Offensive Freshman of the Year. USC coach Lane Kiffin likes to remind everyone within earshot that Lee can be the best receiver in the school's illustrious history, and he's recently started saying Lee could already play in the NFL if he was allowed.
All of that for a young man who admits he was going to be a gang member not too long ago. All of it for a young man who was so overshadowed by two of the nation's top prospects in high school he didn't earn a scholarship offer from USC until the week his senior season began.
Yep, all of that. Because, to Marqise Lee, the only thing that matters is what he and those close to him think.
Everything else is noise.
"That's his mentality," says USC receiver George Farmer, Lee's best friend and high school teammate. "He's been like that since I've known him and he's always going to be like that. He's just that type of guy who's going to push forward against whatever and whoever you put up against him.
"You can tie him to a wall. He'll drag it with him."
One could argue he already has.
With his father scarcely around, Lee spent the first dozen years of his life shuffling between his mother, Toy Williams, and grandparents, moving regularly in and around Inglewood from low-income home to low-income home.
The frequent upheavals forced him to repeat a grade early in elementary school, which is why he's five months older yet a grade younger than USC teammate Robert Woods.
Around the time Lee finished the sixth grade, his grandfather died and his grandmother moved to the housing projects near USC in Baldwin Village, where many of the more jarring scenes from the film "Training Day" were set.
Lee and his younger sister chose not to move with her, he recounted in an interview earlier this month, and instead became wards of the state. They soon moved in with foster parents in Inglewood, and Lee lived there most of the time for the next three years.
They were the roughest of his life. He struggled in school and flirted with delinquency. His oldest brother, Terreal Reid, was murdered in a gang-related killing, according to Lee, and his other brother, Donte Reid, was incarcerated on charges of attempted murder in a gang-related incident.
The world around him kept getting harder and harder.
"When I was younger, it wasn't that tough," Lee said. "Because things weren't going on as much -- or at least I wasn't paying attention to them. Then, as you get older, you start to realize the situations that are happening around you.
"And things got worse, too."
"People started dying," he said.
He avoided becoming part of those people, he said, by being "smart" about how he got around Inglewood. While he was in ninth grade, for example, he lived three blocks away from Morningside High, but his mother made sure he was dropped off at and picked up directly from the school each day, even though she wasn't usually the one doing it.
Relying on others meant he would often run late. When the opportunity came to acquire reliable transportation to school, Lee jumped on it.
While playing elite-level AAU basketball for California Supreme the summer after his freshman year of high school, Lee became friends with Steven Hester Jr., a 6-foot-2 guard one year his senior who also lived in Inglewood and played for Junipero Serra High in Gardena. The two grew close, and Lee's decision to go to Serra was largely influenced by Hester.
When I was younger, it wasn't that tough. Then, as you get older, you start to realize the situations that are happening around you.
”-- Marqise Lee on growing up
in and around Inglewood
For the first month of the fall semester, "Little Steve" and "Big Steve" picked up Lee every morning, took him to school and brought him home in the evening.
Then, one weekday, Lee asked Hester Jr. to ask his parents if he could stay at their house temporarily. The Hesters held a family meeting that night to discuss parameters and agreed on allowing him to stay there with the understanding that the two boys would share everything Hester had previously had to himself. They wanted to help Lee's younger sister, too, but couldn't because of space and financial constraints.
By the weekend, Lee had moved out of the foster home and in with the Hesters. No papers were ever signed and the foster parents never questioned the move because the Hesters didn't ask for anything.
Miss Sheila and Big Steve got to work on learning how to best parent a 16-year-old who had dealt with so many obstacles. Early on, they sat him down and discussed what they expected from him: A fun, friendly home environment, no fuss over school and no trouble outside of it.
Lee nodded and told them he understood.
"From that moment on, to me, he became my son," Nero said.
Lee chose Serra over other high school options like Beverly Hills and Long Beach Poly because it was close to home, fairly good in sports and safe, so he knew what he was getting into when he showed up.
Still, Lee encountered the unexpected, in that he couldn't get away from hearing about a football teammate of his as soon as he stepped on campus.
"When I first got to Serra, that's all I'd hear about: Robert Woods, Robert Woods, Robert Woods," Lee said. "And in my head I was thinking like, 'This kid cannot be this good.'"
He was. Woods, now a bona fide star for the Trojans, finished that 2008 season with almost 1,400 yards and 19 touchdowns. Farmer added 500-plus yards and seven scores.
And Lee was stuck playing junior varsity until the final month of the season because Morningside delayed signing his transfer papers. He finished the year with two catches for 30 yards and three tackles as a safety.
By the next season, though, Lee emerged into a legitimate major-college prospect. Arizona State was the first school to offer him a scholarship, after he recorded 89 tackles as a starting safety for an undefeated Serra team. He still didn't play any receiver with Woods, Farmer and future Colorado star Paul Richardson playing there, but he benefited from the attention that trio brought to campus.
"I was like, 'Oh, this is my chance to get out and go to a decent enough college,'" Lee said.
Meanwhile, Kiffin arrived on the USC campus in January 2010 and immediately got to work on the school's next two recruiting classes.
After watching a week's worth of recruiting tape, he and his staff decided their top priority was Woods, who had committed to the Trojans under former coach Pete Carroll. They watched a lot of Serra tape and decided they were interested in Farmer and defensive end/linebacker Jason Gibson, but not in Lee.
"They weren't even going to recruit me at all," Lee says now with a big, knowing smile.
Then Kennedy Polamalu came along that July and watched the same tape the rest of the USC staff had already seen. He fell in love with Lee as a safety on film and said the Trojans absolutely needed to offer him on the basis of his athleticism.
In the worst-case scenario, Polamalu remembered telling his colleagues, Lee would be a fine college safety. Best-case he didn't quite know, but he knew it was good.
Eventually, USC offered Lee -- just days before his two-touchdown performance in Serra's season opener in September, which set off a full-fledged free-for-all for his services over the next four months.
"It's one of those convictions you have, and you fight for it," Polamalu said. "You're glad you did."
It was a Saturday afternoon last September and Lee was holed up in his hotel room in the Phoenix Airport Marriott. In a few hours, he'd be playing the first road game of his college football career, at Arizona State, and he was supposed to be focusing on that.
But he was distracted -- his iPhone kept lighting up with a number he didn't recognize. He kept tapping ignore. Eventually, he answered, with the goal of telling off the random caller and getting back into his zone.
But on the other line was an operator, letting him know someone from the Red Rock Correctional Center in Eloy, Ariz., was on the phone.
It turned out to be his 22-year-old half-brother, Donte, jailed in April of 2011 when he violated the terms of his original release on charges of attempted murder.
Lee hadn't heard from him in months, but his brother was calling to wish him well and let Lee know that he had recently been moved from Southern California to Arizona.
"You're in Arizona?" Lee asked his brother. "I'm in Arizona, too."
"I know," Reid told him. "You've got a game. ASU."
Lee was struck by the fact his sibling was keeping up with his burgeoning career, and, since then, the two have spoken at least once a week. From USC's next game on, Lee was the second-leading BCS-school receiver in the country, pulling down 60 catches for 964 yards and nine touchdowns in an eight-game span, according to ESPN Stats & Information.
If all goes as planned, Reid is scheduled to be released from prison sometime in 2015. And, if all goes as planned for Lee, he should already be in the NFL with a year of pro experience to his name by then -- which isn't lost on him at all.
"My main focus that pushes me is my family," Lee says. "They look up to me.
"As long they're around, I'll keep doing what I'm doing."
Lee just finished serving as USC's most consistent offensive player in spring practice. Now he's going back to track and field, where, as one of the nation's top dual-sport athletes, he's already won the long jump once this season and stands to challenge for conference honors later this season.
For all of his accomplishments, Lee is markedly self-effacing. It's not that he's not confident in himself -- he's very confident, and honest, too. He says he knows he has a "bright future" ahead of him.
He remains private and guarded, keeping his personal feelings inside because he doesn't feel the need to be validated or pitied by others.
"I try not to show any of it," Lee says. "I keep stuff in. And, really, keeping it all in is only motivating me to do what I need to do to get all these things done."
Polamalu was Lee's primary recruiter. He visited with the Hesters often and was introduced to Lee's mother and the other caregivers in his life. He knew about the brother in prison and the brother who'd died.
But he didn't know the full story on Lee's biological father until November 2011, when the man showed up to the USC campus on the Monday after the Trojans beat Oregon. (Lee didn't want his father named for this story).
Lee's father showed up outside Polamalu's office on the second floor of Heritage Hall. Athletic department staffers greeted the man but were unable to speak with him, because he is deaf.
Eventually, he conveyed he was Lee's father, so Polamalu called down to the student-athlete academic services building, where Lee was in the middle of a tutoring session. He came over to greet and talk to his father, who he said he hadn't seen in more than a year.
That's when Polamalu realized Lee knew sign language. Father and son have communicated through it in the rare times they've seen each other since Lee was young.
Somehow, Lee had failed to mention it to Polamalu in the 16 months the two had known each other.
"I got goosebumps," Polamalu says now.
Kiffin has never met Lee's biological father and didn't know the details of his situation before his November visit to campus. But he heard the story from Polamalu later that day, and he wasn't surprised.
"That's Marqise, in a nutshell," Kiffin said. "He doesn't want an excuse -- ever. He avoids 'woe is me' at all times.
"Other people, they want attention for it -- 'Oh, look what I overcame,' and all of that. That's not how he is at all."