Inside the Moon Tiger Martial Arts Academy in Pacific Beach,
Calif., Jason Lee, a South Korean kung fu master, is sharing a
story about Bruce Lee (no relation) with Shawn Lee (not even a
remote chance). "One day Bruce Lee practiced one kick, one
special kick that no one had seen before," says Jason of the
legendary martial arts sultan, "and he did it the entire day."
Lee continues: "Finally someone asks him, 'What kind of kick is
"'I don't know,' says Bruce.
"'Then why do you do it all day long?'
July 31, 1996
"'I wanted to see if I could.'"
Shawn Lee leans his 6'2", 300-pound frame back in his chair and
gazes at Jason, who, though nearly 20 years his senior and half
his size, could kill him with his bare hands. He smiles. "That's
me," the 29-year-old Lee says.
When Lee enrolled at Moon Tiger in April 1995, it was not
because he needed to learn self-defense. After all, he plays
defense for a living as a tackle for the Chargers, and last year
his eight sacks led all AFC interior linemen. Nor did he begin
taking private lessons in win chung (a form of kung fu) with
Master Lee to improve his football prowess, though he does
credit martial arts classes with doing just that. Lee began
practicing win chung purely to see if he could.
"I take life as a learning experience," he says. "With a lot of
things, if people don't comprehend it, they either mock it or
attempt to destroy it. I never let that inhibit me. I've always
danced to the rhythm of my dream."
Lee is Auntie Mame with a better rip move, sampling freely and
impartially from life's banquet. Curiosity has drawn him toward
such diverse pursuits as boxing, record producing, collecting
African art and cutting hair (others', that is, since he has
barely any left). Curiosity also helped the Brooklyn-born Lee
thrive at Division II backwater North Alabama, the only
four-year school that offered him a scholarship, where he played
trombone in the orchestra, directed a play and starred as a
defensive end. And curiosity even carried him 2,600 miles last
October, during the Chargers' bye week, for a transcontinental
blind date with the Acid Queen--Cheryl Freeman, who originated
the stage version of the role in Tommy. "I don't question," says
Lee, whose bearish physique, which earned him the nickname
Grizz, belies his philosophical side. "I think in life you have
a path, and sometimes you're driven to do things. Follow the
Lee's path led to the blood-red doors of Moon Tiger one
fog-enshrouded morning. An avowed Bruce Lee fan who regards The
Five Deadly Venoms as the best film he has ever seen, he decided
it was time to emulate his namesake. "I know he is a big-shot
football player," says Master Lee, "but I like him because of
the attitude--very sincere and peaceful and humble."
Before Shawn met Master Lee, his seven seasons in the NFL had
left him humble. He had suited up first for two years in Tampa
Bay, where he was cut, and then for two more in Miami, where he
was cut again. "Shawn and I both started out with the Buccaneers
in 1988," says defensive tackle Reuben Davis, who was reunited
with Lee in San Diego in '94. "He's always been intense--you
just don't talk to Shawn on Sunday--but before last year he
didn't always channel it properly."
"I used to burn so much adrenaline before a game," says Lee. "I
would just burn adrenaline, burn adrenaline, and by the time the
game started I'd be dead. Empty, dead."
And if not Lee, then perhaps a teammate. Legendary among the
Chargers' players and staff is the 11-on-11 drill that took
place less than an hour before the kickoff of Super Bowl XXIX in
Miami two years ago. It was supposed to be a walk-through of San
Diego's offensive plays at half speed, but someone forgot to
remind Lee. As tailback Eric Bieniemy ambled through a gap
carrying the football, Lee "charged up and just knocked the
crap out of him," Davis recalls. "That hit was what we call a
wheel breaker." Bieniemy wound up with one carry for three yards
in San Diego's 49-26 loss to San Francisco.
But last season, for the first time in his career, Lee saved his
game face for the game. "Master Lee taught me how to
meditatively breathe," says Lee. "In the locker room half an
hour before the game, whereas I used to be out of control, now I
just close my eyes and breathe deeply."
Win chung students are also instructed to imagine themselves as
an animal, both while meditating and when engaging a foe. For
Grizz, the choice of beast was easy. "Bears are like defensive
tackles," he explains. "Sometimes down on all fours but also
able to stand up and use their hands as weapons. And like me,
"He's a teddy bear is what he is," says Freeman (the blind date
worked out). "Grizz Lee? I call him Cud-Lee."
Not everyone agrees. On the weekend before Valentine's Day this
year, Lee was back in New York City visiting Freeman. The couple
had gone out to a Broadway show, followed by a late dinner, when
Lee suggested they go dancing. At the China Club on Manhattan's
Upper West Side, Freeman was harassed by a Columbia University
law student, and a fracas ensued. Though Lee insists he did not
harm Vadin Granin, 24, the man claims to have suffered a gash
requiring 31 stitches. An August court date is pending.
"That whole episode stresses me out," says Lee as he sits gazing
into Master Lee's eyes for guidance. "What should I do, not
Master Lee knows better. "Always avoid confrontation," says the
elder Lee, echoing the words of Bruce. "But know the proper time
to defend yourself."
And, for that matter, the proper time to play defense.