Tampa Bay Bucs tackle James Lee lifts spirits of longtime fan battling blood cancer

Charles Clark, recovering from blood cancer treatments and a bone marrow transplant, sits with Bucs tackle James Lee.

EDUARDO A. ENCINA | Times

Charles Clark, recovering from blood cancer treatments and a bone marrow transplant, sits with Bucs tackle James Lee.

TAMPA — Charles Clark has been a Bucs fan since Day 1.

On Thursday afternoon, the 34-year season-ticket holder from Tampa sat in his Moffitt Cancer Center hospital room, draped in a white blanket, his body weak from blood cancer treatments, fragile from losing 30 pounds after a bone marrow transplant two weeks ago.

Atop his head sat a red Bucs cap, under his blanket he wore a black Bucs T-shirt. The worst news he has heard, NFL lockout aside, is that his treatments might force him to miss Tampa Bay home games this season.

Then a visitor, Bucs offensive tackle James Lee, walked into the room and it was the perfect medicine for the 67-year-old ailing grandfather.

"I just love seeing him happy like that," said Geneva, Clark's wife of 38 years. "There are three things in his life: God, his wife and the Bucs."

From the moment the 6-foot-4, 305-pound Lee shook his hand, Clark was smiling. Lee signed a number of footballs and posed for photos. Clark and his wife told Lee about the room in their home dedicated to the Bucs, which is painted red, pewter and black with photos that pay homage to past players.

"I've got to get in that room," Lee said, laughing.

With the lockout in effect and the future of this season still in limbo as training camp looms, Lee, 25, said the time off has given him the opportunity to do more work in the community.

Lee, who went from being undrafted out of South Carolina State in 2008 to becoming the Bucs' starting right tackle, has had to earn everything in his NFL career. And this year, Lee started the James Lee Children's Foundation in his hometown of Belle Glade.

"We have sugar mills and jails and a lot of crime," Lee said. "The only thing we have is football. If you don't make it in football, a lot of guys don't make it. I want to get these kids to open their eyes to new things."

Last month, Lee held a football camp there and is planning a summer bus trip for rising high school seniors to get college exposure while showing them a new environment. He is also planning a back-to-school drive to get kids bookbags, supplies and haircuts, and he's hoping to expand that effort to Tampa Bay.

Players usually do community work and make appearances via the team, but because of the lockout, the Bucs can't make contact with Lee. So when he heard about Clark through a friend, he was immediately sold on a visit.

"We just had to come up with a date and a time," Lee said. "In my heart, that's no problem.

"There's a lot of time we have on our hands. This offseason, you want to give back to the community. They support us and we support them. I've been trying to keep a positive mind-set throughout the whole thing and just do positive things."

And Clark might be one of the Bucs' biggest fans. He sat behind one of the end zones for the first game at Tampa Stadium in 1976 and he has missed only a handful of home games since, according to his son, Barry.

"Regular season, maybe two," Barry Clark said.

Barry Clark said while his father was diagnosed with blood cancer 1½ years ago, the bone marrow procedure he had has a 99 percent success rate. If everything goes well, he can go home Sunday, but Barry Clark said his father will likely miss the first half of the season's home schedule while he builds up his immune system.

"I know I'm going to have a fight on my hands trying to keep him away from that stadium," Geneva Clark said.

"I was actually rooting for the lockout, because it would give him a chance to get better and not miss any games."

And now, when Clark does return to Raymond James Stadium — his tickets are right above the Bucs' tunnel — he will watch for a new favorite player.

"He went way out of his way for this," said Clark after the visit, the brim of his hat now autographed. "That was just great on his part."

Eduardo A. Encina can be reached at eencina@sptimes.com.

Tampa Bay Bucs tackle James Lee lifts spirits of longtime fan battling blood cancer 07/07/11 [Last modified: Thursday, July 7, 2011 10:23pm]

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