|Thursday, February 14
Updated: February 21, 5:43 PM ET
For Ashley Lelie, the future is now
By Wayne Drehs
NEW ORLEANS -- It's Super Bowl week, and former Hawaii receiver Ashley Lelie is standing outside a French Quarter hotspot, waiting for Antwaan Randle El and Napoleon Harris, fellow NFL prospects. Some two feet away -- close enough he can smell her perfume, for heaven's sake -- is supermodel/actress/bona-fide hottie Rebecca Romijn-Stamos.
So he just stands there, trying to play it cool, acting like he's been there before. But the grin on his face reveals the truth: Even though Lelie might be the first receiver taken in April's NFL Draft, he's still just a quiet kid from the Islands. At least for now.
It's all part of the transition -- from college star to NFL celebrity. And in the case of Lelie, who until last year was a walk-on at Hawaii, it's a transition that's all the more dramatic.
And Lesson No. 1 was learning how to belong. Enter Romijn-Stamos.
"She was right next to me," Lelie said. "If I would have stuck my arm out, it would have hit her. You never think you're going to see somebody like that in person. But as it turned out, it was just the beginning."
Just the beginning of a three-day binge of Super Bowl night life in which Lelie would mingle and schmooze with celebrities on what seemed like an hourly basis.
Before it was over, he'd hang with everyone from Evander Holyfield and LL Cool J to Junior Seau and Michael Vick. He'd stand next to Terrell Owens, measure up and realize his 6-foot-3 frame was taller. He'd shake the hand of James Lofton, whose son, David, he hosted on a recruiting trip last fall.
It wasn't always like this. There was a time when nobody wanted him. When he couldn't buy a scholarship to play college football. Four years later, he's still an unknown, but that soon will change. And that's why Ashley Lelie suddenly finds himself in the center of the football universe.
It was only a month ago that Lelie put his college days behind him, choosing to forgo his senior season at Hawaii and enter the NFL Draft. These three days in New Orleans, a town known for its free-spirited, often racy ways, were his first peek behind the curtain at the NFL life. By the time these parties roll around again next January, he hopes to be a host, not a guest.
"That's crazy. It's weird to think about it like that," Lelie said. "I've grown up looking at these guys like superstars my whole life. Now this weekend, I've been schmoozing with them, watching them sign autographs. Next year it will be me."
But that's next year. For now, he finds himself in no-man's land, no longer connected to the school where he first turned heads, but not yet a member of the NFL fraternity. He's living alone in an Atlanta hotel, working out daily with his future in the balance. Over the next two months, his performance in workouts largely will determine how many millions he stands to make, where he's going to live, and how fast his star will rise.
So far, the buzz on Lelie is a positive one. He's seen as a tall, acrobatic receiver with supreme athleticism, a grounded personality and unlimited potential.
In Mel Kiper Jr.'s latest pre-combine rankings, the ESPN draft guru ranks Lelie the 13th-best player overall and the No. 1 receiving prospect. Kiper predicts Lelie will be drafted somewhere between the ninth and 19th picks on April 20.
Lelie's college coach, June Jones, spent 15 years as an assistant and head coach in various levels of pro football. He coached nine Pro Bowl receivers, including Andre Rison, Michael Haynes, Drew Hill and Eric Metcalf. He speaks highest of Lelie, whom he even allowed to accompany his daughter Nikki to her high school prom last year.
"I'll go on the record and say this -- mark it down: He will be the best receiver taken this year," Jones said. "People might not know him now, but they will. And when it's evaluated three years from now and everyone looks back, he'll be not only one of the best receivers, but one of the best players, in this class."
Chance of a lifetime
Frustrated, he decided to quit football.
"I wanted to give it up. I just didn't think I was that good," said Lelie, who had always dreamed of becoming a professional athlete. "I kept thinking, 'How am I going to get to the NFL if I can't even get a scholarship for college?' "
Lelie's father, who worked in aircraft maintenance for the U.S. Marine Corp and instilled toughness, discipline and determination in his two sons, urged Ashley to at least give Hawaii a shot.
"I basically just pressed him to get an education," said Rene Lelie, who helped his son with the $4,000 annual tuition. "I knew he had talent on the football field and had a lot of faith in him. He heard me speak to him that way. Tell him to keep his head up. And I think that built his confidence."
Quietly, underneath a shy exterior, the confidence always has been there. His father's job caused the family to move about every three years, which made it hard for Ashley to make close friends. Instead, he leaned on his brother Justin, 19, who is now stationed in Okinawa as a member of the U.S. Army.
"You didn't want to get too close to anyone, because you knew you were going to leave," Lelie said. "We made some friends here and there, but for the most part it was just me and Justin."
Which made walking-on at Hawaii, virtually in the family's backyard, all the easier. In 1998, Lelie redshirted, and the Warriors went 0-12. That offseason, head coach Fred vonAppen was fired and replaced by Jones. Again, Lelie almost gave up football. Then he met Jones and heard about the pass-happy offense the former San Diego Chargers head coach was going to install.
The first year, as a redshirt freshman, Lelie caught 36 passes for 518 yards and two touchdowns. It was enough to catch Jones' eye.
"I called (Jones) to talk about a couple of other guys that year," Kiper said. "But all he wanted to talk about was this Ashley Lelie kid. He was more excited about Ashley than anybody. And this was before anybody in Hawaii even knew who Ashley was."
In 2000, Lelie led the Warriors in receptions (74), receiving yards (1,110) and touchdowns (11). This past season, he finished second in the nation in receiving yards (1,713), 11th in receptions (84) and 12th in scoring (114 points).
Everything is new
Chip Smith's combine preparation facility in Atlanta should ease the transition. There, Lelie is learning how to train properly, having never been much in the weight-room. He's learning how to eat properly, how to get enough rest, how to handle himself in team interviews and how to prepare for the psychological tests he'll take at the combine. And he's doing it all alongside fellow receiver Antonio Bryant, perhaps his biggest competition in the draft.
Thus far, Lelie has put on 15 pounds of muscle, going from 186 to 201. Despite his larger size, he ran a blazing 4.27 40-yard dash on a fast track last week.
"He's a great athlete. He and Antonio Bryant are right there," Smith said. "I think Ashley is probably a tad quicker. But they're neck and neck."
Lelie also is learning how to bust out of his shell and schmooze with the best of them. There were signs of that at the Super Bowl, like the night he lost $100 at the craps table and swore off the game. Two nights later, his cousin urged him back to the casino, giving him $100 to play with. By the time the night ended, Lelie had rubbed elbows with rapper Nelly and the Dolphins' Jason Taylor and pocketed $450 in winnings.
A few months from now, $450 will feel like milk money. But not on this night.
But that wasn't a problem for Lelie. His disciplined upbringing has left him with a maturity beyond his years. That's why Jones didn't flinch when Lelie took the coach's daughter to her high school prom last spring. After a somewhat awkward invitation from Nikki Jones, whom he barely knew at the time, Lelie checked with his girlfriend, checked with Coach Jones and accepted the invitation.
"A favor for a friend," he says now. "Nothing more, nothing less."
But along with the favor came endless grief from his teammates, not to mention the somewhat unique situation of being a star athlete pinned in the back of a limo with a group of bubbly teenagers. It's a far cry from the limo ride he'll get on draft day.
"It was a little weird, but nothing major," Lelie said. "I did the pictures, sat in the limo, everything. We had a good time."
The act speaks volumes about Lelie's character. Not only because he said yes, but because Jones did too, which shows the head coach not only admires Lelie's talent, but his person. So much so that he trusted Lelie with his daughter. On prom night.
"I thought it was great, because he is a great guy," Jones said. "It was a riot watching him come into the house for pictures and then crawl into the back of that limo."
But his thoughts aren't on that now. Nor are they on the blast he had in New Orleans, or on his girlfriend who's coming to visit this week. Instead, his focus is centered on one thing: Running.
If it were up to Lelie, the combine would be today. He saw what his 4.27 40 did to his stock, and he wants more. Last week, he begged his agent for a trip to the Pro Bowl, where scouts were testing some of his Hawaii teammates.
His agent told him to chill, and work on getting faster. So that's what he does, bouncing off the walls of his Atlanta hotel room anticipating the big day. Jones thinks Lelie can turn in the combine's fastest 40 time. Lelie's goal? A solid 4.3.
And the sooner the better.
"I feel like I'm ready to run right now," Lelie said. "I can't get there fast enough. I know I'm fast. I know I have speed. And all I want to do is get there and show everyone."
Wayne Drehs is a staff writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.