Shaq Lee remembers the first time he tried to sign up to play organized football.
League officials rejected him when they saw his birthday. He was too young.
"I started crying," Lee said.
Lee's passion for football hasn't faded.
Nowadays, he excels at quarterback and defensive back for Millville High School.
And from the moment he finally got to step on the field as a 6-year-old, Lee has wanted nothing more than to play in games such as Friday's, in which the undefeated Thunderbolts (11-0) meet Pennsauken (10-1) for the South Jersey Group IV title. Kickoff is at 7 p.m. at Rowan University in Glassboro.
"I grew up on Millville football," Lee said. "I watched it. I always wanted to be here, and now I am."
Lee watched several older family members play for the Thunderbolts. His older cousin, Jamal Wallace, starred for the 1997 Thunderbolts team that lost to Toms River North 30-27 in the S.J. Group IV final. That was the last time Millville reached a sectional final. Wallace went on to play at Temple University.
"When he was in college, I always used to tell him I was better than him," Lee said with a laugh. "He said, 'Prove it on the field when you get older.' Now, I'm trying to prove it to him."
Lee grew up playing running back on offense. He shifted to quarterback in the eighth grade.
As a Millville sophomore, he saw time at safety and was the backup quarterback. Coach Jason Durham said Lee studied the offensive extensively that year.
"By the time he stepped in as a junior, he was ready to go," the coach said.
Lee led the Thunderbolts to the S.J. Group IV playoffs last year, but they lost in the first round to Atlantic City.
Millville was predicted to be one of the region's top teams this preseason as Lee and several other talented veterans returned. But the Thunderbolts have been even better than expected, having one of the best seasons in school history.
Lee is a big reason why. He has thrown for 824 yards and eight touchdowns but also can frustrate defenses with his legs. He's run for 224 yards and eight touchdowns.
Lee is also adept at making big plays on defense, where he plays safety. He returned an interception 38 yards for a touchdown in a 26-3 win over St. Augustine Prep on Oct. 28.
Lee intercepted a two-point conversion pass with less than one minute left to preserve Millville's 42-41 S.J. Group IV semifinal win over Washington Township on Nov. 18.
Durham called Lee one of the best defensive backs in South Jersey. Lee and the rest of the Millville secondary will be challenged by Pennsauken quarterback Manny Cortez, who has thrown for 2,758 yards and 38 touchdowns.
"Lee is very intelligent (in the secondary)," Durham said. "He takes his quarterback mentality to the other side of the ball. He understands the game very well."
The 6-foot, 177-pound Lee is also one of the Cape-Atlantic League's hardest hitters. He produced several roars from the crowd at Millville's Wheaton Field with jarring hits on Washington Township receivers.
"I love hitting," Lee said. "I love making people feel me when they come across the middle. I want to make them regret catching the ball when they come toward me."
But statistics and highlight plays are only part of what Lee means to Millville.
"He's our emotional leader," Durham said.
Millville hasn't won a South Jersey title since 1975.
Few towns support high school football the way Millville does. Fans jammed the stands at Wheaton Field for playoff games. The crowd reacted with each snap.
Since Lee grew up around the program, he knows what a win Friday would mean to Millville.
"It would make everybody proud," he said. "I'm just soaking it in. Everybody is behind us."
Contact Michael McGarry: