Darron Lee gripped the armrest as the plane shook and lightning illuminated the night sky.
The Jets rookie linebacker had been so anxious to get back to Ohio that the weather forecast had been of little concern. The thunderstorm that rolled over Columbus that Oct. 19 night was just the latest scare in a week full of them. Hours earlier, Lee’s mother, Candice, called him from the hospital. Doctors had discovered a blood clot in one of her lungs.
In that moment, Lee’s ankle injury and the Jets’ four-game losing streak were no longer his focus. Instead, all he could think about was flying home.
“I’m not even going to lie, I was so stressed,” he told Newsday. “Making sure my mom was going to be OK, hoping the team gets the win. Your mind goes in different places and it’s hard to keep all of that in check and keep your emotions in check ’cause that’s my mom.
“These past couple weeks, they’ve been tough,” said Lee, who celebrated his 22nd birthday the day before his mother was hospitalized. “But I pulled through and once I’m back on the field, everything will be all right.”
Well, that time has finally come. After missing three straight games, the Jets’ first-round pick is set to return Sunday against the Los Angeles Rams. Though Lee (30 tackles, one-half sack) lamented missing time, he acknowledged that being on the sideline helped the game slow down considerably for him. And for the first time in more than three weeks, life feels somewhat normal again.
For both of them.
“He thought I was going to die. And I just said, ‘Well, not today,’ ” Candice said in a phone interview Friday evening.
She initially dismissed her symptoms: the fatigue, the shortness of breath, the ankle swelling “for no reason” and the pain in her leg. But a week later, she learned her blood pressure was elevated, too. That’s when a cousin, who is a doctor, suggested she go to the emergency room.
“I probably ignored all kinds of symptoms,” Candice said. “Like the pain in my leg. I thought it was a strained muscle when it probably was a blood clot working its way up my leg. In hindsight, I could have died if I’d gone any further.”
Around 10:30 p.m. on Oct. 18, Lee’s birthday, Candice arrived at the hospital. Four or five hours later, she was admitted. But it took even longer for her to call her son. “He was pretty upset,” she said.
The day before his birthday, Lee sprained his ankle against the Arizona Cardinals and the Jets lost their fourth straight. The last thing his mother wanted was for him to travel in a cumbersome ankle boot. “Darron was rehabbing, I didn’t want him to worry,” said Candice, who recently quit her job as a TV news anchor and now works at a daycare center in Columbus. “You protect your children to a certain degree.”
But that explanation wasn’t good enough for her son.
“See, I have a policy,” Lee said. “I preferably like to know things as soon as they happen. I didn’t find out until late morning, early afternoon and it happened at like 2 in the morning . . . I didn’t know that a blood clot was a pulmonary embolism. But once the trainers told me what it was, that’s when my face changed. I’ve had two friends who have died from those.”
At first, Candice believed her son needed to be “present with the team.” But coach Todd Bowles, general manager Mike Maccagnan and director of player development Dave Szott thought otherwise. “I was very grateful for [them] telling him he really needed to come home,” said Candice, who was discharged on Oct. 22.
The next day, Lee flew back to New Jersey on a 10:30 a.m. flight. That same day, he was ruled inactive for the Jets-Ravens game.
With his mom’s health scare behind them, the former Ohio State linebacker was able to crack a smile as he talked about his emotional birthday week, which ended with his Buckeyes being upset, 24-21, by Penn State. “I was so hurt,” he said. “That capped off a terrible birthday week.”
But that awful week provided much-needed perspective, too.
“I told her, ‘What if that wasn’t you on the other line?’” Lee said. “That could’ve been someone else on the line saying something else had happened. And I would’ve been a wreck.
“It’s scary for sure. But it really puts things in perspective for you. You need that in life. And I’m happy it happened in a more positive way because it could have been much more negative. I could have broken my ankle. I could have lost my mother. You never know.”