MISSION — It didn’t take long for Sharyland Pioneer head coach Tom Lee to gravitate toward football.

He learned the game from his father, David Lee, who was a head coach in Iowa and Nebraska before taking over the football program at Mission High in the 1980s. Lee started out as a ball boy for those teams at 5 years old and was soon tagging along for film sessions, taking in the football world around him.

“I just loved the game. I loved what I saw when the coaches worked together and created a bond with kids to make programs successful, and that’s how I wanted to be,” Lee said.

Lee was 13 when he moved to Texas and watched as his father turned the Mission Eagles’ program around by revolutionizing the passing game in the Rio Grande Valley with a run-and-shoot offensive system.

David Lee planted the seeds that would eventually lead to all-time quarterback greats like Lupe Rodriguez and Koy Detmer putting Mission on the map.

But in 1987, David Lee tragically died of cancer.

Nearly 35 years later, Lee is keeping his father’s legacy alive in the same city.

Lee, The Monitor’s All-Area Football Coach of the Year, led Sharyland Pioneer to new heights during the 2020-21 season running a pass-heavy system based on the same philosophies his father brought to South Texas. It resulted in the Diamondbacks winning their second consecutive unbeaten district championship and reaching the fourth round of the Class 5A playoffs, a program record for Pioneer and Sharyland ISD.

“He’s been such a big influence on my life even though he passed away over 30 years ago. The things he wanted to do, as far as in the passing game, I feel like I’m taking it to the level that he wanted it to be done, and that’s special to me to be able to do that and say that his legacy is still around. It’s just funneling through me now,” Lee said.

Lee learned to set lofty goals and work to accomplish them. It’s the same way his father did it at Mission, where the original fieldhouse at Tom Landry Stadium was named in his honor.

“Any time I get to go play over there and see my dad’s name up there, it’s special. There’s a lot of pride and respect, and a lot of blood, sweat and tears that I know he put in to get that program where he wanted to,” Lee said. “His life was taken away way too early.

“The things I think he would have done would have been amazing. You’d have been talking about state championships with my dad. That’s just the mentality that he had. You can tell because the guys that he coached: Rusty Dowling won two state championships; Jeff Dicus won a state championship. It was just that mindset that he believed in and it just bled into the coaches and it bled into the kids. I’ve tried to do those things with my programs, as well. Fortunately, we’ve had great success the last three years here at Pioneer.”

Sharyland Pioneer head football coach Thomas Lee, center, objects to a call in a 5A DII Regional semi-final game against Boerne-Champion at the Alamodome on Saturday, Nov. 30, 2019, in San Antonio. (Joel Martinez | jmartinez@themonitor.com)

The Diamondbacks finished the season with an 8-1 overall record and earned playoff wins over Medina Valley, Marble Falls and Georgetown East View. The Pioneer offense ended the year ranked No. 1 in the nation in total yards per game at 588.3, according to MaxPreps.com. Lee, along with Sharyland Pioneer quarterback Eddie Lee Marburger, were the right combination to help the Diamondbacks make program history.

“You have to preach to your kids that your goals have to be bigger than winning district championships and bi-district championships. Our kids truly believe that whoever they go up against, we have a chance to win and you have to have that mindset,” Lee said. “I’ve seen teams win games they shouldn’t have won because they believe in that mindset.”

This season, the Diamondbacks had plenty of obstacles come their way caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, including game cancellations, postponements and quarantines.

As safety precautions, there were no Thursday walkthroughs or Saturday sessions of film, lifting and running. The Diamondbacks didn’t even enter the weight room as a team from October, to mitigate risk, until January, when their season ended.

Each time, Sharyland Pioneer found a way to overcome adversity and put together an incredible run on the football field.

“Now that I look back on it, it really was amazing. Not just for us, but for every team down here in the Valley. How they handled things, how they got through things and taught their kids how to fight through adversity,” Lee said. “The ups and downs of getting to play and not getting to play, not getting to come to practice, it was just an unbelievable experience for me as a coach, for our staff and how the kids responded was amazing. Taking all the disappointments and turning them into positives really was special for me as a coach to be able to see our kids and adapt and overcome.”

Lee credited his staff, from varsity to the freshman level, for helping the Diamondbacks make program history during a season unlike any other.

“When you have a group like we have that blends and gels together, it’s really special. I can’t thank them enough for what they’ve done the last three years to take our program to the next level,” Lee said. “It’s not about Coach Lee. This award, in my opinion, is a staff award, and I want to talk about each one of those guys because there’s no way we would be where we’re at without those men.”

bramos@themonitor.com