william-t-dwyer_web.jpgPALM BEACH GARDENS — Joseph Martinique Lee was hanging around college campuses before he was 10. His father, Joe Lee, was president and provost of Talladega College in Alabama, the state’s oldest historically black college, started by two former slaves from the Amistad slave ship. So Joseph grew up steeped in black history and listening to lectures on campus by the likes of poets Maya Angelou and Nikki Giovanni and civil rights icon Ralph Abernathy. His father also made sure Joseph understood the importance of education and the role of the historically black college in expanding the minds of young people.

But by the time Lee reached his pre-teens, his passion wasn’t education, it was athletics. At 13, he was so big for his size that he was allowed to play fullback on the Talladega High School football team, where he became a standout player. By the time he graduated from high school, he was the top player in Alabama. College recruiters came calling.

It was good to be Marty Lee — short for Martinique — but his father’sinfluence was too strong. So instead of heading off to a Division 1 school in pursuit of big money and bright lights, Lee chose Florida A&M University. He played football with the Rattlers until a severe shoulder injury forced him to put more emphasis on education, rather than a spot in the National Football League.

“Getting my degree was more important than putting my eggs in one basket, hoping for a pro career,” Lee said in a recent interview. “The percentages of pro athletes is very low — maybe one percent.”

Lee obtained a bachelor’s degree from FAMU in criminal justice and Journalism. He went on to obtain a master’s degree in educational leadership and a Ph.D. in educational leadership and policy, both from Nova Southeastern University. He feels he’s in the right place at this time in his life to influence young, starry-eyed athletes who, as he did once, dream of reaching the pro ranks.

For the past four years, Lee has served as principal of William T. Dwyer High School in Palm Beach Gardens. The school has consistently ranked among the top high schools in the nation in football and basketball. Its student athletes, many from the inner city, are heavily recruited.

College coaches such as Charlie Weis of the University of Florida, Nick Saban of the University of Alabama, and even former Miami Dolphins executive Bill Parcells have sat in on practice sessions, according to Dwyer High’s assistant coach Reggie Stanley.

Lee credits Stanley with getting scholarships at top universities for many of the students. Stanley played at the University of Florida as a running back from 1986-89, and went on to play in the Canadian Football League for several years. He too became injured, but it was a contract dispute that ended his football career. He has friends and colleagues around the country, which helps when he’s trying to place Dwyer High athletes on college teams, using the network of coaches he has developed.

“His ultimate goal is to get them a scholarship and into college, not to help them pursue a dream,” Lee said. Stanley agrees. “Helping our kids get into college is our main focus, winning is a byproduct,” he said.

A coach at another local school, however, recently accused Dwyer  head football coach Jack Daniels of “recruiting” top local athletes — a charge Lee has denied. If students meet the guidelines, they are accepted at the school, he said.

Lee said he is proud of the national attention Dwyer High gets for its athletics programs but still believes education is more important.

When he went to Dwyer, he took with him a track record as a big proponent of academic achievement. As principal of Watson B. Duncan Middle School in Palm Beach Gardens, he created a finance program which allowed students to travel overseas.

He has implemented innovative programs at Dwyer as well. Dwyer is an International Baccalaureate school and well known for its National Academy of Finance, which serves as a national model for high schools, Lee says. Students study business practices and have to dress in business attire once a month, in preparation for careers in business.

As principal, Lee knows he is at a point where his two passions meet and he has the best of both worlds: a top athletics program that paves the way for young people to get a college education, and being able to influence young minds in innovative ways.

Although Dwyer High is known for its athletics, Lee is quick to point to its academic achievement as well: “We’re in the top five percent of high schools in the country — and that’s out of 17,000 high schools nationwide. This is a good place.”

Photo: Courtesy of Joseph Lee

William T. Dwyer High School Principal Joseph Lee