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Jr. Toppers football coach remembered for motivation, encouragement

Sam Watson • Updated Aug 28, 2015 at 6:08 PM

To generations of aspiring football players in Johnson City, Lee Milam was more than a volunteer coach. He was a personal counselor, a motivator and a confidence builder.

For 27 years, Milam coached youth athletics in Johnson City, mainly for the Jr. Toppers youth football teams. He died Friday morning amid a medical procedure, leaving a legacy of support and respect among the young men, youths and even small children he mentored.

“My little one has so much more confidence because of Coach Lee,” parent Renee Ray, whose 7-year-old son Garrett,  played on Milam’s team this year, said Friday. “He taught them so much more than football.”

The Jr. Toppers field youth teams in four age groups from ages 5 through 12. The teams play in the Watauga Junior Athletic League, competing against other youth teams from Jonesborough to Mountain City.

Garrett had only played for the Jr. Toppers’ youngest group — the Jr. Toppers’ Red Team in the Mitey Might division — for a month or so, Ray said, but his effect on the boy was profound. Because Garrett is big for his age, he had some self-esteem issues. Milam quickly helped the boy cast those aside, saying his size was just right for football.

“He was so encouraging,” Ray said, adding that Milam taught Garrett about respect for adults and other maturation issues. “That made such a difference in him.

”I can only imagine how many kids he influenced and encouraged in 27 years.“

On Saturday, Milam’s 22 Mitey Mights will don armbands in honor of their late coach when they take the field at Johnson City’s Kermit Tipton Stadium at 10 a.m. The team will also have a balloon release in his honor.

Bart Lyon, a Jr. Toppers leader, said Milam helped build the organization when he joined it as a coach in 2002, coming from Woodland Elementary School’s youth football program.

”He was a big part of our growth,“ Lyon said. ”We went from five original teams to the nine we have now. A lot of that was because of his dedication.“

Milam’s dedication was such that even though he worked long hours in his job as a tow truck driver, he would show up to practice without complaints and ready to work with the kids.

”He was always the first there and the last to leave,“ Lyon said. ”His heart was always in the right place. He had the best attitude of all of us. He was one of the guys who would do whatever you asked him to do.“

Milam was especially interested in working with at-risk youth, Lyon said, and he never hesitated to take on the tough cases.

”He would work with any kid who wanted to play,“ Lyon said.

Many of the youths Milam and other coaches have mentored in the Jr. Toppers over the years have gone on to play at the high school level for the big ’Toppers – the Science Hill High School Hilltoppers.

”We are THE feeder program for Science Hill,“ Lyon said. ”Nearly every player that has been a standout at Science Hill for the last 13 years has been a part of our program.“

For more about the Jr. Toppers, visit the organization’s Facebook page.

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