Remembering Marvin Lee, The Young Player Who Died After Colliding With Landon Donovan

Nearly 15 years after his death, Marvin Lee’s legacy lives on in Trinidad & Tobago.

It’s been nearly 15 years since Marvin Lee last took a breath on this planet. Once a captain of the Trinidad and Tobago youth national team, Lee died at the age of 21 at his home in Arima after suffering a career-ending neck injury from a collision with U.S. legend Landon Donovan two years earlier. 

In 2001, Trinidad and Tobago was at its footballing zenith, ranked No. 25 in the world, the highest it would ever get. Marvin Lee was a defender on the U-20 squad. Some of his teammates would go on to take the Soca Warriors to their first and only World Cup appearance in 2006.

Lee would not. 

A report from the Trinidad and Tobago website described Lee in his final match as “big and pretty.” It continued: “He’s over 6-foot-2, 225 pounds of sinew and strength.” Lee was the captain of the squad, which welcomed the United States to the city of Macoya. The Americans were a burgeoning regional power with players like Landon Donovan, Oguchi Onyewu, Conor Casey, Bobby Convey and DaMarcus Beasley in the youth outfit eager to improve upon a fourth-place finish at the U-17 World Cup two years earlier, during which Donovan won the Golden Ball. 

The U.S. and Trinidad & Tobago faced off in the CONCACAF U-20 Tournament used for U-20 World Cup qualifying on March 20, 2001. In the fifth minute, Lee charged at Donovan challenging for the ball, putting his head down to nod the ball away. The two collided awkwardly and fell to the ground. Donovan got up. Lee did not.

“There was a ball bouncing across the middle of the field,” Donovan later recalled. “All I remember is running onto it and taking it with my chest to run past someone. As I ran by, someone came. It was almost perpendicular, but my body was facing him at the time. He stuck his head to try to head the ball.

“I'm assuming he was trying to head the ball and I just got there first. He just nailed me. We both went down immediately. I didn't know what happened. I continued to play and he obviously couldn't. As (time) went on, I heard more and more, and it was just horrible.”

Both players were taken off on stretchers. Donovan returned to the match despite, as was later revealed, breaking his rib on the play and helped the U.S. to a 5-1 win. Lee had it much worse. Immediately placed in a neck brace, the Trinidadian was whisked off to a nearby hospital in an ambulance.

Marvin Lee Trinidad, helped by Landon Donovan

Marvin Lee of Trinidad & Tobago is helped by Landon Donovan (Photo: Trinidad Guardian)

Lee had sustained massive neck and spinal injuries. He would never walk again. Confined to a wheelchair, his soccer was limited to watching on TV. He learned to use a computer despite limited use of his hands. All his medical expenses were paid by countryman Jack Warner, then the CONCACAF president and a FIFA vice president. Warner, who resigned over corruption allegations in 2011, later established the Marvin Lee Trust Fund in Lee’s honor. 

Despite his tragic circumstances, Lee maintained positivity and faith throughout his hardships.

“For you to achieve something in life, it has to be meant for you,” Lee said in a newspaper interview after his injury. “And only one person, God, could achieve it for you. The doctors could only do as much as medical-wise. The doctors say they cannot do it. But Jesus is the only one who can do it.”

In March of 2003, Lee caught a cold. Most 21-year-olds would have shrugged it off, but for a wheelchair-bound paraplegic, the illness proved fatal. On March 9, 2003, at the age of 21, nearly two years after colliding with Donovan, Lee died. 

Once a promising young defender, Lee played his final match on March 20, 2001. The man he collided with was just getting started, going on to star at the World Cup the following summer. Following Lee’s death in 2003, Donovan scored 16 goals for San Jose, the fourth-best haul of his career. Donovan went on to become the USMNT’s all-time leading goal scorer and assister. Lee never earned a senior national team cap.

The stadium in Macoya where Lee played his last game now bears his name. Marvin Lee Stadium, the 6,000-seat home to Joe Public FC, became the first Caribbean stadium outfitted with an artificial surface in 2007. The venue has seen many legendary players grace its pitch, including David Beckham and Steven Gerrard, not to mention Donovan. 

“It’s an injury in a soccer game that ended up killing someone,” Donovan said. “I try not to think about it. Obviously, when I go there and when I hear about Trinidad, it comes to my mind. It's just sad.”

Marvin Lee Stadium

Marvin Lee Stadium. Photo: @FAtlantico | Twitter

Lee would be 36 today, slightly older than the now-retired Donovan. Had he avoided the catastrophic injury, he might still be playing, might still be a part of the Trinidad and Tobago national team, which will host the U.S. in October in the final qualifier for the 2018 World Cup. 

"Marvin Lee should be recognized every hour, every day, every year in Trinidad and Tobago," said Kerry Baptiste, a teammate of Lee’s the day of his injury. “Marvin was a very inspirational, motivational player. He was a very humbled person and never talked much, except when it come to the football matters.

“He was full of joy and always wanted there to be unity in the camp. But when he went on the football field, boy, the man was rugged. He was a good one, ya know, … one of the best.”

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