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From desk jobs to pro football: Bowie State’s Khari Lee, Towson’s Darius Victor put lives on hold to play in XFL

Towson running back Darius Victor points skyward after scoring a touchdown against Rhode Island at Johnny Unitas Stadium on Nov. 21, 2015.
Towson running back Darius Victor points skyward after scoring a touchdown against Rhode Island at Johnny Unitas Stadium on Nov. 21, 2015.(Karl Merton Ferron / Baltimore Sun)

Both Khari Lee and Darius Victor last played in the NFL in 2018. To make ends meet, Lee, a Western Tech graduate who played tight end at Division II Bowie State, began to use the real estate license he earned the year before. Victor, a running back at Towson University, worked as a supervisor for a shipping corporation and a sales operation manager for an automotive products company.

The 6-foot-4, 235-pound Lee, who served the Northeast Baltimore area and sold one property, said only a few clients knew about his stops at four NFL franchises.

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“I don’t think they were starstruck,” he said Monday with a chuckle. “I’m a humble guy. I’m not that glaring of a presence. I was out there trying to earn an honest living.”

Victor said his 5-6, 226-pound frame stood out in his office just outside of Miami.

“Some Miami people would come in and say, ‘What are you doing here? What do you do for a living? Why are you so strong?’ ” he said Wednesday. “I told them, and some of them already knew me. But I get those questions all the time. A strong guy like me in a collared shirt raises eyebrows behind desks.”

Lee and Victor have put their jobs on hold as they prepare to make their XFL debuts this weekend. Lee and the DC Defenders will host the Seattle Dragons on Saturday at 2 p.m. at Washington’s Audi Field, while Victor and the New York Guardians will welcome the Tampa Bay Vipers to East Rutherford, New Jersey, on Sunday at 2 p.m.

Lee, who turned 28 on Jan. 16, has been confronted by obstacles at seemingly every stage of his football career. He was cut by the Wolverines as a high school freshman, signed with the Bulldogs after being overlooked by every Division I program, and was not taken in the 2015 NFL draft.

Bears tight end Khari Lee participates in warmups before a preseason game at Soldier Field in 2015.
Bears tight end Khari Lee participates in warmups before a preseason game at Soldier Field in 2015.(Jonathan Daniel / Getty Images)

Lee persevered each time, and he recognizes the opportunity now before him.

“It feels good seeing it all come to fruition,” he said. “I don’t think you ever lose that chip on your shoulder from being cut in high school, from having to walk on in college, from being an undrafted free agent. Every step of the way, I’ve beaten the odds. So I’m forever grateful.”

Lee, a two-time Division II All-American and a three-time All-Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association choice who finished with 34 receptions and 352 yards as a senior at Bowie State, is no stranger to the NFL.

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After going undrafted, he was signed by the Houston Texans and caught five passes for 71 yards in three preseason games. He was traded in early September 2015 to the Chicago Bears for a sixth-round pick in the 2017 draft.

Lee played in 16 games, making seven starts and catching one ball for seven yards in 2015. But he was waived the following September, claimed by the Detroit Lions, and played in eight games in 2016. He spent the 2017 and 2018 seasons with the Buffalo Bills, making one catch for five yards in 2018 before getting released that October.

Lee didn’t reveal much about his role with DC, but stressed that he is open to anything the coaches have planned for him.

“The touchdowns and stuff are cool, and catching the ball is cool, and putting up big yards is cool,” he said. “But that’s a part of playing tight end. You’ve got to be able to block a 300-pound defensive lineman as well as beat a safety who runs a 4.6 [40-yard dash]. So I take it as a challenge, whether I’m run-blocking or going out for a pass.”

Bowie State coach Damon Wilson credited Defenders coach Pep Hamilton with selecting Lee, the team’s top tight end pick, in the fifth round of the XFL draft in October.

“I believe Khari will show that he still belongs in the NFL on someone’s roster,” Wilson said via email. “He has always been a person that will take full advantage at every opportunity given.”

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Like Lee, Victor dabbled at the NFL level as an undrafted rookie. He joined the New Orleans Saints for training camp in 2017 but was cut in September. Two months later, he was signed to the Arizona Cardinals’ practice squad and went through a series of cuts and re-signings before getting waived prior to the 2018 season opener.

So Victor, who turns 26 on March 6, is eagerly awaiting Sunday’s game.

“I’m a professional,” he said. “The guys I’m playing with now, I have played with in the NFL and gone against in the NFL. So I don’t really see a difference. The talent level is there. Pretty much the only difference is the scale in terms of how many people are watching and how many people are interested. But it’s football, and it’s going to be good football.”

New York took Victor in the ninth round of the draft, the team’s third running back behind Oregon State’s Tim Cook III (fourth round) and Texas Tech’s Justin Stockton (eighth round). Wake Forest’s Matthew Colburn II was added a few days later, but Victor said he is not worried about playing time.

“I don’t know if I’m going to be the starter because I can’t make that call,” he said. “But I’m ready for it, and I think we have a whole bunch of capable guys who also can start. I think we’ll all be ready for the opportunity.”

Guardians coach and general manager Kevin Gilbride said he watched enough film of Victor in the NFL to target him.

“We wanted to get him on board and see if he’d be as he appeared to be on film, and he has,” he said. “He’s certainly built low to the ground. It’s tough to get to his legs. He’s a tough, hard-nosed runner, and what makes him particularly fun to be around is, he’s got about as an upbeat and positive attitude as you will find in anybody. He’s really just a guy that seems to see the good in every situation.”

Because of XFL contractual rules, neither Lee not Victor will be able to leave for an NFL job until after the 10-game regular season. But making an impression with an NFL franchise is definitely a priority.

“It’s all about staying relevant, but it’s also about, ‘What have you done for me lately?’ ” Victor said. “That’s how things work. So having some new film could help me get back into the NFL, and that’s my dream.”

“That’s the premier league of any professional football,” Lee said. “So you definitely want to compete among the best, but while I’m here right now, my focus is giving DC all that I have. All of my talent, all of my passion, all of my effort and hard work is dedicated to them.”

What to know about the XFL

Teams: Dallas Renegades (Globe Life Park, Arlington, Texas); DC Defenders (Audi Field); Houston Roughnecks (TDECU Stadium); Los Angeles Wildcats (Dignity Health Sports Park, Carson, California); New York Guardians (MetLife Stadium, East Rutherford, New Jersey); St. Louis BattleHawks (The Dome at America’s Center); Seattle Dragons (CenturyLink Field); Tampa Bay Vipers (Raymond James Stadium)

Schedule: Each team will play 10 games, on Saturdays and Sundays, between Saturday and April 12. Four teams will advance to the playoffs, which begin April 19, and the XFL championship game will be played April 26.

TV: Of the league’s 43 games — 40 regular season, three playoffs — 24 are on ABC or Fox. The remainder will air on ESPN, ESPN2, Fox Sports 1 and Fox Sports 2. Saturday games will be on ABC and Fox, while Sunday games will be mainly on ESPN/ESPN2 and FS1/FS2.

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Salary: The average player will earn about $55,000 over a 10-game season.

Week 1 schedule:

  • Seattle Dragons at DC Defenders, Saturday, 2 p.m., ABC
  • L.A. Wildcats at Houston Roughnecks, Saturday, 5 p.m., Fox
  • Tampa Bay Vipers at New York Guardians, Sunday, 2 p.m., Fox
  • St. Louis Battlehawks at Dallas Renegades, Sunday, 5 p.m., ESPN
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