COLUMBUS, Ohio – Franklin Heights four-star offensive tackle Lee Tilley has never been to Cuba, but he sure knows how it feels to live in a dictatorship.
After developing into a star at Springfield (Ohio) South the first three years of his high school career, a coaching change caused a shift that forever altered things for the 6-foot-5, 317-pound four-star prospect. The fun times were gone at South and the change in coaches ushered in an experience that he wouldn't want to pass on to anybody.
Tilley claims he became the center of a vicious attack from his former teammates, coaches and administrators at his old school and turned what was expected to be the start of a glorious senior season into something he had to get away from.
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"Columbus is home now," Tilley said. "I view Springfield as some place you just go visit now. It's like if you escape from Castro, you're not going back to visit."
Tilley said the he became the focus of attention when he transferred from South to Franklin Heights. He originally wasn't the one that started to explore his options of making a move after his coach. He said most of his graduating class wasn't happy with the coaching change and they all explored their options.
When he became the one to actually act on it, things forever changed.
"The defensive coordinator kept saying that I was recruited to leave, but I kept telling him that you can't recruit anybody that's willing to go," Tilley said. "This summer basically the whole senior class was talking about transferring to Wayne High School together. They don't want to remember that.
"When I decided to transfer, the coaches kept saying that I didn't deserve to go to college and that they were going to tell all the coaches that I wasn't good enough to be a Division I recruit."
It only got worse, Tilley said.
"I was told through word of mouth, that one of the principals said I didn't deserve to go to college because I was black and that I would never pass the standardized testing," Tilley, who is already qualified with a 20 on the ACT, said. "Here's the thing, (the principal) is about as black as I am. I was like, this is ridiculous. They're not supposed to say things like that.
"I kept hearing that the new coach was telling people that I wasn't the best recruit on the team. I thought to myself, cause and effect. If you're a good recruit, then people are going to offer you, and if you're not then you won't have offers like I do."
Then Tilley said his former teammates turned on him. After the announcement came out that he was making the move to Columbus, Tilley claims the players on the team egged his house.
"It was difficult," Tilley said. "I'm one of the most negative people in the world, and to go through all that was really trying. I'm glad I had somebody good around to support me."
That person was the light of his life. His mom, Larnell Tilley, stood by his side all throughout the difficult times and helped him make it through with her good advice and strong support.
"She gets mom of the year," Tilley said.
"If I can keep her from reading all the bad stuff in the paper, then she's all right. She gets real emotional, but that's because she cares for me and wants me to not have to have people saying bad things about me. She's my biggest fan, and I don't know where I'd be without her.
"She's the type of person that helps me with all the big decisions in my life. I know I can lean on her to help me make the right choices. She's not steered me wrong yet."
Her guidance helped him land at Franklin Heights, where he said he's found a new home and a place that will help him get better prepared for the jump to the next level.
"I love this school," Tilley said. "After I decided to transfer, my mom said let's go look at some schools. We looked at Wayne, but didn't like what we saw. She then said 'let go look at some Columbus schools.' That's how I ended up at Franklin Heights. I don't regret the decision to come here one bit."
Instead of in-fighting and backstabbing, Tilley said he now truly feels part of a community and a program. He says it is how high school is supposed to feel like.
"After our first three wins, we went to Applebees and had fun," he said. "In Springfield, I didn't do that. I went home. It was like practice, home, practice and then home. It's just like a real high school.
"At my old school, every day there is no telling what's going to happen. There would be fights in the halls. It was real violent. You don't know what's going to happen. I liked it, but there were a lot of bad situations. It's like paradise here at Franklin Heights."
Franklin Heights coach Eric Gillespie said Tilley has been through a lot, but the four-star offensive tackle has made relatively smooth adjustment.
"He's a special kid," Gillespie said. "He had some tough stuff thrown at him and he could have easily let that get to him, but he didn't. He's come here with an open mind about everything. He's been eager to learn and willing to allow us to coach him. He now is part of this program and he feels like he belongs. He's really found a home here."
The only question really left for Tilley to now answer is where he will find a home in college.
With an official visit set to Oklahoma this weekend and visits already lined up to Arizona State (October 7) and LSU (October 14), Clemson, Florida and Virginia Tech are also still remaining on his list. Florida will for sure get a visit, leaving Clemson and Virginia Tech battling it out for the final spot.
Tilley said each of the coaches from the schools on his list have something positive that he likes.
"The offensive line coach at Florida (John Hevesy), he's like my grandma," Tilley said. "He'll tell you like it is. He's not going to play games with you. The coach at LSU (Bo Pelini) is more laid back. He likes to talk and get it out there and make sure you understand what they want and answer any questions.
"The coach at Oklahoma (Kevin Wilson) is like one of those guys that really gets after it but always wants to see where you stand. He wants to make sure everything is all right and asks if you have any questions. He'll talk to you about the little things from that first step you take after the snap all the way to the 15th step.
"The Clemson coach (Brad Scott) is real laid back. And the Virginia Tech (Bryan Stinespring) coach is more of a family man."
It's those relationships that he's built with these coaches that will make it hard to eventually tell somebody no.
"If I go here, I get this advantage and that advantage," he said. "If I go there, I get this and this. The schools I want to go to, they all have one thing in common and that's that they need guys to play.
"But I mean man, who would have thought that Oklahoma would have lost a game or two? Then Florida beat Tennessee… Is that a sign or something? Oklahoma lost a game? Can you believe Oklahoma lost a game to anybody other than USC?
"I was like wow. I was like is that a sign or something? Then again, I sit back and look at it, if I go to an Oklahoma there might be a chance for a guy like me to come in and help them right away."
There is no question that playing time will be important in his decision.
"They're all national champion caliber programs that all have something in common – their offensive line is very, very thin," Tilley said. "It's like most of them don't even have enough in the two deep to make it through this year.
"That's my thing, if I'm shooting for a goal I want to get stronger, bigger and faster and get on the field quickly. If I get out there as a freshman, then I can work hard at getting better and then work hard on getting my team better. Eventually I could work toward getting to the NFL."
In the end, Tilley said being around a "dictatorship" has made him tougher and it will help him deal with even more adversity when he goes on in life.
"It's helped me become a better player," he said. "It was a bad experience, so I've dealt with bad stuff. So I should be able to deal with adversity in college. No matter what I will have thrown at me, it will be nothing like what I've had to fight through the past few months.