One of the most underrated players in the SEC during a stellar four-year career with the Bulldogs, according to Mississippi State coach Jackie Sherrill, the 6-4, 248-pound former Blue Devils' star said once he's wrapped-up his career in the NFL, which he hoped would be an extended one, he would like to one day serve as "Mayor of Maben".
The presiding Mayor of Maben Larry Pruitt found that amusing, but said in all honesty, Donald Lee is a prime candidate.
"Donald has said that he wants to come back one day and take my job," said Pruitt with a smile during "Appreciation Day" ceremonies Saturday for Lee and classmate Randy Bell both of whom received "Keys to the City!"
"I can't think of a better person to represent our city, and a better person to take my job," said Pruitt to a crescendo of applause from an estimated crowd of between 600 and 700 people.
There were perhaps more fans nestled into W.O. Shivers Park. In fact, the crowd must have been larger, because there were that many cars parked in the downtown area awaiting the special day.
The turnout easily exceeded expectations as fans poured in throughout the mild overcast afternoon in the town that couldn't have been prouder of two of its own.
Maben Chamber of Commerce President Darren Herd said it was a "great day" for the town of Maben, for its citizens, for the community, and for everybody concerned.
"We're proud of Donald Lee and Randy Bell," said Herd in reference to the two future NFL players.
Mississippi State's renown Mike Grant, strength and conditioning coach, and tight ends coach Terry Lewis were impressed with the turnout.
"I have been coaching for 33 years, in every major conference around the country, except the Pac-10, and I have never seen anything like this," said Lewis, one of the speakers on the menu. "I knew this was going to be a special day, but this turnout exceeded all of my expectations."
Grant thanked the City of Maben on behalf of Mississippi State University for "giving us one of your sons for four years. I have seen Donald laugh and cry, and hurt and happy, but I have never seen a harder worker. He will be successful for a long time."
In his humble way, Lee said of Bell and himself: "We are no different than these kids that are around here today. People kept encouraging us as we grew up. My advice would be to keep your heads up, have a common goal and pursue it. And as long as you keep God first, everything will work for the good."
Some fans drove from as far away as Tennessee and Kentucky to take part in the "Appreciation Day" ceremonies. Original members of the "Donald Lee Fan Club" Alex and Abbie Vaughn and their parents, traveled from Nashville, TN, to once again cheer one of their heroes.
A four-year letterman at Mississippi State and one of the top blocking and receiving tight ends in the SEC, Lee was selected in the NFL Draft by the Miami Dolphins and has signed a three-year contract.
"I'm excited to see all these people come out today, overwhelmed," said Lee. "This is priceless. There's no way to put a price tag on it. To see all the kids out here. I was once one of them. I'm just thankful to the Lord," said Lee, who'll report to the Dolphins' NFL preseason camp at Fort Lauderdale, Fla., July 24.
A record-setting running back at Carson-Newman after earning All-American honors at East Mississippi Community College, Bell signed with the Cleveland Browns. He'll be reporting to the Browns preseason camp at Berea, Ohio.
"I'm happy, actually, very emotional to see the people from my hometown turn out like this," said Bell, who scored seven touchdowns in a single game while wearing the Blue & White of Maben and rushed for then a state-record 457 yards in a single game.
Oktibbeha County Justice Court Judge William "Tony" Boykin asked isn't this a wonderful day?
"These two young men, Don and Randy, are so deserving," said Boykin, whose seen the dynamic duo play at the high school and college level during their escalating careers on the gridiron.
"I'm so glad that we have so many young people here today because this is one of the things the kids need to see - that hard work and dedication pay off," said Boykin, who himself once lettered for the Blue Devils.
Lt. Gov. Amy Tuck, an alumnus of Maben, had planned to be at the "Appreciation Day" but was unable to attend. However, she called while in flight sending her "best wishes" to Bell and Lee and the townspeople on the special occasion.
Longtime Maben Blue Devils football coach Ken Williamson said he could recap stories about some of the greatest moments on the gridiron, about escalators and airplanes, but the special day was all about Don Lee and Randy Bell.
"It's startling that out of 17 players in their senior class at Maben that two of them - Donald and Randy - are on their way to the NFL. For a town this size to have that opportunity, that's truly amazing," said Williamson.
Former Maben standout Gary Jones said it was an extremely rewarding day for two young men who have meant so much to their school and community.
"This is really a good thing and I'm proud for Donald and Randy," said Jones, who had a promising pro basketball career cut short by an injury.
Floyd Bell, Randy's father, said he was so proud of his son on the special day.
"I'm proud of Randy and Donald Lee," he said. "I had an idea that Randy could play basketball or football around the eighth grade," said Bell, an outstanding pitcher as a youth in the Plair Community of Oktibbeha County.
One of Lee's older brothers, Willie Harris had a big hand in the development of the Dolphins' future rookie tight end.
"We lifted weights all time and had fun with it," said Harris, an outstanding linebacker at Maben under coach William Cotton.
Former Blue Devil quarterback Tim Brownlee, who went to Alcorn, said he enjoyed the "Appreciation Day" festivities for Bell and Lee.
Sylvester Wordlaw, a freshman tight end at Itawamba, said he was proud of his brother Donald and Randy.
First cousin James Lee said he was happy to see both of them get the opportunity to play in the NFL.
Oktibbeha County Superintendent of Education, Dr. Walter Conley, opened the festivities with words of encouragement for the honored duo and for the City of Maben.
"Both of you are excellent role models for the youth of our community. We know that your record of excellence will only continue into the NFL, but don't ever forget your roots."
Their "Keys to the City" proudly displayed, it couldn't have been more fitting for both Bell and Lee to be honored by the townspeople.
Maben can truly be proud of its newest heroes Donald Lee and Randy Bell!
Portions of this article have been reprinted with the permission of the Starkville Daily News.
Don Foster, a veteran newspaper writer who is the Sports Editor for the Starkville Daily News, writes a weekly article for Gene's Page. He can be reached by email at email@example.com