Mustache mojo: Former Libertyville star Riley Lees looks lead Northwestern to Big 10 title game
The mustache finally came off, but only because of Northwestern's loss at Michigan State last weekend.
"My mom (Lisa) is happy about it," laughed Northwestern senior wide receiver Riley Lees, the former Libertyville star quarterback, who proudly sports his mustache and a long mane of hair in his football headshot on the Northwestern website. He had kept the mustache going partly as superstition, as Northwestern, which started out 5-0, continued to pile up wins.
"My mom doesn't like (the mustache or long hair)," Lees continued. "She had asked me, 'Can you please take a nice picture this year?'
"And I was like, 'No, I can't because if this is my last season, I want to have my hair and mustache the way everyone knows me.' I'm perceived as kind of this gritty guy with long hair and a mustache with my teammates."
Lees, fun-loving and with a good sense of humor, has been known for a lot of things with his teammates.
At Libertyville, it was mostly as a freak-of-nature athlete capable of making unreal, superhero big plays out of the most hopelessly broken plays. The master backfield scrambler led the Wildcats to the 2015 Class 7A state championship game and rolled up nearly 8,200 all-purpose yards over his career as a dual-purpose quarterback.
At Northwestern, where he was converted to a wide receiver, the 6-foot, 200-pound Lees is known as that tough, undersized and underestimated player who has the fire, passion and moxie to compete with anyone.
"Gritty, almost greasy," Lees confirmed.
Technically, this is Lees' final season at Northwestern. He's a fifth-year senior. If the NCAA decides to award more eligibility to all current players due to the alterations from COVID-19, he would strongly consider returning to Northwestern for another season.
But for now, he's proceeding as if this is it for him, and he's determined to go out with a bang. And a new mustache.
If Northwestern (5-1), which had its game at Minnesota this weekend canceled because of COVID-19, can defeat Illinois next weekend, then it's on to the Big Ten championship game Dec. 19 in Indianapolis.
Lees played in the 2018 Big Ten championship, and two bowl games.
"I do the mustache for fun, even my girlfriend (former Northwestern volleyball player Emily Ehman) doesn't like it. But I want to grow it back," Lees said. "I hope we get back on track and keep winning. I want to go to the Big Ten championship game again with a mustache."
Lees has 13 catches for 145 yards and a touchdown (vs. Nebraska). He's returned six punts for 61 yards, has rushed the ball three times and is 2-for-2 in pass attempts.
"I'm always telling the coaches, 'Let me go get a play, I can do it,' " Less said with a chuckle. "I mean, I am 2-for-2 this year as a quarterback. I'm always telling them, 'Let's keep it rolling!' It's exciting for me to play quarterback. It's such a throwback."
Lees is perfectly happy at wide receiver, but admits to missing the days of having the ball in his hands every play.
"I do miss playing quarterback," he said. "I don't know if I've still got it or not, but at 2-for-2, I'm just going to say 'Yes!' And no one can prove me wrong."
Lees loves playing with a challenge, and a chip on his shoulder like that.
That's why he had so much fun with an ESPN video that went viral last month.
An ESPN football analyst, former Ohio State receiver Joey Galloway, was being interviewed by ESPN host Rece Davis and they were talking about Northwestern's success. Galloway insinuated the Wildcats were winning in spite of having "a bunch of Rece Davises (slow, unathletic types) out there running around."
Northwestern spliced the comments into a Twitter video with funny one-liners from players like Lees, all of whom were having fun with being considered "Rece Davises."
"That whole thing was just funny," Lees said. "And we ran with it."
As far as football is concerned, Lees has been "running with it" ever since he joined his first team in second grade, and he could see himself being a coach someday. Probably without the mustache though.
"Football has been such a big part of my life and I have so many great memories," Lees said. "I think the best thing about football is that I grew up playing with my friends in Libertyville and we went to state. That's something I'll never forget. And the friends I've made at Northwestern have been so great, too. I'm just really grateful for the sport of football."