Editor's note: The above video is from May 2, 2015.
Andy Lee’s past will be returning to him this weekend.
Lee spent 11 seasons with the 49ers and earned three first-team All-Pro honors while establishing himself as the best punter in franchise history after the 49ers selected him in the sixth round of the 2004 draft.
His offseason began with a devastating family tragedy and ended with a trade to the Cleveland Browns that moved him closer to his family in Charlotte, North Carolina.
The 49ers travel to face the Browns on Sunday, and Lee is not quite sure what to expect – or what emotions he will feel – looking across the field to see those familiar 49ers road uniforms.
“I’ve watched those guys play on TV a little bit, here and there when I can,” Lee said Thursday morning in a phone interview with CSNBayArea.com. “It was a little weird at first because for 11 years I wore that jersey. I know a lot of players go through it with different teams, but it’s my first time doing this. There are still a lot of memories and a lot of guys I’ve played with over there.
“It was a great, awesome time. The 49ers -- the organization, the team, the fans -- hold a special place in my heart and always will. I have a lot of memories there.”
Lee’s tenure with the 49ers essentially came to an end when the club selected punter Bradley Pinion in the fifth round. A month later, the 49ers traded Lee to the Browns for a seventh-round draft pick in 2017.
“I think the chances were slim I was going to be the punter there this year. Let’s be honest. It’s a business,” Lee said. “Through our conversations, the situation was handled very well by them. And I thought I handled the situation well on my part.
“It wasn’t because of who I was or what my performance was. It was a business decision and I respect that and understand that."
Lee said he figured there was a strong chance he could get traded, but he did not know where he was heading until he received a phone call from 49ers general manager Trent Baalke to inform him of the trade with Cleveland.
“He was actually great during this whole thing,” Lee said of Baalke. “From the day Pinion was drafted to the day I was traded, he was great. It was handled very well. I have no hard feelings toward the situation and what happened.”
Said 49ers coach Jim Tomsula, “There’s a whole human aspect there that’s gut-wrenching. As much as you love Andy Lee and he’s a good player, really good player, but we’re in a business of football and we got a young guy that becomes available there that we think is really going to be a good, really good punter, a really good football player. So those are the decisions you make.”
The trade might have caused some upheaval in Lee’s life, but it does not even compare to what he and his family endured months earlier.
Lee’s wife, Rachel, gave birth to Madelyn, the couple’s third child, on Jan. 27 via C-section. Madelyn swallowed some fluid during birth and struggled to breathe. She was placed in the neonatal intensive care unit. On her fifth day, she developed an infection. Madelyn passed away three days later.
“It's changed our view on life and it’s changed our view on our time together,” Lee said. “Some days are good, and some days are bad. It’s still tough and it still hurts. We’re coming up here into January. It’ll be a year, and that’ll be really tough.”
Cleveland is only an hour flight from Charlotte, so Lee has been able to make it back home a couple of times since the beginning of the season. His wife and two children (Ryan, 5; and Adam, 3) are able to regularly visit him on weekends, too. Rachel will attend Sunday's game. In a little more than a week, the whole family will join him in Cleveland for the remainder of the season.
“They understand she’s gone,” Lee said of his young boys. “They never got to meet her. The only people allowed in were me and my wife. . . The way they talk about it, it helps us. Their view is, obviously, it’s childlike. The innocent way they talk about it puts a great perspective on it for us.”
Upon joining the Browns in June, Lee requested a different jersey number. After 11 seasons as No. 4 with the 49ers, Lee is wearing No. 8 in Cleveland. It’s his way to pay tribute to Madelyn, who lived eight days.
Lee said the move closer to his family has been “a good thing.”
On the field, he has not changed much. His 47.3-yard average ranks sixth in the NFL. Lee, who holds two of the seven best single-season net averages in league history, has a 40.4 average -- a figure that dropped a couple of yards after the Browns’ coverage unit gave up an 82-yard return two weeks ago against Baltimore.
“He has done a really good job with what he’s had to handle this year,” Browns coach Mike Pettine said.