It’s been two days since USC and Penn State finished the most exhilarating Rose Bowl in years, and Sean Lee is still gushing about it. "It was a nice, classic Rose Bowl," says the Cowboys standout linebacker, parked on a couch near the cafeteria in the team’s shimmering new facility in Frisco, Texas. "I mean, high scoring, but …"
As the Nittany Lions rallied from a 13-point first-half deficit to push their lead to 15 early in the third quarter, Lee readied a gloating text message to send to Cowboys third-string quarterback and former Trojans star Mark Sanchez. He’s glad he held off. That shame is all that could have made USC’s furious comeback and 52–49 win sting more.
The last time these two powers met in Pasadena was on New Year’s Day 2009. Lee was there, occupying the same spot along the Penn State sideline that he did during the entire 2008 season. Nearly nine months earlier, in the first days of prep for his senior fall, Lee tore the ACL in his right knee in a spring practice. What should have been the culmination of a legendary college career was put on hold. While Sanchez, then USC’s starting quarterback, cemented his status as a top-10 pick in lifting the Trojans to a 38–24 win, Lee could only watch as a day that should have been his slipped away. "I always wish," Lee says, "that I could have played in that game."
That afternoon was the first time an injury yanked Lee from a grand stage, but it would hardly be the last. During his first six seasons in the NFL, Lee and his body were constantly at war. A dislocated wrist was the first blow, suffered seven games into the 2011 campaign. The next year it was a dislocated toe. In 2013, he had hamstring and neck issues. And he tore the ACL in his left knee in OTAs in May 2014. As Lee lists off the myriad ailments, his tone is distant, as if he’s rattling off entries from an IMDb page that doesn’t belong to him.
His lowest point came at the end of the 2014 season, when the Cowboys, who went 12–4 and harbored Super Bowl aspirations, traveled to Lambeau Field for a divisional-round spat with the Packers. "To me," Lee says, "Cowboys-Packers, at Lambeau Field, that’s everything you could want as an NFL player." Just as he had been during that afternoon in the Rose Bowl, Lee was powerless to help.
At nearly every turn, a body bent on betrayal has robbed Lee of the biggest moments of his football life. And that, he says, is what has made this 2016 season so special. Ezekiel Elliott and Dak Prescott have been the faces of the Cowboys’ magical run to a 13–3 record and the top seed in the NFC, but on the other side of ball, Lee has quietly put together his first All-Pro effort: 145 tackles, including 12 for loss, to go with a league-leading 28 defeats as part of an overachieving Dallas defense. Heading into Sunday’s showdown with the scalding hot Aaron Rodgers and the Packers, Lee will be the maestro of a unit that may hold the key to the Cowboys’ Super Bowl hopes. It’s the sort of moment he’s waited on for more than a decade.
"The teams that I’ve really been a part of, been able to build with, I haven’t been able to be there when they’ve gotten good," Lee says. "So to have this year, it’s been a dream come true."
Three days into Penn State’s fall camp in 2005, head coach Joe Paterno approached defensive coordinator Tom Bradley with a question. Who, Paterno asked, is no. 45?
"I told him, ‘That’s Sean Lee, the kid from Upper St. Clair,’" Bradley says. "[Paterno] looks at me and goes, ‘He should be staht-in’.’’"
Lee, an undersized true freshman who played at 215 pounds as a free safety in high school, was pulled from the scout team to back up star middle linebacker Paul Posluszny. Within days, he’d earned a reputation for two things: a rare ability to retain and recall information, and an insatiable need to lay out anyone holding a football. "He quickly got the nickname of ‘The Waterboy,’ because he hit everything that moved," says former Nittany Lions position coach Ron Vanderlinden, referring to Adam Sandler’s rampaging cinematic linebacker. "After a day and a half of that, I had to go up to him and say, ‘Sean, we love the intensity. But you’re gonna hurt somebody.’"
Lee earned scattered snaps throughout the 2005 season, including seeing his first game action in an October upset of no. 6 Ohio State, but his first real test came in the Orange Bowl against Florida State. When Posluszny went down with a knee injury in the fourth quarter, a 19-year-old Lee was thrust into duty with his team clinging to a 16–13 lead. "People were like, ‘Oh jeez, they’ve got a freshman in there now,’" Bradley says. "I wasn’t nervous. Not one bit. He walked in there and just did what he was supposed to do. I never even flinched." What initially looked like a few minutes of spot duty turned into Lee playing 49 snaps to help secure a triple-overtime 26–23 victory.
From that point on, Lee fit seamlessly into a lineage of players that bolstered Penn State’s reputation as Linebacker U. When asked where Lee stacks up among the greatest defenders he’s ever coached — a group that includes Posluszny, Navorro Bowman, and Dan Connor — Bradley says he ranks "with the best," before adding: "I’d just like to have one of him a year for the rest of my career. Just give me one Sean Lee for every year I coach. I wouldn’t have too many problems."
Coming off a second-team All-Big Ten season in which he racked up 138 total tackles as a junior in 2007, Lee seemed poised to deliver a senior campaign for the ages in 2008. That ended in April, when Lee caught his right foot in the turf, shredding his ACL and putting him on the shelf. Typically, Paterno’s policy for injured players consisted of them spending practice focused solely on rehab. With Lee, Vanderlinden asked the head coach to make an exception. He was too integral to the defense.
Lee became an unofficial member of Penn State’s coaching staff: He sat in meetings, worked with Vanderlinden to instruct the linebacking corps, and even sent in the dummy signals for the defense — a job he did a little too well for Bradley’s liking. Lee would become so animated when the Nittany Lions dialed up a blitz that the fake signs did little to mask the real calls. "[I said] ‘Sean, for Pete’s sake, can you just not?’" Bradley says. "Can you come up with something a little bit gentler?"
Given the three years he worked with Lee as a player, Vanderlinden knew what type of grasp the linebacker had on Bradley’s scheme. To hear him teach it, though, provided a totally different appreciation. "I would listen to him 10 feet away explaining concepts to the other guys and say, ‘Wow, he’s probably doing a better job than I would have done.’ He was so valuable in that way."
Lee eventually returned for the 2009 season, only to partially tear the ACL in his other knee three games into the fall. He missed only three games — that partial tear would linger for another four and a half years, a bombshell waiting to explode — but in a way, another major chance had been snatched. He never again reached the heights of his 2007 collegiate peak, finishing his redshirt senior season with 86 tackles before going to Dallas as the seventh linebacker taken in the 2010 draft, at no. 55 overall.
"If he hadn’t had his knee injuries," Vanderlinden says, looking back, "he would have been the fourth consecutive Penn State linebacker to win the Bednarik Award."
Megan Lee swears she isn’t a medical authority, but in the nine years that she’s been with her husband, she’s developed some detailed pockets of knowledge. When Sean dislocated his toe in 2012, for example, she remembers apologizing for botching her description of a torn plantar plate to a couple of orthopedic surgeons in her family. "They were like, ‘No, you actually explained it perfectly,’" Megan says. "But I’m definitely not a medical expert."
All the maladies blend together by now — the ACLs, the wrist, the toe, the neck — in part because she’s done what she can to forget how each felt in the moment. In all, Lee missed 36 games from his 2010 rookie season through the 2015 campaign. Collectively, the months of rehabbing have turned to years.
"I’ve prided myself on being able to play through these [injuries]," Sean says. "It’s a mental challenge to be able to battle back and be able to play."
Each new ailment has required its own positive spin, part of the story he’s had to tell himself. He’ll even claim his time on the shelf has allowed him to sharpen the mental aspect of his game. His family, though, just feels that Lee has had some downright rotten luck. "My wife is always more worried about me than she is about him," says Lee’s father, Craig.
For Craig, the worst break came in 2012. Sean opened his third NFL season with a flourish, tallying 46 tackles and an interception in four games. He was everywhere — a teleporting, telepathic force who appeared ready to become one of the league’s most valuable defenders. Then, in a Week 7 game against the Panthers, with Lee lying on the turf after making a tackle, teammate DeMarcus Ware shoved Carolina tight end Greg Olsen. All 255 pounds of Olsen pressed directly onto Lee’s foot, bending his big toe back and tearing his plantar plate. A week later, Lee had season-ending surgery.
"Think about that," Craig says. "You just made a tackle. You’re laying on the ground. And behind you is a fight between two guys, and one guy tosses the other, he loses his balance, falls on your heel, and you’re out for the year."
To that point, it might have been the cruelest blow to Lee’s career. But the most devastating setback was nearly 18 months away, the final revenge of his treacherous knees.
Spirits were high when the Cowboys convened for OTAs on May 27, 2014. With the addition of first-round pick Zack Martin, the core of the mauling offensive line that’s now flattening the league was put in place, and the Dallas offense seemed poised to ambush the rest of the NFC. That intensity fueled the team’s first practice, and when Lee snuffed out a screen pass during a live-action scrimmage, he went screaming toward the ball.
The sun was beating down that day, and by the afternoon, the turf in Valley Ranch had gotten slick in the heat. As Lee came to a halt in the open field, his right foot slipped, causing his left foot to plant hard. A second later, Martin gave him a shove, but the damage was done before any hit was delivered. "What people didn’t realize is that I had already torn my knee before he even touched me," says Lee, who feels that Martin was given undue blame in the aftermath.
Before the trainers got to him, Lee knew his fate. The day had come — the one he had feared for almost five years, since his partial tear during his 2009 season at Penn State. "I’ve heard stories of people tearing their ACL and not knowing," Lee says. "Every time I’ve torn it, I knew as soon as I did it."
Megan was at home when Sean called. "I remember just being sick to my stomach," she says. Rehab for a serious knee injury is a grueling ordeal, but for Lee, the two weeks before surgery — a stretch when all he could do was wait — took the biggest toll. The day after he suffered the injury, the Lees went to a going-away party for former Cowboys punter Mat McBriar. Megan remembers being relieved that it got them to leave the house.
An array of emotions hit Lee in the coming days, and he had nothing but time to fully process each one. He felt as if he had let down the franchise, which had rewarded him the previous August with a six-year, $42 million extension. He considered the grind ahead, a road he knew all too well. And he lamented how fast everything had been torn away — again. "You have all this hope going into a season, and all of a sudden, one cut, knee snaps, and you’re done for the year," Lee says. "At that point, it had been one injury after the next. It was frustrating."
As the mental burden brought by his injuries mounted, Lee learned how to adjust his outlook. Following his second major ACL tear, he maintained an intrinsic belief that he had recovered from this once and would do it again. He knew how fortunate he was to earn his second contract before disaster struck, and as the Cowboys raced to 12 regular-season wins before losing a playoff heartbreaker in Green Bay, Lee resolved to come back better than he was before.
"The thing I kept telling myself was, ‘I’m still gonna have an opportunity to play. Don’t ruin it by being negative. Don’t ruin this unbelievable chance you have to play for the Cowboys by how frustrated you’ve been by these injuries.’ And that was easier said than done."
Before coming to Dallas in January 2011, Cowboys linebackers coach Matt Eberflus spent two years filling the same role for the Browns. He was with Cleveland in 2010 when he traveled to State College, Pennsylvania, to work out a draft hopeful named Sean Lee. Part of Eberflus’s evaluation involves a crash course in his defense, a short tutorial followed by a written exam. The whole process takes less than an hour. It’s a hurried exercise designed to identify not only who can absorb the material, but also who can communicate it back in a truncated span. Out of 40 questions on the test, Lee missed one. "I couldn’t remember what the B-gap blitz was called," Lee says, recalling the lone question he got wrong almost seven years later.
More than the ability to retain information, what has struck Eberflus over the past six years is Lee’s knack for synthesizing it in real time. "Where his genius comes in is that he’s able to take all that information in his mind and then pare it down and say, ‘OK, this is what you really need to know,’" Eberflus says. Bradley, Lee’s defensive coordinator in college, came to understand that this deciphering was part of Lee’s pursuit of a goal that went behind wins and losses. "Sean’s the kind of guy who’s trying to play the perfect game," Bradley says. "He’s never going to, but that’s what he’s trying to do."
That begins every Tuesday, when Dallas starts installing a given week’s game plan. In addition to attending the Cowboys’ scheduled defensive meetings, Lee and fellow linebacker Justin Durant join Eberflus for 50-minute morning sessions they call the Breakfast Club, a signal-callers’ get-together aimed at digging through the minutiae of an opposing offense: every Darren Sproles carry, every Jordan Reed route, every Odell Beckham Jr. catch. Even after spending roughly 12 hours in the team facility, Lee likes to have a short study session at his kitchen table when he gets home. Each week, he grabs a new legal pad from the Cowboys facility and fills it with his thoughts on the cut-ups on his iPad. Earlier in his career, he would binge-watch film until the moment he went to bed; these days, to keep his mind from racing, he shuts down around 8:30 p.m., with few exceptions.
The final few hours of the night are often reserved for movies. Recently, he loved Hell or High Water. "Ben Foster, he’s underrated," Lee says. "I feel like any movie I watch with him, I enjoy." His taste isn’t always so discerning. Selling Megan on his choices can be tough, although last Sunday he managed to talk her into Jason Bourne. "He turned it on, I lost interest in about seven minutes and started looking at the internet," she says. "He’s like, ‘Why’d you agree to watch this?’ And I’m like, ‘I have no idea, that was stupid of me.’"
Even as he does his best to compartmentalize, the effects of his obsessive study habits can creep in. At dinner, there will be moments when he’ll drift out of a conversation, lost in his own head. "[Megan] will know pretty quickly what I’m daydreaming," Sean says. "In-season, I’m a zombie when it comes to that." Other times, the daydreaming isn’t so carefree. "Monday [after a game] is totally open to hearing a random swear word from across the house," Megan says.
The other victim is the backseat of Lee’s Cadillac Escalade, which doubles as a makeshift dumpster for coffee cups, rumpled suits, and orphaned socks. "I bought him 20 pairs of dress socks like two months ago," Megan says, "and they’re definitely all gone."
An avalanche of trash is a worthwhile price for the type of night Lee had in the Cowboys’ 10–7 loss to the Giants in December. For four quarters, he diagnosed plays so quickly that he was able to undercut the lineman tasked with blocking him. Cowboys coaches credited him with 22 tackles, a franchise record, and he earned the highest single-game grade Eberflus has issued in eight years as an NFL position coach. Never has Bradley’s theory about Lee been more fitting: On a night when Lee came closer than ever to perfection, it still wasn’t enough to drag Dallas to victory.
To fight through all that Lee has and come out on the other side, it’s taken sustained support from so many around him. He says he wouldn’t be here without his wife. He’s grateful to the Cowboys for continuing to believe in him. A quieter but vital presence has been Mike Mauti, the Saints linebacker who was a freshman at Penn State when Lee’s ACL gave out in 2008.
Over the years, the two have bonded over their shared pain. Mauti tore the ACL in his right knee in 2009, and the ACL in his left knee two years later. As he recovered, he and Lee swapped tips on how to survive with joints that were also saboteurs. Lee offered rehab tricks and advice for attacking backs in space while preserving your body. It helped Mauti come back from his knee problems like a man on fire in 2012, notching 93 tackles and three interceptions in the Nittany Lions’ first 10 games.
But in Penn State’s matchup against Indiana on November 17, Mauti’s worst nightmare became reality. Midway through the first quarter, his left knee gave out again. Carted off the field, he sat alone in the locker room and cried, left to wonder whether he would ever play again.
Not 20 minutes later, Mauti’s phone rang. It was Lee. Before Mauti could speak, Lee began to regale him with stories about guys like the Panthers’ Thomas Davis, who made two trips to the Pro Bowl after his third ACL tear. "I remember hanging up the phone and thinking, ‘Holy shit.’ I don’t know where he was or what he was doing, but that he was willing to make that call and take the time to do that, it’s what kind of guy he is," Mauti says. "That was a big part of me turning the corner and saying, ‘I can do this.’"
Lee has had to turn the corner more times than he can count, and now, finally, he’ll get his reward. "I’ve always felt like I had this in me," Lee says. "I just had to find a way to not get injured."
This time, when Green Bay meets Dallas for a spot in the NFC title game, Lee won’t just watch. This time, he’ll get a chance to remind everyone why he deserves mention among the game’s best defenders. This time, he’ll roam the middle of the Cowboys defense, right where he belongs.